“It’s better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you’re a fool, than to open it and remove all doubt”. Well, there’s another bit of good advice I’m about to ignore. Still, life is short and the person who said it, Sam Clemens, was a pretty modest journalist writing for his local rag, the Hannibal Journal of Hannibal, Missouri.
And I have experience to draw on: 21 managers, desperate boardroom struggles, heroic and villainous players, fan euphoria and protests, incredible highs and gut-wrenching lows. No, not a year in the life of Sunderland FC, but parts of my half-century of supporting the Canaries.
In the dim mists of time I even donned the famous yellow and green, for Capital Canaries, in the giddy heights of Division 5 of the West Fulham Sunday League (with Mick Dennis, no less). So it’s a bit of a late start to my journalistic career, but I couldn’t turn down the money… I mean the invitation.
But what to write about? Some early ideas had to be abandoned, including Chris Hughton, A Norwich Great and Pure Football: What we can learn from Mick McCarthy. Finally I opted for something less contentious, namely the impact of Alex Neil, what it says about us and that elusive idea of the ‘Norwich Way.’
Neil’s impact on the field needs no new analysis – clear instructions to players, a settled back four, intelligence about the opposition, smart management of individuals and high expectations. He’s a natural. But just as striking – and perhaps just as significant – is his effect on us, the fans.
We clearly feel better because we’re winning. However, I sense there’s more to it than that, and I sensed it most strongly after the game at Huddersfield. There was frustration and anger among City fans – as we’ve seen many times before – but to a remarkable degree that frustration dissipated after Alex’s post-match remarks.
He was straightforward and composed, with no hint of the hysteria or sneakiness we’re used to seeing from others we won’t name. Yet his burning passion was unmistakable and we couldn’t help but warm to it.
On a night where we dropped potentially vital points, there was suddenly a new feeling. And if we get promotion, I believe it’ll continue.
For me, there were two equally dispiriting aspects of the Hughton era: the defensive mindset, yes, but also the disproportionate expectations that seemed to infect our fans. Slightly below mid-table in the Premier League was no longer a creditable achievement. Instead it was cause for anger and abuse.
I was deeply worried about the prospects for any future Norwich manager trying to operate in that environment. But I may have misjudged the cause.
Hughton’s character is a model of decency but his style brought out the negative in our fans. I always puzzled over why we applauded Paul Lambert for finishing 12th in the Prem, but derided Hughton for finishing 11th in an arguably tougher season.
The answer seems to lie in the manner of the regime; the style of play for sure, but equally the style of the manager. We forgave Lambert a bunch of mistakes and dodgy performances but forgave Hughton none. I suspect we’ll cut Alex some slack in the way we did Paul, to the huge benefit of our club.
Many would say it’s all about playing style – we were positive under Lambert, negative under Hughton and are now positive again, but I’m not sure that stands up to scrutiny.
The greatest commitment to attacking football wasn’t under Lambert or Alex Neil, but under Neil Adams, yet he didn’t come close to inspiring the fans as we’re now inspired. There’s something else – an evident commitment, heart and team spirit that supercedes structure and style. And that, perhaps, is the ‘Norwich Way’.
I believe we’ve got what it takes, and the collective spirit between players and fans will probably see us over the line this year. If so, credit will rightly go to Alex Neil. But I hope it won’t be forgotten that Neil Adams left us in seventh place – far better than most managers of relegated teams achieve – as well as bringing in some of the key players who are giving us a shot at regaining our Premiership status.
As for Sam Clemens and his advice – well, it’s too late for me now. But maybe I shouldn’t have written him off so lightly. These days we know him a bit better by his pen name – Mark Twain.
Roger Cole says
Nice piece Stewart. Definitely shows Premier League writing style and quality, with – even more – good appreciation of life under the last four managers. I didn’t know that was Mark Twain’s real name – but best keep my mouth shut about that eh.
Gary Field says
The Lambert years were, for me, the three best consecutive seasons in my near 40 years of following the Canaries. He had that canny knack of seemingly always getting the best, often out of modest resources.
In contrast, Hughton, despite going one place better the following season, enjoyed the benefit of much greater resources, once the debt had been repaid, yet regularly seemed to fail to get the best out of much better players.
And therein lies the issue; he failed to manage expectations. It will be that, rightly, or wrongly, by which he will be judged by many, rather than the 11th place finish.
Russell S. says
Stewart – a fine maiden voyage on the good ship MFW.
Like you, I get all the criticism of Chris Hughton but feel he was nevertheless treated harshly, even in the merciless world of football ‘support’. Our next game at the Amex is of course crucial for the promotion push but will have that extra edge because of the opposition’s man in the dugout.
I got chastised for raising the spectre of Paul Lambert in a recent article so I hope you get similarly dealt with! It’s how you bounce back from such barracking that matters – that will certainly apply to Lambert after his Villa nose dive.
The ‘Twain-isms’ are almost endless – as our beloved team is locked into a promotion dogfight, it seems appropriate to mention, “it’s not the size of the dog in the fight – it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”
While Hughton was maybe a shitsu and Adams a bit of a poodle, Neil definitely has the qualities of a pit-bull terrier.
Ben K says
Some of the criticism of Hughton was painful to endure. It was a kind of group-think attitude that caught on and became the standard line for the lazy.
“I always puzzled over why we applauded Paul Lambert for finishing 12th in the Prem, but derided Hughton for finishing 11th in an arguably tougher season.” Me too. I don’t remember anyone complaining during the ten game unbeaten run.
I completely agree with the view that expectations were raised unreasonably high as well. Suddenly, fans had the view that we *should* be doing this, that or the other based on one season punching above our weight. I’m not sure what you mean by ‘…the style of the manager’ though.
Gary (2), are you saying that it was Hughton’s fault that people expected so much? I think he tried to play things down, often by playing the opposition up (which could be a bit tiresome), so I don’t see how the expectations of fans were his fault, if that’s what you’re saying. As for greater resources, we still had one of the smallest playing budgets in the league.
Good points well made Stewart.
I think there’s another subtle change in mind set under Alex that was a major reason why frustration under Hughton grew. Alex had the guts to say that a club like Norwich should be winning away at Huddersfield. If Hughton was in that position all we would of heard is what a good side Huddersfield are. He was always too ‘little old Norwich know there place’.
Attacking Football and a bit of style is part of the ‘Norwich way’ but whether its Stringer, Walker, Lambert (and maybe now Neil) there was always an attitude – patronise us all you like, well beat you anyway. As Russell S says, we all want to see plenty of fight in our dog.
Gary Field says
@4 – Ben, Looking back at the final paragraph of my reply, first line, I used the word “he” in relation to managing expectations. This should, of course, be “we”, as in the Club, of which Hughton was only part.
Arguably, expectations started rising right from the moment the ” feed the wolf ” marketing campaign kicked off. But that was only one factor.
Hughton had the benefit (and, arguably, the burden) of the biggest budget ever, even though it was still relatively modest in comparison to our rivals. He wasn’t solely responsible for spending it of course, but the nagging doubt remained amongst many, that he still didn’t get the best out of what he had.
I do accept however, that that wasn’t the sole reason for our relegation.
Stewart Lewis says
Thanks for the kind and/or thoughtful comments.
Roger (1): the cheque’s in the post.
Gary (2): CH had resources before his second season, but most observers rate his first season with us as a minor miracle. City fans will tend to push back on that, with comments along the lines of: “Never liked hm”, “Always hated the way he talked up the opposition” etc. Hence my view that personal style mattered, as well as football.
Russ (3): we each have our armoury of quotes, clearly. But never the Twain shall meet.
Good article Stewart.
I think you hit the nail on the head with your response.
Fans generally,and we are no different ,dont want to hear about “difficult places to come” or “we gave them too much respect” and I doubt if you will ever hear Alex Neil make these comments.(although they will be more difficult to avoid in the Premiership!)
He is totally focused on what we are doing and how we performed and if we fall short,I for one believe that he will address the problem fairly and squarely.
He has the knack of getting the best from players.I find Whittaker’s form unbelievable compared to two months ago.
Turning back the clock its a pity that he did not get the opportunity to work on Harry Kane,knowing what we know now!
Keith Fuller says
Very good article Stewart
I do believe that Chris Houghton was a good appointment. I never understood the praise that he heaped on the opposition in post-match interviews. I do feel that his brief was to keep us in the Premier League at any cost, and that turned out to be two seasons of dire, defensive football. Which, of course, opens up the argument of whether football at the highest level is entertainment or a business.
It is reassuring that we a in such a strong financial position, and that we have not gone into decline as have many other relegated clubs. I believe that we should not have lost our PL status with the current squad and generally the results this season have shown that.
Neil Adams does deserve praise.When we get promoted then hopefully Alex Neil’s mandate will be to install a team with self- belief that anything is possible.
ps I had a brief career in the same team before injury forced me to take up the whistle!!