It’s that time of year when misty-eyed reminiscing becomes almost acceptable – especially after an office party and too much mulled wine – so if you’ll permit me, I’ll attempt a whistle-stop tour of the decade that’s about to draw to a close through the prism of Norwich City.
For the record, I’ve not been to a party and I can’t stand mulled wine. But anyway…
First things first and I promise not to use ‘rollercoaster’. Other than being a bl00dy annoying term, it’s one that can probably be applied to just about every club in the country with the exception of the elite six plus one other, who flat-lined for 9/10th of the decade only to suffer a blip in the final straight.
For City, the decade began where the flat-liners’ has ended – with a ruddy-faced Scot in charge; one known for his mumbling, brusqueness with the press and hostility toward anyone who disagrees with him. But in January 2010 we loved Paul Lambert. Adored him. We cared not one jot that he flunked charm school.
He’d picked up the reins after dishing out the mother of all opening-day wallopings when in charge of Colchester United. That 7-1 changed things forever. A proper sliding doors moment. How would our history have panned out if Gunny’s City had scraped a 2-1 that day and the Us had stunk the place out?
Sadly for Bryan, it was those in yellow and green who bombed and it ended up a day that will never be forgotten. Ten days later, Gunny was no more and Team Lambert were being shoe-horned as one into the City dugout.
Despite declaring the team “a million miles away from where I want them” upon a closer examination, Ian Culverhouse was soon able to weave his magic on the fields of Colney. Lambert’s influence was limited on the training pitch but full-on in the dressing room on match day.
By January 2010, we were hovering just outside the division’s top two but a fine month was sufficient to propel City to the top of the table, a position from which they never looked back. It was a good, solid, workmanlike side that crucially contained a Wes Hoolahan and a Grant Holt in their pomp. A youthful and focused Chris Martin completed a triumvirate who would lead us to the title by nine clear points.
Leeds finished a distant second; Millwall joined us in the Championship via the Play-offs.
The momentum garnered from winning League One was used to wonderful effect by Lambert and co, and despite a losing start to the season, the belief in the camp was unwavering. True to form, our little ruddy-faced hero had brought some new faces in over the summer “to help the group”, and in came, amongst others, John Ruddy, Andrew Crofts, David Fox, Andrew Surman and one Simeon Jackson.
The win over Ipswich at a snow-laced Carrow Road was the undoubted highlight of the autumn with a moustachioed Holty nabbing a hattrick amidst the carnage. It was to be a little taster of things to come.
We ended the year in touch with the league leaders but outside the top two.
The momentum felt unstoppable and ultimately was. Despite QPR beating us to the title, it was seeing off the challenges of Swansea and Cardiff that meant the land of milk and honey was ours for the foreseeable.
While they may not have been as aesthetically pleasing as Daniel Farke’s Class of 2019, my god they could battle, and injury time winners were every bit as commonplace as they were last season. Simeon Jackon’s “utter chaos” moment against Derby is the one we all remember, but there were plenty of others. It was glorious, and all came together on that famous night at Fratton Park.
The celebrations, both that same night and during the weeks that followed, were, as we reminded ourselves last season, why we do it. Lambert smiled on the balcony of City Hall as he offered thanks to Messrs Culverhouse and Karsa for their own roles in the success. It was Tuesday, May 10, 2010. He never smiled again.
Seven new faces arrived in the summer of 2011 – Sir Bradley Johnson, Anthony Pilkington and Steve Morison among them – and despite ripping up no trees, it was a squad that was competitive and was able to eke out draws from games that could easily have slipped away. “Don’t f**king lose” became a Lambert trope that defined his time here.
Four wins plus a sprinkling of draws meant Canary heads were above water in the PL as 2011 drew to a close.
The second half of 2011/12 was equally testing but, despite one particularly painful home humping by Man City, enough points were acquired to ensure safety and another season of PL riches.
Alas, by this time “the most impatient man in the world” was getting itchy feet. Words were spoken behind the scenes – words that are still privy only to those who were in the corridors of power – which ultimately led to his head being turned. One of his peers at that time, Brendan Rodgers, had nabbed the Liverpool job and all of a sudden, to Lambert, Norwich really did seem ‘little’.
The overtures of Villa fans on the final day of the season were too much to resist, although little did the ruddy-faced one know at the time, but Aston Villa – the football club – was a basket case in waiting. He was to eventually discover that for himself.
[As an aside, it was in the summer of 2012 that I joined MFW as a columnist – the editorial reins were kindly handed over by Rick one year later after a 12-month apprenticeship – with my first piece being some words on the visit of Celtic for Adam Drury’s testimonial. If you need a good laugh it’s here. I was quick to learn (in the comments) how a stray and careless word can be seized upon. My bad 🙂 ].
Delia and Michael turned to Chris Hughton – the original safe pair of hands – and in the summer of 2012 seven new faces arrived, including Robert Snodgrass, Alex Tettey and Sebastien Bassong. On paper at least, we looked well equipped to deal with another survival battle and home wins against Arsenal and Manchester Utd in the autumn suggested this was going to be the case.
The much-fabled ten-game unbeaten run, that ran from early October to the week before Christmas, was what we hoped at the time was going to be the start of a sustained spell in the Premier League. But niggling away was an underlying nervousness at the style of football. Under Lambert, we were gung-ho and nerveless. Under Hughton, it was safety first and his gushing praise of our opponents on a weekly basis started to grate.
The lack of a cup run was another thing that irked – it did so even during the Lambert era – and peaked on January 26, 2013, when then non-league Luton Town came to Carrow Road in the fourth round of the FA Cup and won 1-0. City were passive in the extreme. It was horrible. Another ‘I was there’ moment for all the wrong reasons.
A fairly fractious spring, in which the excitement levels barely reached lukewarm, threatened to spill over, with the natives getting increasingly restless, but a 4-0 home win over West Brom in the season’s penultimate game secured PL safety for another season.
The piece de resistance, which in hindsight papered over some fairly gigantic cracks, was a 3-2 win at the Etihad on the final day of the season; Holty’s goal that day being his final in a City shirt.
The summer transfer window that followed was to be record-breaking and most un-Norwich City like, the club spending more than they’d ever spent before in a single window and also breaking the record of money spent on a single player.
Eight players arrived – Ricky van Wolfswinkel, Leroy Fer and Gary Hooper among them – but it ended up being the best example ever of ‘spend, spend, spend’ being only effective is the multi-millions are spent wisely. We didn’t spend our money wisely.
Ricky, bless him, did manage an equaliser against Everton in the second game of the season but that was about as good as it got. In a Hughton team that cried out for a lone striker who could hold the ball up, Ricky couldn’t hold the ball up. It was a recruitment nightmare and slowly the season turned into just that.
For a team that was set up to contain and not get beaten, away defeats at Arsenal (4-1), Man City (7-0) and Liverpool (5-1) were most definitely not part of the masterplan.
The misery-ometer levels only flickered briefly into positive territory in the new year with home wins over Hull, Tottenham and Sunderland, but were rare moments of joy amidst the gathering gloom. As winter turned to spring, points were as hard to come by as Hughton supporters and with the run-in from hell approaching, David McNally pulled the trigger.
Yours truly was, as per, late to the party and was defending Hughton until the final month of his reign (I know… I’m sorry).
Neil Adams, him of “you absolute beauties” fame, was handed the stripes – deservedly I might add after the heroics of leading the kids to the 2012 FA Youth Cup – but it was the epitome of a poisoned chalice. Our fate was effectively sealed when bl00dy Sunderland, our rivals for 17th, went and won at Old Trafford on the penultimate weekend.
Every relegation hurts but that one was particularly painful given the ‘missed opportunity’ feel it had all over it.
A summer turnover that saw, among others, Messrs Fer, Snodgrass and Pilkington depart, saw nine new faces arrive. These included Lewis Grabban, Kyle Lafferty and Cameron Jerome. If it was a game played on paper rather than grass, it was a squad that would bounce back to the PL at the first time of asking.
Some promising signs on said grass in the first three months of the season were to start unravelling by the November, when a soul-destroying 4-0 defeat at Boro’s Riverside signalled that all was not well. Despite only losing once in December and walloping Millwall 6-1 on Boxing Day, the board felt Adams was not getting the best out of a squad that hadn’t come cheap. Just five days into the new year, he resigned.