After losing a university bet that meant me and a friend would have to travel to Oakwell dressed as Teletubbies, it felt reasonable to think that we’d be the biggest laughing stock in south Yorkshire on Saturday afternoon. How wrong we were.
These are dark days for City.
Days when our manager appears incapable of selecting his most effective team for physical and quintessentially Championship away fixture.
Days when Sebastian Bassong and Ryan Bennett allow Barnsley’s Tom Bradshaw to ghost into our box and convert what was an innocuous cross.
Days when Alex Neil’s presence as City’s manager should surely be reaching breaking point.
But still City toil. We now sit a remarkable thirteen points off Rafa Benitez’s terrific Newcastle United side, just two and a half months after two late, cruel goals in the north-east prevented City deposing the Magpies at the top of the league. They have accelerated in their progress almost flawlessly since.
City? A meagre ten points from as many games.
It’s become increasingly conspicuous that Norwich’s alarming lack of form constitutes so much more than a mere blip. The problems are abundant and run ubiquitously from top to bottom, from Jez Moxey’s unremitting support of Alex Neil to City’s faithful so palpably manifesting their frustration in Oakwell’s North Stand.
The positioning of the away fans in front of the tunnel was so significant, fostering a sense of visibility in terms of our supporters’ augmenting disillusionment. Cries of ‘Neil, sort it out’ echoed around the rustic ground at 3: 45 on Saturday afternoon, a desperate plea from a group of followers who so ardently desire a convincing City win.
To our collective despair, the Scot failed to do so.
Whilst the employment of Martin Olsson and Youssouf Mulumbu at half-time significantly enhanced the threat City posed, such tactical change was ultimately futile. Neil is still yet to learn that Robbie Brady is not a left-back, whilst Jacob Murphy’s inferior brother Josh is fundamentally too afraid of physical contact to flourish at this level.
Josh resembled a nervous teenager on the left-flank at Oakwell, frequently delineating his reluctance to challenge for contested balls and functioning as ineffective going forwards. The selection of Alex Pritchard was equally as dumbfounded. For 45 minutes, City were a disgrace.
Similarly, the midfield duo of Jonny Howson and Graham Dorrans were consistently passengers in front of our brittle back four, most notably Dorrans who lacks the dynamism and enterprise that Howson possesses in such great quantities. Mulumbu should play more.
If Neil’s perplexing team selection – that seemed to completely undermine his midweek press conference – does not alert the board of his growing ineptitude, then surely nothing else will. City’s fielded XI on Saturday was symptomatic of a manager losing a sense of rationality and perspective at the helm of a side whose season is plummeting into oblivion.
Scenes were toxic at Oakwell. Such obvious aversion from City’s loyal following must surely go some distance in relinquishing Moxey’s seemingly oblivious stance towards our pain. The fans want change. City need change.
Yes, the introduction of Mulumbu and Olsson did manifest itself in the form of a considerably more convincing second-half performance, but Neil’s decision to not deploy the latter from the outset remains astonishing. Olsson has been one of our finest performers this season and is probably the best left-back in the division. Madness.
If Olsson has been City’s player of the season so far, Saturday’s star performer was unambiguously Nelson Oliviera. Jerome’s adept understudy worked tenaciously throughout, winning headers and holding the ball up before rocketing the ball past Adam Davies. At 2-1, City believed.
Norwich deserved a point. Our second-half performance saw us dominate the Yorkshire hosts, but such a point is meaningless. City’s first half – caused by Neil’s ineptitude in pragmatically selecting our most effective team – was a scene of pure chaos. Barnsley were rampant.
The fact that Bassong and Bennett remain our best two centre-backs – based on form – is so distressing for City fans. Despite his excellence at the end of last season before injury, Timm Klose has been culpable for too many of Norwich’s thirty-two goals, most visibly during our Amex capitulation. Defensive vulnerability remains.
Two pivotal home games await. City’s 5-0 thumping of Brentford last week may have suggested our return to form, but Steve Bruce’s developing Villa side are surely not going to gift our attackers with the liberties the Bees’ back four did. If they do not, City will get stung.
The televised nature of the Villa and Huddersfield matches is also significant, allowing the players to redeem themselves on a national scale whilst making the toil of Neil more accessible for the masses.
Like Barack Obama – admired globally but opposed more domestically – Neil seems to be perceived positively by football fans across the country but resented by those closer to home. And that resentment is justified.
City have been appalling of late, lacking any form of solidity at the back and often appearing lost going forwards. Division is augmenting between the views of the fans and those of Moxey and the board. The club appears to represent a footballing microcosm of the Labour Party.
Tuesday and Saturday should make this expanding gulf and disconnect all the more discernible.
Neil will have the chance to salvage City’s season this week. If he selects the right team, instils a renewed sense of motivation into his players and facilitates that critical winning-mentality, he may be able to do so. But, like all of us, optimism remains in short supply.
This next week looks set to define both Norwich’s and Neil’s futures in front of the nation. If our stalling season continues to snowball into an even greater mess than the one that already exists, even the site of two Teletubbies at Oakwell would appear less of a joke than City’s plight.