I’ll start with a quote.
‘What is history, but a fable agreed upon?’
That’s the original. It’s been revised, redone and rehashed over the years but, whatever variant of it you may hear or read, the above is the mother lode, so to speak, of that well used phrase, one which is generally (but not exclusively) attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte.
He may not have won the Battle of Waterloo, although there are (and in doing so they prove the pertinence of the phrase) historians who will argue otherwise, but, in allegedly making that simple eight word quote, Bonaparte at least illustrated that, when it came to a pithy outburst, he was up there with Gordon Strachan (who, when once asked for a ‘quick word’ after a game, replied with ‘velocity’) and Roy Keane – two masters of the footballing sound bite.
I’m quoting it here because of the current statistical insistence that, following confirmation of our departure from the Premier League on Saturday, Norwich are now the proud possessors of an unwanted record – i.e. our fifth relegation from that division, which means we stand alone as the club that has dropped out of the top tier most often.
And that’s the ‘top tier’ if you are talking exclusively about the Premier League.
Which brings me, nicely, onto another quote, that of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda who said:
‘If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes accepted as truth’.
The real truth, certainly as far as football is concerned, and especially if, like me, and millions of others, you don’t subscribe to the view that football either didn’t exist or was a sporting and social irrelevance, a minority foible that hurtling towards destruction before Murdoch & Co got their toxic hands on it back in 1992, is that we have now been relegated from the top flight of English football on eight separate occasions.
1974, 1981, 1985, 1995, 2005, 2014, 2016 and now 2020.
And that isn’t a record. Not quite. The football club that has been relegated from the topflight – i.e. the ‘old’ Division One or Premier League – the most times in their history is, in fact, Sunderland, who have dropped down on nine separate occasions.
1958, 1970, 1977, 1985, 1991, 1997, 2003, 2006 and 2017.
They will shortly commence their third consecutive season in League One. So, clearly, they haven’t coped with things on and off the field quite as well as we have.
But that’s another story. And if you’ve treated yourself to Sunderland Till I Die on Amazon, you’ll have a good idea why they’ve struggled of late.
Poor recruitment, a succession of managerial changes and astronomical wages and transfer fees that they could never afford. Plus promises that more than one man in a sharp suit made that were so much hot air but which the clubs fans took as absolute gospel.
Let’s have a look at some of the carnage.
Eleven different managers (plus four ‘caretakers’ since 2010), three of whom were given less than twenty games in charge.
Ten different transfer signings in that times who cost at least £10 million, this included Didier Ndong, who set them back around £18 million and made just 49 league appearances before, quite literally, walking out of the club after their relegation to League One in 2018.
He wasn’t the only one. A few more made it quite clear that they were no longer prepared to play for the club including, famously, Jack Rodwell, who, knowing full well no football club in this, or any other reality, would ever pay him £70,000 a week again showed no interest in terminating his contract.
Now, you probably think that I am now going to witter on about how lucky are to have a ‘project’ in hand and ongoing that means, theoretically, the sort of footballing and financial disasters which have impacted on Sunderland will never happen at Norwich.
But no, that’s not where I am going. I’m using those two simple illustrations as evidence to suggest one of football’s deeper problems is the attitude and ego of the players who are fortunate enough to play the game for a living and how they, more than anyone, are driving and controlling the game right now.
‘Player power’, as it was once referred to, is hardly new. We’ve seen a few examples of it at Norwich although not, fortunately, anywhere near the magnitude of those demonstrations of pique shown in the North East.
Steve Bruce allegedly threatened to go on strike if the club didn’t sanction his move to Manchester United in 1987.
Robert Fleck agreed, amid much outside interest, to stay with Norwich for the whole of the 1991/92 season on the understanding that, the following summer, he would be allowed to leave. When it looked as if Robert Chase was set to renege on that agreement, it looked as if Fleckie might look to withhold his services as well.
Chris Sutton was another who made his intentions very clear in order to push through his move to Blackburn.
Three examples. There will be countless more.
It brings to mind yet another quote, one that relates to football but, for the life of me, I cannot remember who said it or the exact words spoken. But it was on the lines of that, whenever you buy or sign a player, always, without exception, make them feel they are, in joining your club, making a step up and, for that reason, are grateful to you and the club for giving them that opportunity.
Something which is reflected in their performances on the pitch and, if you are Christoph Zimmermann, your integration into Norwich and Norfolk society. He behaves as if he still cannot believe he is here and playing for Norwich, something you can clearly see in his performances on the pitch.
There is always a danger, however, that things may change; that a player who was so grateful to be given the chance to sign on the dotted line does, over time and as his career progresses, feels that, far from feeling grateful to have been given the opportunity to play for you, now feels that you should feel grateful that you have had the opportunity to have him play for you.
A subtle and invisible attitude adjustment. But one that can be devastating, especially if it is shared by a few other players at your club.
Sir Alex Ferguson knew all about it. The second he felt one of his players had gone from being glad to play for Manchester United to thinking Manchester United should be glad to have him, they were gone.
David Beckham, Jaap Stam, Ruud van Nistelrooy.
I look back at some of our eight relegations and wonder if, during any of those disappointing seasons, some of our players, once so happy to join us, felt that we’d now outgrown our usefulness and it was time for them to kiss another badge somewhere else?
It’s probable that it’s happened to more than one of our players over the last few months, especially during lockdown’s peak when there wasn’t much to do other than sit at the Playstation or chat to your mates and agents.
Have some of those that wear the yellow and green now gone through that same attitude adjustment and are thinking of better times ahead in blue, red or white?
‘You’re lucky to have me’ rather than ‘I’m lucky to be here’?
Looking at how we brushed Newcastle aside (now not far off a year ago!), beat Manchester City and performed so well against Chelsea and Tottenham, when everything was fresh, new and exciting and comparing that to Southampton, Brighton and West Ham, it’s hard to believe this is, or was, the same set of players.
It was, of course. But wherever their minds were last April, or even in August and September, they’re in different places now.
The grass isn’t always greener on the other side. Ask Jacob or Josh, ask Alex Pritchard.
Remember, even, Sammy Clingan, and how ‘it could have been you’?
It’s easy to look at our failings since the restart and ask that time-honoured question about what they are, or are not, doing in training?
But no matter what they are, or have been doing in training, it won’t matter a jot if a player’s perception of his worth has changed.
And a few of ours have, palpably, been through that change and are now at the other side.
I just wish they’d arrived there a little later than they have.