The most wondrous aspect of Norwich City’s romp to the Football League title last season was that it was a triumph for doing things the right way. Being smart beat money and muscle.
And so, for me, amid all the disappointments of yet another dismal demotion, one detail stands out as the bleakest: it looks as if the critics were right.
Off the pitch we didn’t spend enough, didn’t show enough ambition. On the pitch we were too fancy for the fight.
Except, none of those criticisms is true.
One statement which has been parroted by pundits, opponents and even by disaffected fans is that “Norwich only spent £750K” this season. That is sheer tosh.
I can’t tell you the actual figure, but I can set out some of the items on which the club spent.
£6.5m paid back investors in the Canaries Bond which financed the complete remodelling of the academy and training centre at Colney.
An as yet undisclosed sum, matching fans pound for pound, went towards the cost of the Community Sports Foundation’s new hub – The Nest, at Horsford – which will change lives in the county.
New, hugely improved contracts were given to 14 players: rewards for that glorious 2018-19 title win and guarantees that they cannot leave for peanuts this summer.
There were some transfer fees we know about. Sam Byram cost that £750K from West Ham (who bought him for £4m three years earlier), and Aidan Fitzpatrick, a Scottish midfielder, arrived from Partick for £350,000. Then, in January, left-back Sam McCallum was purchased from Coventry for £3.7m (and loaned back to Coventry, with whom he won the League One title).
In January there were two signings for which the fees remain undisclosed. Lucas Rupp was bought from the Bundesliga and highly rated Melvin Sitti (a 19-year-old midfielder) was signed from French second tier team Sochaux and loaned back to them.
The season’s so-called “free transfers” (which invariably involve a signing-on fee and always increase the wage bill) included Josep Drmic (an experienced full international from the Bundesliga), Archie Mair (a teenaged goalkeeper from Aberdeen), Charlie Gilmour (a defensive midfielder from Arsenal) and Rocky Bushiri, (a young Belgian centre-back from the Belgian top tier).
Players taken on loan (which invariably involves a fee) included goalkeeper Ralf Fahrmann from the Bundesliga, Ibrahim Amadou (from La Liga) and Ondrej Duda (from the Bundesliga).
Oh, and Adam Idah and Josh Martin were promoted to the senior squad.
Of course, as is the case with every single football club in the entire world, not all of the new arrivals proved good fits. But two who looked decent – Fahrmann and Amadou – didn’t get the game time they wanted and moved on. And some of the arrivals are clearly earmarked for the future rather than the 19-20 season.
But doesn’t the forward planning (which includes the Colney rebuild) demonstrate ambition? Admittedly it’s ambition grounded in strategic thinking rather than sod-it-let’s-have-a-punt gung-ho, reckless aspiration, but it is clearly a desire and a determination to achieve.
Yet there is no denying the poverty of many of performances this season – and I don’t think the catalogue of casualties provides a credible alibi.
I was at Crawley for the Carabao Cup defeat in August when both Timm Klose and Christophe Zimmerman made their delayed starts to the season after injuries. Timm was badly crocked again after just 27 minutes – out for the season we were told. Christophe limped on until ten minutes into the second half and was patched up for the weekend game at West Ham, but was clogged by Sebastien Haller. Out for three months.
At one stage we had four centre-backs and two goalkeepers out – a cruel set of co-incidences which could not have been foreseen. But all clubs have injuries which disrupt their plans and test the resilience of their squads.
So what happened? Why weren’t the boys who swept aside opponents in 19-20 capable even of competing after such a short while in 20-21?
As Stewart Lewis wrote, I think a major culprit was confidence – it was absent when most we needed it. There are physiological as well as psychological reasons why, when footballers lack belief, they lack practically everything else too.
Confidence makes you want the ball and ‘show” for it, it endows your running with zip, it gives you certainty of touch as you receive the ball, it helps you hit crisp passes … and to produce endorphins which deaden pain and so keep you going when fatigued. Without confidence (and endorphins) you become risk-adverse, tentative and slower to respond mentally and physically.
There was no lack of passion (football’s most over-used word), despite what many claimed. Did Todd Cantwell and Klose look uncaring in defeat after the Brighton game?
No, it was belief that was missing – as Teemu Pukki demonstrated. During the surge to the Championship title, he was so certain of his ability that a goal looked likely each time he had the ball at his feet in or near the opposition penalty area. This season, the ball doesn’t stay at his feet often or long enough. His sure first touch has deserted him and his dead-eyed accuracy of shot left with it.
Without his goals last season, we wouldn’t have gone up. Without enough this season, we were doomed to fail.
There have definitely been other flaws too. Defending corners – or crosses generally – hasn’t got better, has it? I don’t believe that is because zonal marking is inherently poor (too many top teams rely on it for that to be the case). And, after being undone by near-post balls at Burnley in September, our defensive deployment was amended. But we are a long way short of what is required in any division, let alone the Premier League.
What is unique to the Premier League, though, is the alacrity with which any failing is exposed and exploited. And it has been painful beyond words to watch City picked off so readily by so many teams.
When Stuart Webber says, ‘We have all learned from this season’, that must be one of the things he is talking about: the ruthlessness with which a less-than-perfect pass or a slipshod moment in defence is punished.
The answer cannot be to just whack the ball forward though, because more often or not that just merely donates possession to the opposition. So we should not abandon Farkeball. But we have to get much better at it – and that probably requires a bigger pool of better quality players. Which is where all that forward-planning and ambition should come to fruition.
That is the hope to which I cling.
It might have been premature to declare the Webberlution a success in May 2019 – but only because it was still in progress. And it is still unfolding now. We can only know if last season’s fabulous stride forward was wasted once we learn how we respond to being knocked back again.
So we have to remain steadfast, even when the situation seems so full of peril.
We have a song about that.