It’s an old footballing cliché, one that is applied, in the main, to clubs that are perceived as being incapable of being relegated.
Big clubs. Well, big clubs according to that sticky combination of their fans and the history books anyway.
What that means, in essence, is that, no matter how miserable a time they might be having in the Premier League (or the old Division One, bless it and its much more homely Auntie Ethel and Uncle Bill appeal) they won’t be relegated.
They could be at the bottom of the league and fifteen points from safety at Christmas.
They could still be there at Easter. The time, incidentally, when Bill Shankly said you should begin to take league tables and positioning seriously, something I’ve endeavoured to do ever since I became aware of that little snippet*.
It makes good sense.
As much as anything else, it means I only feel the pressure and weight of our league position for a few weeks every season, rather than worrying over it from day one and for the next nine months or so.
We lost 4-0 at Millwall on the first day of the 2001/02 season. The Sunday papers were all over that the next day. They’d printed, as they tend to do now (neither newspaper or Grandstand used to bother with them for at least half a dozen games) the league tables and there we were, holding everyone up in Division One….
24. Norwich City 1 0 0 1 0 4 0 -4
“A season of struggle beckons for Norwich…”, reckoned one old sage in whatever old rag I picked up the next day, adding (this is what made him a sage), “… if the Canaries play like that for the rest of this season then Nigel Worthington and his men will be looking forward to trips to the likes of Port Vale, Northampton and Blackpool next season”.
He was correct I suppose. If we had have lost our remaining 45 games 4-0 then we would have gone down. But to write us off after one match?
Millwall went on to show that they were good value for that win by finishing the campaign in 4th place and qualifying for the end of season play offs. As, of course, did we.
So much for Mr Lazy from the Sunday Whatever and his ‘prediction’. But then it’s all too easy to take a quick look at one game, one player, one squad or club and make immediate conclusions based on what you see before you.
Which is where this opening gambit of mine about big clubs, sticky situations and lazy conclusions comes in.
You’ll have heard it said. That old “… they’re too good to be relegated” thing.
It’s wheeled out during most football seasons. One of the most famous I can remember is when it was attached to West Ham throughout the 2010/11 season.
They had a miserable time of it. I’ve no doubt the clubs YouTube channel was full of Hammers fans venting their spleens as they are prone to doing and reminding everyone, in the process, that they “…won England the World Cup”.
Which of course they didn’t. England won the World Cup in 1966 – and here’s an argument for another day – was that the worst thing that has ever happened in the history of the England national football team?
Because let’s face it, our sense of self-entitlement and expectancy has gone through the roof ever since. How much easier international tournaments might have been, or will be, had we not got ‘x’ years of hurt to obsess about before, during and afterwards?
I digress. And I’ll get to the Canaries in a moment, but bear with me.
West Ham finished the 2010/11 season at the bottom of the Premier League.
They had a lousy season. It included losing their first four games as well as, to top and tail it nicely, winning only one of their last ten league games – a run that included seven defeats in eight matches.
Yet, for all of that, all that we heard throughout the season was that they were “…too good to do down”.
UEFA has, sort of, twisted this logic around in their thinking behind their ‘new look’ Champions League which will introduce, rather than qualifying by merit, the art of qualifying for the competition is determined by whether or not they believe a club is ‘too good’ not to be in it. Which is their way of making sure the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United are guaranteed a place regardless of league finish.
And clubs like Leicester, ultimately, will not. Take it from me, the fact that Leicester City are in this season’s competition whilst Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United are not has stuck in UEFA’s craw like a recalcitrant chicken bone.
I’m digressing again.
West Ham were relegated in 2011 despite anyone and everyone saying they were, yes, here we go again…”too good to go down”.
In fairness, you could understand the logic behind the argument. Their squad included players like Robert Green, Scott Parker, Demba Ba, Robbie Keane, Wayne Bridge, Kieron Dyer and Mark Noble.
Putting partisanship to one side for a moment, that is the core of a very good side indeed. One that should have been flirting with the top six to eight places.
Not settling for 20th. Yet down they went. Because having a good squad means absolutely jack you-know-what unless it contains a fair old mix of team unity, a good attitude and gallons of self belief.
Three attributes that, lest we forget, led to players like Ritchie De Laet (remember him?), Andy King, Jeffrey Schlupp, Christian Fuchs and Yohan Benalouane winning a Premier League winners medal at the end of last season. Plus Robert Huth. Who, prior his joining the Foxes, was briefly linked with the Canaries.
To accompanying howls of terror and outrage on various club messageboards and forums.
Funny old game.
West Ham were “too good to go down”. But down they went. Whilst Leicester, last season, weren’t good enough to even be in the Premier League, according to most pundits and fans. In fact they’d “definitely” be relegated, especially after appointing Claudio Ranieri as manager.
How everyone laughed.
What’s that thing about he who laughs last……..?
The Foxes must have had some squad numbers reserved for those vital attributes.
They might not have looked good enough on paper. But since when did paper ever win a football match?
This brings us nicely on to our playing squad for this season. One that, according to many Canary fans, is either the best or second best in the Championship.
Meaning, I guess, that it is “too good not to go up”. That’s the gist of it anyway.
Like West Ham’s playing squad in the 2010/11 season was too good to take them down. Or that Leicester’s last season wasn’t even good enough to keep them in the Premier League.
Or like another playing squad that we had, the one that we went into the 2005/06 season with. One that, according to most Canary fans, was “too good for the Championship”.
And, again, an understandable logic.
It featured, amongst others, the likes of Dean Ashton, Adam Drury, Dickson Etuhu, Craig Fleming, Robert Green, Darren Huckerby, Leon McKenzie, Paul McVeigh, Youssef Safri and Jason Shackell.
No shortage of quality there. And for all the talent we have in this season’s playing squad, how many of them would you take, right now, as part of the starting line up against Leeds on Saturday?
I’m thinking at least four, maybe five of them. No problem.
But, for all that, we still finished that season on 9th place, thirteen points off the play offs and a staggering 44 points shy of Reading, who ended the 2005/06 season as the Championship winners.
A title winning squad built around the supposed ‘lesser’ talents of Graeme Murty, Nicky Shorey, Glenn Little, John Oster and Ivar Ingimasrsson.
Move along, nothing or no-one special to see here.
Just the champions, that’s all.
Reading ‘did a Leicester’ that season. Winning their promotion to the Premier League, to the top flight of English football for the very first time with a squad that believed in themselves and, as crucially, a manager, in Steve Coppell, who believed in them.
It’s Unity, Attitude and Self Belief thing all over again. And they them in abundance.
So here’s the $64,000 question: Do we?
Now, make no mistake about it. We do have a good playing squad this season. One that should certainly be capable of making the play-offs but which, in truth, should really be looking at a top two place.
It’s where that “best ever” squad see themselves finishing in their own minds that really matters. And, right now, everything feels like it might end up being a lot more West Ham than it does Leicester City or Reading.
And that’s a worry.
Whether or not Alex Neil can get into their heads and give them a bit of what Claudio Ranieri called ‘dilly ding, dilly dong’ remains to be seen.
Because we need a bit of that now more than anything else.
*I love anything and everything to do with Bill Shankly who, incidentally, played for us quite a few times in the war league and cup games organised during World War Two. My favourite quote of his was made when he signed Ron Yeats for Liverpool and was introducing his new player to the local press, saying of Yeats, “…the man is a mountain, go into the dressing room and take a walk around him”.