When Norwich City’s second goal went in at Leeds in February last year — the Pukki tap-in which caused a delayed reaction among our fans tucked in a corner at the other end of the pitch — I turned to seek out the face of a friend in the row behind me.
We shared a moment in which our mutual feeling of utter bliss was only heightened by the incredulity. We didn’t need to say anything. It was all in our eyes, our smiles, our shrieks of rapture.
If the madness of being a football supporter can be explained at all then it is about hankering to be part of a tribe. Only being there, being part of the shared experience properly enforces that feeling of belonging.
So I cannot come to terms with the idea that the rest of this season will play out, for my wife and me, on the television in our lounge.
What if, on August 1, Norwich City win the FA Cup at an empty, silent Wembley? What if that achievement follows the feat of finishing above the bottom three in the Premier League? It would seem hollow, unnatural … not right.
I understand entirely those who say, with fervour, that the season should have been voided, that football without fans is not football, that whatever happens now will be artificial and bogus. And they’re restarting for the money, obviously.
But then that is also true of every business contorting itself to resume as soon as permitted. To exist, they all need income. To survive, professional football needs to start earning income too. Pronto.
The impact on football of the pandemic pause has been, and will be, seismic. The landscape has been altered fundamentally.
I’ve been told that the number of EFL clubs likely to go into administration is in double figures. Below the EFL, some names will vanish forever. Lower still down the pyramid, the FA will have £100m less to spend, which will lay waste to schemes and projects few appreciate but many will miss once they’ve gone.
Above the EFL (in the Premier League) the amounts of money which comes from broadcasters means no club can contemplate not finishing the season. The EPL will have to repay more than £330m to broadcasters if it is not completed by August 2.
If the season does finish — with the two-games a night schedule now planned — it is possible that as much as half that rebate will be written off. It is possible it won’t be.
So the very best hope is that ‘only’ almost £170m has to be paid back. The plan is for the 20 clubs to share that debt, with a small subsidy by top clubs to the others. Nothing would be paid next season, but it would all have to be paid back during the following two seasons.
That means that, whichever division they are in, Norwich will have to pay between £4m and £8.5m in each of 21-22 and 22-23. So, for Norwich, relegation this summer threatens yet another period of austerity.
In the pre-pandemic world, it was possible to be relatively philosophical about the prospect of dropping into the Championship. We haven’t bet the house on staying up. We don’t have a kernel of duff players on huge wages whom we’d have to keep paying. We don’t have a structural deficit. We do have top class, paid-for facilities. We’d have parachute payments. If necessary, we could flog a player or two for top Deutschmarks.
In the post-pandemic football topography, though, the whole concept of parachute payments is under challenge from two sets of clubs.
Many EFL clubs want a “fairer” spread of the money handed out by the Premier League because all of them are in crisis. Meanwhile, EPL clubs sure of staying up have their own Covid-provoked financial scares — and would like to keep the dosh that goes towards parachute payments.
The dreadful worst-case scenario would be that City are relegated, get no parachute payments but still have to pay back a slab of Premier League TV money.
And it will be very difficult, even for an operator as astute as Stuart Webber, to flog any player for a fat fee. The richest clubs in England and in Europe will still trade megastars, but other clubs will not have as much as usual to spend. Mid-table EPL clubs will seek bargains. EFL clubs will largely withdraw from the market.
So, those of us who support the great club in the Fine City have to hope against hope that Project Restart is a success, and that Daniel Farke constructs his “little miracle”. Because if the season is not completed then Norwich will be relegated by their average points so far.
Yep, we need a Farkeing miracle. But I think that is a valid hope.
In that other universe, the one where the pandemic never happened, any optimism we could muster was founded on the fact that three of our five remaining home games were against clubs in the bottom six: Southampton, Brighton and West Ham. If we built a bit of momentum, perhaps the home fixtures against Everton and Burnley might have produced points as well.
The realist in me, though, looked at the away fixtures and could see grim, pointless odysseys to Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City with a mere flicker of hope about visiting Watford.
Thus far City have averaged only 1.07 per game at home (and a miserable 0.4 per game away). So even our home record would have needed to improve substantially for us to improve our position by the requisite six points relative to three other strugglers. Nonetheless, with a fair wind, a couple of VAR assists and the Barclay flags waving, Carrow Road might just have launched that miracle.
But in this universe, the Bundesliga experience suggests home advantage is negated by having to play behind closed doors. Only 18.5 per cent of games have been won by the home team since the season kicked off again in Germany.
Ah, but hold on! That means that Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City will not be such overwhelming favourites to beat Norwich at home.
And there’s another factor: will players with nothing much at stake be motivated? Will Burnley and Everton, currently 10th and 12th, care enough about where they finish in the table to give it everything? Will their players, not adequately prepared and with games coming thick and fast, strain and strive to contest possession against a Norwich team which bases its game on enterprise rather than effort?
I think passing will beat pressing in empty stadiums. In the silence of the stands, Farkeball can prosper.
Then there’s the Cup. City are two games from the Final. I know it wouldn’t be the same if we got there this year. But “the same” is not on offer. A place in history is though and wouldn’t that irk our history-obsessed neighbours?!
So let’s ask again… what if Norwich City win the FA Cup? What if that achievement follows the feat of finishing above the bottom three in the Premier League?