Entering Pride Park for the first time on a chilly Midlands afternoon last Saturday felt strange.
As a travelling City fan in the Championship, you become accustomed to the pre-match build up being characterised by notions of anticipation, excitement and expectation. That’s how I felt before my previous away trips this season, anyway.
But Saturday felt different.
It wasn’t apathy. Regardless of City’s serial uselessness over the past six weeks, that sense of adoration, loyalty and fervent following will never die. It was my palpable lack of expectation that was so striking. It sounds appalling, but – and I’d expect most fans who made the trip at the weekend to agree – I found it tough to predict anything other than a Derby victory.
I wasn’t wrong. Whilst our defence did show a reasonable degree of solidity compared to previous weeks, we looked uncharacteristically uncreative going forward. The usually dependable Cameron Jerome appeared so conspicuously isolated up front, whilst the attacking trio of Wes Hoolahan, Jacob Murphy and the divisive Steven Naismith lacked potency, innovation and movement.
Not even Madame Tussauds contained that many statues.
Whilst City’s November nadir has been less a product of our lack of creativity than one of defensive ineptitude, Saturday was nonetheless a concern. City have a talented squad – the second most so in this league – yet Alex Neil seems fundamentally incapable of deriving the optimum performances from his players.
The problems run deep. Jez Moxey’s and the board’s seemingly incorrigible loyalty to Neil is perplexing, particularly in a situation as catastrophic as City’s is. The facts tell the story: Norwich have lost their last five league games with a squad who now possess the ability to do considerably better.
It gets worse. Whilst our recent run still leaves us just two points off the play-off places, a deeper analysis of our accumulation of points this season is required. We have picked up two points from our eight games against teams in the top half of the table – conceding 19 goals in the process – and the other 25 from teams in the bottom half. A blip? Nonsense.
City are in trouble, and this unabating slide appears unlikely to be terminated anytime soon. The board’s unwavering faith in Neil may function as one issue, but the problems on the pitch are manifold.
City may have only conceded one on Saturday, but our defensive is so vulnerable. Sebastian Bassong, Ryan Bennett and Timm Klose have committed such a multitude of individual errors this season, culminating in our gifting of over two goals per game against the top sides.
Despite showing great signs of promise prior to his Selhurst Park season-ender last term, Klose has been appalling of late, culpable for three goals at Brighton and looking not a penny near a £10m player.
Likewise, Bennett’s and Bassong’s seasons have been ones littered with ineptitude and fragility, committing fundamental errors and lacking any form of conviction or coordination in possession. Even Ed Balls on Strictly has demonstrated better movement and awareness of his surroundings.
Fans question the passion of our players. The causes of City’s demise are considerable and subjective, but it is not fair to render individual players disloyal and indifferent to the cause. Instead, Neil is simply failing to extract the best out of them.
City need change. The Neil of November 2016 constitutes a sorrow side in his technical area, hounding his players and commanding orders to produce ultimately futile results. He appears unable to influence games, failing to possess any constructive impact with his substitutions and remaining too devoted to his favoured 4-2-3-1 system.
Jerome miraculously appeared even more isolated up front than his manager did on the touchline, failing to maximise his involvement in the game predominantly owing to the alarming lack of creativity from the three players behind him. When Jerome got injured and Lafferty came on the isolation remained.
If Neil is to resolve this crisis, he must become less reliant on deploying just one up front and instead be more willing to adapt.
We mustn’t forget injuries, though. If City’s decline has revealed anything, it’s surely how much we depend upon the consistently terrific Jonny Howson, whose leadership, ball retention and speed of distribution we have missed so much in recent weeks. The absence of Martin Olsson and Ivo Pinto on Saturday also inhibited City.
But let’s not kid ourselves. The issues that run pervasively through this team are severe and becoming increasingly unsalvageable as each unpleasant ninety minutes goes by. The likes of Cameron Jerome, Wes Hoolahan and Robbie Brady should not be losing five consecutive games in the Championship. Yes, results in this league are grossly unpredictable, but this emerging pattern of constant defeat cannot be put down – Mr Bassong – to bad luck.
The fans want change. City’s demise is ultimately the product of a failing manager, in Alex Neil, being incapable of bringing the best out of his players, struggling to inspire performances to propel Norwich back up to the Premier League.
His team selection has become increasingly baffling, opting for Naismith and Oliveira over Hoolahan and Jerome at in West London last week. Brentford should surely function as the last chance saloon, but the board’s profound sense of commitment to Neil remains a problem.
Under Neil, our defence can’t defend, our midfield fail to move the ball with pace and penetration, and our tactics appear stubborn and ineffective. Instead of blindly backing Neil, Moxey should demonstrate his ostensible skill as chief executive and go and pursue another young, hungry manager such as Birmingham’s Gary Rowett, Rangers’ Mark Warburton or even Scunthorpe’s Graham Alexander.
As I opened my tickets to Barnsley earlier today, a sense of despair became palpable. This isn’t the existence City should be enduring; losing relentlessly in a league where we have a squad capable of achieving so much. Us fans are surely united in our common desire for the situation to be salvaged, but equally agree that the man to fulfil that mission is not Alex Neil.
Things need to change.
With all due respect Will I’m tired of reading that we have got possibly the second best squad in the league.This might be justified by reference to past playing levels ,2016 Euros etc but that counts for nothing in this league.
Far too much emphasis was placed on “Keeping the squad together” when we should have been off loading and scouting for more players like (dare I say it) Bradley Johnson or Glenn Murray.Players who get in where it hurts and know what it takes in this league.
We are living on past glories, our players are believing their own publicity and don’t think they have to move after passing the ball,whether it goes to one of our players or not.
I’m afraid Chris Hughton has realised this, Alex Neil has not.
martin penney says
That’s an excellent article Will.
I wasn’t at Derby but a good friend of mine who sits with me in the Barclay was and said more or less the same as you about the game. With no disrespect to either of you, he must be around three times your age – sometimes when young and old agree, they tend be bang on the button.
Your final four words are currently falling on deaf ears in high places, unfortunately.
#1 Jarrolder: You are right. It’s all very well having an array of first class ingredients, but it’s how you blend them that counts.
I really hope Saturday doesn’t turn toxic. Despite everything, Alex Neil doesn’t deserve a Worthington-Burnley situation. But should Brentford take the lead say, just before half time, I think the frustration levels of the crowd will tip over the boiling point.
Anything other than a win – and a totally committed performance – will be seen as abject failure and time for Alex Neil to seriously consider his future, whatever the views of the Board.
Stewart Lewis says
Many fair, as well as heart-felt, points there, Will.
I’d just question one of your assumptions. Yes, the Board appears doggedly behind AN. But no sensible Board, until they actually dismiss someone, can do anything else.
If they’d given any indication at the AGM that they were considering alternatives, what position would that put AN (or the players, or any of us) in?
I would be amazed if, behind the scenes, there wasn’t a lot of activity exploring options. Unless you believe they don’t really want promotion (in which case there’s not much point engaging in discussion), it’s clear that the bad run can’t continue much further without a change. They need to be ready to act.
sixtiesbarclay boy says
now forgive me for this but a win on sat will only serve as papering over the cracks. This happened with Hughton win one the lose 3, but that was against better opposition
A win only served to give a stay of execution. while the board will gladly flaff about waiting for the sudden up turn, limping on to the next win. He has had more than long enough to show he can turn round the mistakes, which are mostly of his own making
Don Harold says
Meanwhile in Rotherham Kenny Jacket (who, I understand, had an excellent working relationship with Moxey at Wolves) unexpectedly resigns….
Keith B says
Stewart (3) is spot on about the Board’s public stance, and you can be sure there will be plenty of discussion going on.
I’d be interested to know how many people think Neil is another Worthington – effectively a one-hit wonder – and how many see him as another Hughton. Because reality is that both before he joined us and after he left Hughton has shown himself to be a very good manager.
Most people agree that Worthy was given too long after relegation from the Premier League, and his subsequent record proves that. Hughton by contrast was never even given the chance to bring us back up; what’s happened since suggests to me that he should have been. Few of us said that the week he was sacked – I certainly didn’t anyway – but hindsight’s a wonderful thing.
Personally I do not see Neil fading away the way Worthington has.
So if I were in that Boardroom I would have major doubts about
1) paying off someone I do believe is a good manager
2) then having to pay to get someone in, assuming we could even get permission to approach them
3) remain doubtful about the willingness of some of our squad to fight for promotion, whoever is in charge.
In the summer Neil and the Board persuaded key players to stay – or in some cases refused to let them leave. I think that was the right strategy at the time. If now they have to re-think and rebuild so be it. A new manager probably would anyway.
James Kent says
I see this Saturday as breaking point (should we lose!). It may well be true that the board are now looking into other options. However, my concern is this board is reactive rather than proactive. McNally would have known who the next best manager for NCFC would be.
The current board though are only (in my opinion) finding out now, and maybe the reason AN has lasted is because they didn’t have a plan if AN failed. In the same way, they didn’t have a plan for McNally leaving. The next few weeks will be crucial for sure.
Why keep harking back to no mates McNally. It was he who brought one hit wonder Neil to the club.
An excellent piece from Will. One that should make everybody at the club hang their heads in shame. Five league defeats on the spin and a cup exit in the middle from such a highly paid and decorated squad is a spectacularly poor performance, not a blip.
I believe Neil is a limited manager, one who makes an immediate impact but whose impact diminishes when his one dimensional approach and lack of answers becomes more apparent. Any sort of win against a struggling Brentford on Saturday, far from a foregone conclusion, cannot be taken as a sign of better things to come, merely the law of averages throwing up a win once in a blue moon, like it would for any team at this level.
With the benefit of hindsight, we would have been better served by selling off all the superstars and serial relegation scrappers for as much money as possible and rebuilding in the way newcasTle did with the proceeds by buying players that are among the best in class in the championship and could possibly do a turn in the top flight. Players in the mold of Clark, Gayle, Ritchie, Hanley are out there.
well, after 25 years a fan season ticket holder I am considering swapping my direct debit for an Odeon one instead – at least you wont see the relentless replay situation. If we take a good look at the club over the past decade we have had some really good managers who got the chop for poor team performance.Is it really the manager or some back room interfering person of influence who says you acnt do that has it isnt the norwich city way?thepast managers can’t all be wrong or can they?
The biggest issue remains for me ANs inflexibility re formation, Brentford are exactly the sort of team at home that 2 up front may pay dividends against, but suspect he’ll stick to 4231 come hell or high water, even if chasing the game. We have players for the diamond, or even 4141, but failure to adapt this season will be ANs undoing. This makes our continued chase for short nippy strikers even more baffling when what we needed and still need is a Glen Murray type.
Thanks all for reading and for some kind comments. I too would be astounded if the board weren’t making some sort of effort behind the scenes to plan a possible successor for Neil: as mentioned at the end of my piece, I like the look of Rowett, a manager who inherited a mediocre Championship squad that lacked hunger and desire and transformed them into a team capable of promotion. Would he be willing to leave Birmingham though? Neil clearly has struggled to sustain the immediate impact he made after being appointed almost two years ago, and I do feel it’s important we don’t make the same mistakes we made with Worthy and Hughton in holding onto them for too long. Who knows. Saturday is vital.
Good article. We keep saying it but no-one listens. We have a team full of internationals who should be doing so much better but something is very wrong. Sadly I have no faith in our dithering board to rectify the situation.. Alan Irvine anyone?? Our team are playing with zero confidence. If we went a goal down I’m not sure we would get it back. Even if we did it would only prolong the hapless Neil’s reign. As a general rule when your manager makes the same mistakes every week, starts making excuses and blaming everyone it is time to get rid, however much you may have liked him when he arrived.
Martin Scott says
Sadly, I agree with all your comments, but I will say one thing and one thing only, Roberto Di Matteo. You heard it here first!!
el dingo says
What a freekin’ pant wetter you are Will. Bandwagon journalism at it’s most crass. Nice use of unnecessary extremities Sir. I hope City win on Saturday unlike you and the typical ‘young brigade’ who can’t stand life with no success. Suck it up fella. Alex is here to stay.
Gary Field says
Reading this I can’t help but think you’re letting off the players far too lightly; overpaid and under performing is a recipe for indifference. Sacking the manager won’t resolve the first issue and may not necessarily address the second either.
We’re in a mess on and off the field, but let’s see what Saturday brings. I fear Carrow Road be messy – almost Worthy and Hoots revisited.
Dave H says
Barry – As bad as things appear right now, I don’t think you can criticise the appointment of Neil by McNally as that worked. It’s the mistakes after which deserve criticism.
It was always the irony with Hughton’s sacking that his credentials would make him an appealing option in the Championship – it had obviously gone too far for it to have worked. For me, Worthington, Hughton & Neil have all had notable achievements with the club & it’s disappointing that they didn’t leave before they each faced such bad feeling – that should just be reserved for the likes of Roeder.
Matchday comes round again, eventually. For the first time I can remember, I don’t have that familiar feeling that I know the result. This feels like a truly unique day of football, for almost anything could happen today.
A pinto/howson/Klose/mulumbu/lafferty inspired blitz of a performance or the usual half arsed, pedestrian, error ridden Alex Neil fare.
All will become clear by 5pm this afternoon. But, a word of caution, whatever the result I wouldn’t expect any change in the stance towards the manager from the corridors of power, simply a further battening down of the hatches.
Whatever the result, there will still be problems at Carrow Road. The club isn’t geared up for success, as it is afraid of it.
A pinto/howson/oliveira/Brady inspired blitz. Good performances all over, credit all round. Pritchard must be given that role and allowed to grow into it. Even ruddy and bassong played well and the most heartening thing was the desire to capitalise on the lead and score more goals.
One swallow does not make a summer, the heat is still very much on, a small step in the right direction however.