“What the hell is going on?”
My dad’s opening gambit at 5:55pm yesterday.
If he and I haven’t attended a City game together we always chat on the phone immediately afterwards to dissect the rights and wrongs of what’s just occurred. In Brighton there were no ‘rights’. Not one.
And while we agreed it was fairly obvious what had gone on and in what manner, we were both at an absolute loss at to why. Okay, so defeat to a very decent Brighton team was not inconceivable before kick-off – City were clearly in the midst of a dip – but to suffer the type of thumping normally reserved for the Etihad was hard as hard to fathom as it was to stomach.
This wasn’t just an implosion or the result of the much derided soft underbelly – this was worse. This was surrender. Russell Martin even admitted it.
And that can’t be right. And whatever it takes to change that simply has to be done.
We’ve suffered some heartaches over the years and, as is the wont of the average football fan, have become accustomed to the disappointments outnumbering the highs but seldom have we witnessed and then had confirmed that “too many lads gave up”. That hurts.
And it insults the large numbers who travelled to the South Coast in the hope that, at the very least, their heroes would sweat blood for the yellow and green shirt and offer 100 per cent in terms of effort.
To hear that wasn’t the case was a massive whack in the cojones – something that was sadly lacking by those on the pitch.
Because right now, that we have reportedly the second most technically proficient squad in the Championship counts for absolutely nothing. Zilch. Said technical ability, of which we’ve seen a few flashes, can only flourish if it’s offered a platform on which to do so.
That means matching your opposition in the physical battle, winning your personal battles, putting your body on the line, standing strong and hanging in there when your opponents are having a spell, and not allowing yourself to be physically or mentally bullied.
Only then can the skills take over.
But few personal battles were won by yellow shirted men yesterday. They most certainly didn’t stand strong when they needed to. Glenn Murray physically bullied everyone. And in the midst of a severe mental test, Alex Pritchard was not alone in shrinking.
It’s something that’s bothered me for a while, and I desperately hope I’m mistaken, but Alex Neil’s Class of 2016 give off an unhealthy air of considering themselves a little too good for this division; a belief that they’re good enough to win without putting in the hard yards.
Yet a fast-track to winning without having to roll up the sleeves up is something that doesn’t exist. And if it’s possible that anything good can emerge from the wreckage of the Amex, perhaps it’ll be a realisation of that fact.
But it was ugly. And the supposed technical superiority certainly doesn’t make them immune to errors and poor decision-making. Quite the opposite.
Yet 500 words in and I’m still no closer to establishing why it occurred on such a grand scale. And it’s impossible to do without examining the manager’s credentials to take this squad forward.
When he arrived, Alex Neil’s CV was wafer thin – both in terms of playing and managing – but we cared not one jot because he delivered.
From the instant he took control on the touchline at Bournemouth immediately following Jonny Howson’s red card he displayed a resolve and single-mindedness that gave a talented but directionless squad a double-dose of those same qualities.
The downside of having such a relatively flimsy CV only kicks in when the brown stuff and the fan are in close proximity – like they are now.
Neil doesn’t have Champions League winners medals to point to or a stellar managerial career prior to arriving at Carrow Road – which is fine – but as a result he has few credits in the bank when it comes to getting his message across to a dressing room full of egos, some of whom are not liking, or agreeing with, what they’re hearing.
And, while it’s not clear to me that he has completely, ‘lost’ the dressing room it does appear that, even prior to yesterday, there are some non-believers among them. And that’s a problem.
Tactically he has – by his own admission last season – found himself wanting and again this feeds the air of doubt that exists in the dressing rooms of Colney and Carrow Road.
And all too often we find ourselves bemoaning the fact that the day’s opposition have ‘done a job on us’; each one a tactical triumph for Neil’s counterpart in the adjacent technical area.
Unfortunately for any manager, when the dressing room turns there is only ever one winner. The question that will likely be answered next Saturday when Leeds pitch up, is the extent to which City’s dressing room has been lost. And has it gone beyond the tipping point.
“I won’t lose any sleep over it” was Neil’s response in Friday’s presser to suggestions that some factions were questioning his suitability to the job, but 5-0 defeats to promotion rivals do have a tendency to ratchet up the pressure on managers, especially those who are without a win in four and are looking just a little beleaguered.
But it’s a tricky one. And not the simplistic ‘just sack him’ that some make out.
I don’t want Norwich City to hire and fire on an Abramovich scale, and there is a real danger here that the collective dummy is spat out every time we enter a fallow period. We have to be better than that.
Yet, at the same time, we have this season and next to find a route back to the Premier League or risk being a relatively poorly funded member of the Championship pack. And having spent the last few seasons deriding our neighbours for being exactly that, I’m not sure we want to go there without having strained every sinew to avoid it.
At which point that may entail honourably calling time on the manager’s tenure is one for Delia and Michael to discuss over Sunday lunch.