“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”.
So begins the epic novel Anna Karenina. Tolstoy was talking about high Russian society, but he could equally have been observing football clubs. Title-chasing sides have a distinctive air of togetherness; no relegation-threatened camp has anything other than its own brand of tension and friction.
A winless run heightens all the tensions, of course, and we’re on a shocker. Depending on your statistical and emotional taste, it’s the worst run since 1985, 1957, 1946 or the Norman Conquest. It’s left us disappointed, frustrated and angry – and susceptible to negative feelings and stories.
An article yesterday stated that Alex Neil had lost the players, that many now disliked him. A friend of a friend had picked this up (possibly at third hand) from an interpreter who did some work at the club.
We know such stories get exaggerated in each re-telling, if they start with any truth at all. But I have news for the writer of the article. Yes, there’ll be discontent when a team have lost 9 of the last 10. When you have 25 players of more-or-less equal ability and the manager is trying different permutations, some players will feel they’re not getting a fair crack of the whip.
And under the intense pressures of the Premier League, I wouldn’t be surprised if Alex Neil had said the odd sharp thing to one or two of them.
The worry would be if they didn’t care, as Newcastle fans suspect about some of their players. I don’t believe for a moment that’s true at Norwich.
No-one wants to go down. The question is: can we channel enough of that fear into determined, and ultimately successful, performances? After Saturday, most City fans seem to be giving an emphatic ‘no’ to that question.
I’m not here to argue that we’ll stay up, but neither am I so sure that we’re condemned to go down. I’m surrounded by certainty but – as happens quite often in life – my own feelings are mainly doubt and confusion.
Yes, after Saturday it’s easy to say we lack the fight and determination to claw our way to safety. But that wasn’t remotely the case against Leicester and Chelsea, or indeed West Ham. In three of our last four games we’ve shown plenty of heart – that doesn’t look like a lost dressing room to me.
The dilemma is this. We’ve played with conviction and will against teams like the league leaders and reigning champions where it was likely (and indeed proved the case) that we wouldn’t get anything tangible to show for our efforts. Where those same qualities might have brought reward – Bournemouth, Villa, Swansea – we haven’t shown them.
What is it? Do we shake off inhibitions when the odds are against us, but freeze when the expectations are greater? Are we over-anxious not to let such games slip from us (and because of that, let them slip)? Is 3CBs the one formation that allows us to play to our strengths, and should therefore be our standard?
Irrespective of the truth of third-hand gossip, the run has understandably called Alex Neil’s job into question.
In this case I’ll nail my colours to the mast: I want to keep him. Yes, he’s learning in the cauldron of the Premier League and his inexperience has probably cost us a few points. However, his special qualities brought us to success last year; given time, I’m convinced they’ll do so again.
I try to listen to all the arguments on City issues. One line that doesn’t persuade me is that, faced with a run like ours, many other clubs would ditch their manager. It’s true – but to me it reflects poorly on football rather than on Alex Neil.
I’m indebted to Ed Couzens-Lake for a different stat. In our top-flight season of 1972-73, we had a run worse than the current one – but we stuck with our raw young manager, and survived.
The relegation picture is simplifying itself. Nine games to go; Villa are down, together with two of City, Newcastle and Sunderland. Newcastle look most divided and hopeless, Sunderland perhaps least fragile, City inbetween. But with just point between them and 27 to play for, we can’t be sure of anything except twists and turns.
Going back to the pivotal question, can we break our present cycle and get the points we need? The run, and performances like Saturday’s, obviously raise doubts. Here’s my view for what it’s worth. If we can hold our nerve and stick together, there’s enough experience, will and heart in our club to get us out of trouble. I’m talking about our management and players – and our fans.
It’s a big ‘if’, of course. I’m reminded of another quote, this time shifting from Russia to America. Facing the decision to declare independence for his country (an even more significant challenge than City’s to stay in the PL), Ben Franklin reminded his fellow rebels:
“We must all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”