When you look back over the successful Norwich teams of previous years, we have always featured several strong characters. Men who will stand up and lead the fight when the battle seems to be almost lost.
Think of Lambert’s double-promotion winners and Holt, Nelson, Whitbread, Martin, Howson, Crofts, Ward and Drury. All captains of their clubs before even arriving in Norfolk.
Or Worthington’s Championship winning squad with Drury, Holt (the ginger one), Mackay, Fleming, Huckerby, McKenzie, McVeigh, Green, Edworthy, and Mulryne. Big characters gelling together with a confidence and swagger that wasn’t to be denied.
One of the major criticisms of the Alex Neil era was that we had no leaders in the team. Russell Martin, for all his many admirable qualities as a club captain was undermined by inconsistent performances on the pitch, which made his own selection difficult to justify at times.
An ever-changing carousel of centre-backs who should have been leaders but never quite made it were fielded alongside Martin, with former skipper Seb Bassong, former Grimsby and Peterborough captain Ryan Bennett, and the at-times dominant, at-times dominated Timm Klose. Cameron Jerome, whilst mentally strong as an individual, was no Grant Holt in his ability to galvanise a forward line and lead the charge from the front.
And so, with a squad that should have thrived in the Championship we drifted, hammering some teams, but inexplicably struggling against others, and generally appearing lackadaisical in the face of any adversity. Coming back to 4-4 in injury time against Liverpool at home only to throw away the points in the dying seconds with poor defending was probably the pinnacle of the “soft-underbelly” that Neil struggled to eradicate during his tenure.
It’s difficult to imagine that happening to Mackay and Fleming, or Lambert’s squad of natural leaders.
When Stuart Webber and Daniel Farke took the reins last summer, one of the underlying tenets of the rebuild was to create a winning mentality within the squad. Fast forward half-a-season and with Howson, Bassong, Ruddy, Bennett, Mulumbu, Lafferty and Jerome all departed, and Martin and Naismith loaned out, a lot of experience, personality, and big characters have left the building.
In their stead have come players new to this league, and mostly new to this country. We brought in a 21-year-old loanee goalkeeper who had never played senior football to replace John Ruddy. A centre-back on a free from the German fourth-tier who appeared to be here to make up the squad numbers because he’d played for Daniel Farke before, and who seemed to be as surprised to be here as we were to have him. A journeyman midfielder in Tom Trybull who had bounced around the German and Dutch leagues without ever realising some early promise or finding a home, and on whom we only initially risked a one-year contract.
And yet slowly, and surely, it is working.
From the ashes of Neil’s squad of talented, brittle underachievers, a steely, determined group has emerged from unlikely sources.
Gunn is marshalling his defence like a veteran. Ivo Pinto, seen by many as an Instagram pretty-boy and a character of more style than substance, has responded to the opportunity afforded to him by Farke and become an unlikely leader in the dressing room.
Hanley, our one major signing of intent, has been the leader and rock we hoped he would be when we pushed the boat out to sign him in August, post-Millwall and Zimmermann looks increasingly confident and dominant at the back, and another captain-in-waiting.
Farke also tasked Klose with taking on more responsibility as a senior pro and he has stepped up to the mark this season, guiding Zimmermann and Lewis at times, and Tettey has produced possibly his best season for the club as his career at Carrow Road winds down, and has helped the defence with a series of mature, understated performances. As a result, he’s been another to wear the armband on occasions.
Leitner, after only a few games, looks to be the gaffer in the middle of the park, orchestrating the play, telling the others where to go. Even Maddison, at his tender age, has stepped up and become a focal point of the attack as his confidence has enthused those around him.
When we need to fight now, we fight. Last minute comebacks against Ipswich and Wolves are obvious signs of a team that never gives up and has confidence in its abilities, but equally impressive has been our ability to go away and pick up points in difficult atmospheres. A win against Chris Wilder’s perma-rage Sheffield United was one that you’d have struggled to see Alex Neil’s side eke out. A draw at Stamford Bridge? Definitely not.
There is a lot of talk around at the moment about a “togetherness” at the club, which I understand in the wake of recent results, but which I don’t quite buy at this moment in time. We are still only one defeat away from a lot of people making a huge collective mess of their sleeping implement.
But one thing that has happened is that we’ve built a squad that the fans like. I’ve yet to hear anybody who doesn’t rate Gunn, Lewis, Zimmermann, Hanley, Trybull, Maddison or Leitner. Klose and Pinto, whilst not everyone’s cup of tea, are hugely likeable characters that even if you remain unconvinced of their effectiveness at all times, you still root for them because they get the vision of Norwich we are building, and they buy into it.
More importantly than the fans simply liking the players though, they’re starting to trust them, individually and collectively. While we may be struggling to open up teams and score goals, equally I don’t see this team folding and taking a spanking from anyone, and that confidence in our collective strength is something that now feels very real within both the team and the supporters.
There is a resolve and a belief that we haven’t had for a long time. And for a first season from Webber and Farke, that’s a quietly-impressive achievement.