The time is 4pm, and I’ve just parked at Didcot Parkway railway station. I’ve driven from Manchester – my new home for the following year – and am about to hop on the fast service to Reading to meet my brother before the game. As I wait for my train, I choose to check Twitter and update myself on the afternoon’s City-related developments.
Straight away, the news that Onel Hernandez has a hernia injury and requires surgery dominates my timeline. Like the rest of the NCFC community, I’m struck with disbelief. As we’re all so acutely aware, Hernandez has been our prize asset so far this season, continually seeking to create and run at Championship defences with pace and purpose. Coupled with the pre-existing absence of Kenny McClean and captain Grant Hanley, the Hernandez news represented a considerable blow.
However, in the face of adversity and these far from desirable circumstances, Daniel Farke and his young squad dealt admirably. Up stepped Todd Cantwell, who – despite not being most fans’ choice as Hernandez’s replacement – demonstrated a remarkable sense of maturity, making tackles, winning the ball and driving forward to provide the clinical Teemu Pukki with the sort of service he thrives off.
The advent of Cantwell merely functioned as the latest instance of Farke’s shrewdness being vindicated, continuing a trend that really started at the Cardiff City Stadium three weeks ago. The German’s young starlets excelled that night in South Wales, fully justifying the trust he placed in them and securing a highly competent Carabao Cup victory.
Then came the derby, where Farke’s faith in his youthful talent was further legitimated. The precocious Max Aarons was superb that day, while Jamal Lewis similarly excelled at left-back and Ben Godfrey proved what an important defensive asset he could become. Further up the pitch, Emi Buendia – although not influencing the game enormously – also showed signs of promise.
Fast forward two weeks and the arrival of Middlesbrough. Farke opts to omit Jordan Rhodes and deploy Pukki as a lone striker, paving the way for Marco Stiepermann to feature at the heart of an attacking midfield trio. All of us who were present at what was a buoyant Carrow Road that day can surely testify that our head coach’s judgement was once again firmly vindicated, with Stiepermann starring and Pukki – who else? – scoring the winner.
And then came Reading. I must confess, I didn’t arrive at the Madejski instilled with my usual sense of optimism in light of the news concerning Hernandez. Although City’s overall performances have been characterised by a much greater sense of attacking fluidity this season, there’s no denying that it’s been the Cuban winger who has provided our most potent threat when we’re in possession.
But City adapted. While up against what appeared to be a largely mediocre Reading side who offered little going forward, this was an impressive away performance from Farke’s young team, controlling the ball for significant periods and rallying at 1-1 to restore their lead.
And, in bringing on Mario Vrancic midway through the second period, Farke saw his managerial shrewdness come to even further fruition. Our aesthetic Bosnian provided a midfield spark that City lacked for the vast majority of the half, proving to us all what a valuable player he has become following his slow Championship start at the beginning of last season.
Yes, City’s performance was good last night and yes, the players on the pitch did themselves proud, but let’s not look past Farke and the considerable boldness that has characterised his recent decisions. His faith in the club’s youth – fitting and pertinent, in light of the opening of the innovative Nest – has been fully repaid. His decision to move Pukki higher up the pitch to facilitate Stiepperman’s involvement has proved a success. And, last night, his skilful use of substitutions served to turn the game in City’s favour.
Sitting in 17th place, under mounting pressure and having just lost his captain for eight weeks, I feared that Farke may have crumbled. I feared that City would get outplayed at home to Boro and enter two important away games at Reading and Queens Park Rangers with confidence diminishing. However, what Farke has demonstrated since the beginning of September has been his ever-increasing skill as a head coach in England, trusting his instinct and making the bold decisions that have led to our recent upturn in form. Think Aarons, Stiepermann, Pukki’s position in the team and, most recently, Vrancic. Decisions that none of us faithful even really considered. The German deserves credit.
But so do those on the pitch. There were many outstanding displays from those in yellow and green last night, not least deriving from the maturing Christoph Zimmerman, the marauding Stiepermann and the industrious Pukki. Our flying Finn was my man of the match, taking his goal unerringly, never stopping running and providing us with an attacking outlet during the relative bombardment we faced during the second half. Forget the hosts’ nickname; Pukki is rapidly transforming himself into a Norwich City royal of his own.
But last night was a triumph for Farke. A triumph for his boldness in trusting his youth, a triumph for his game management, a triumph for his mental strength and resolve following what had been a largely underwhelming start to the season. Whisper it quietly, but an unbeaten run under his leadership is emerging. We travel to the capital on Saturday evening with confidence. Thank you, Daniel: my journey back from Didcot was a very happy one indeed.