Saturday 26th August 2017: Millwall 4 Norwich City 0.
The worst game I’ve ever attended as a Norwich City fan (Note: I’m only 21).
While Russell Martin was the scapegoat for the result, I was shocked to see 6ft 3in Marcel Franke being bullied by Lee Gregory and ex-City forward Steve Morison. The game and the all-too-easy nature of all four Millwall goals proved to be enough for Stuart Webber, who reacted by signing Newcastle’s Scotland international Grant Hanley for £3.5 million.
The big centre-half didn’t start straight away for City, having played only 16 games in Newcastle’s Championship romp the season before. His first City appearance was against Ipswich away where he came on for the last 25 minutes and, while looking rusty with the ball at his feet, it was clear the passion Hanley was going to show, throwing himself into every challenge as City saw out a narrow 1-0 win.
The derby performance clearly impressed Daniel Farke as Grant then featured in 27 of the following 32 games, and although City slumped to a mid-table finish, Hanley’s dominant performances were indicative of a player more than capable of performing in England’s second division.
The most memorable moment in the Scot’s first season was his assist against the old enemy at Carrow Road. With City set to lose their unbeaten streak, Hanley chased down a long ball into the corner and whipped a majestic cross onto Timm Klose’s head to spark bedlam.
A month later, Hanley scored his first City goal in a 3-2 win over Reading and ended the season as runner-up to James Maddison in Player of the Season.
In the summer of 2018, Farke decided to give Grant the captain’s armband, his natural leadership traits becoming evident to all in his first season.
Hanley started the first six games of the 2018-19 season as City struggled. A thigh injury ruled the skipper out of the 1-0 home win over Middlesbrough, which became the turning point for the season. But, despite not playing for over a month, the club still awarded Grant a new five-year contract, again showing his importance to the squad. There was, however, no place for City’s number 5 until the 5th January 2019 in an FA Cup third-round fixture against Portsmouth.
The former Blackburn man understandably looked rusty and only lasted 15 minutes when he received a red card for wiping out Ronan Curtis as last man. As City went on to win the Championship title, our captain would only feature for a minute away at Bolton and on the final day at Aston Villa when he lifted the trophy at Villa Park.
And then to the Premier League…
Due to injury to Christoph Zimmermann, Hanley was able to start the first three games of the PL season, looking rusty and scoring an own-goal against Liverpool before putting in solid displays in a 3-1 home win over Newcastle and an unfortunate 3-2 defeat to Europa League champions Chelsea.
But groin and hernia surgery at the end of August again stunted a positive start to the campaign for the former Newcastle man and he didn’t start again until the home fixture against Wolves.
The man from Dumfries started in all of City’s festive fixtures and again performed well alongside Christoph Zimmermann due to Ben Godfrey’s injury. He was unlucky to be dropped when Godfrey returned from injury for the 1-0 win over Bournemouth, but still played an important role in the last 12 minutes of the game as Ben was sent off for that late challenge on Callum Wilson.
Grant deputised for the suspended Godfrey in the desperately unlucky defeat away at Spurs but again looked more than accustomed to life at this level.
It was fitting that for all of the bad luck and narrow defeats, that Hanley would get his first goal of the season in the FA Cup win over Burnley, powering in Mario Vrancic’s free-kick. He was again on hand to deny Burnley a chance of getting back into the game as City got through to the fifth round of the cup for the first time since 2012.
When Hanley first joined I knew of his pedigree as a ‘head it, kick it’ kind of player who would be more than suitable for the Championship. Injuries and bad luck made it appear he was going to be fourth choice centre-back at the beginning of this season but is now not the case.
For me, he has been City’s best central defender this season and deserves to start alongside Ben Godfrey when the former York City man returns. I feel they will complement each other. While Hanley’s main strengths are his physicality and aerial domination, he has adapted to Farke’s style of play and has looked fine with the ball at his feet, perhaps unlike last season.
One final point I wanted to make is around Hanley’s character throughout his time in Norfolk. Injuries and bad luck have hindered positive starts in a couple of campaigns and then, when fit again, he has been unable to reclaim his place. Other players would have moaned at being unable to get back into the team but not Hanley.
Farke and Webber have repeatedly commented on what a good influence he has been in the dressing room, especially at the back end of last season when he was able to guide through the young squad as a man with previous successes at Blackburn and Newcastle.
I really hope he is able to get back into the Scotland side and continue his positive form for years to come.