At least it’s done now. But it did feel like death by a thousand cuts.
A slow, painful, inexorable slide back to whence we came, with not the merest hint of resistance.
These are difficult and surreal times – and of course, there are far more important things going on than our football team getting relegated – but regardless of the scenario, City had a chance of preserving their Premier League status. And blew it.
I’ll not try and re-write history though. You can’t when you write. It’s there for all to see.
Despite being a long-time questioner of Delia and Michael’s reluctance to share the club’s reins with someone, or something, who would bring more financial stability, around May time last year the model appeared to be working. The ambition (or lack of) argument ran a little thin.
Those fighting Delia and Michael’s corner had ammunition aplenty.
Self-financing under the auspices of Stuart Webber and under the coaching of Daniel Farke and his team saw us win the Championship with a swagger rarely seen in these parts. The squad was talented, young and hungry, and had a way of playing that was extremely easy on the eye.
Nothing not to like.
It felt like we were blazing the self-funding trail and doing it for the little guy. Others took note. Some scoffed. I suspect there may even have been a few CEOs shifting a little uncomfortably in their plush leather chairs at the prospect of little Norwich giving the Prem a good go without lavishing multi-millions.
Karren Brady was the first to blink. She called us out; said it couldn’t be done. Others piled in.
‘Cheeky b@stards – who the hell do think they are coming up from the Championship, thinking they can survive in the Premier League on a shoestring budget?’
Webber, in early close-season conversation, mentioned a figure of £20 million. He, quite rightly, didn’t elaborate on precisely what that figure pertained to, but most took it to be the transfer budget – the amount we would spend on transfer fees.
It sounded minuscule at the time. Brady and co scoffed (again). Others sniggered. It did sound very low though. Even by Norwich City standards.
But, as Mick Dennis explained in the week on this site, they did spend, just not on new, permanent signings.
Instead, it was used to fund expensive loan signings, who themselves come with fees and Premier League level wages, and vastly improved contracts for those who won the Championship. Some promising youngsters were also purchased.
But still we trusted them, just as we trusted in the model. On paper, those who arrived on loan made us stronger. But only on paper. Not on grass.
Ibrahim Amadou looked nailed on as a Tettey upgrade, Ralf Fährmann sounded ideal to either drive Tim Krul onto greater heights or replace him, and Patrick Roberts, according to Celtic fans, was the dog’s…
Those for whom the glass is half-full will argue that Krul’s fine form may have stemmed from Farhmann’s presence. They may have a point. But generally, Stuart Webber’s euro-vision returned a big, fat [*French accent*] nil points.
Last summer’s arrivals added nothing. No added value. No increase in quality. No new options. We essentially played the season with the squad that won the Championship – and we all know what happens when you use a second-tier squad in the ‘best league in the World’.
It played out as the pundits and Brady had predicted.
You have the occasional afternoon or evening when it clicks and when as a unit you perform over and above your expected level; when, as the saying goes, the whole becomes greater than its constituent parts. I give you Man City and Newcastle at home and Everton away.
And, because you’re a good Championship side and still have the momentum of a title win to fall back on, there are days when you play well and almost give your bigger, better, richer opponents a bloody nose. For those days read Tottenham (h & a), Arsenal (h), Liverpool (h), and Leicester (a).
There were others too. You don’t temporarily earn the title ‘the best side ever to be bottom of the Premier League’ without playing some eye-catching stuff.
And we did play some good football in the middle third of the pitch. Farkeball did bare its teeth but it lacked oomph. It was nice, pleasant, cute even, but my god it lacked oomph. And when it was challenged with muscle it creaked, sometimes crumbled.
Unsurprisingly, the same defensive unit that struggled for clean sheets in the Championship found them virtually impossible to come by in the Prem. Every opponent, however poor or out-of-form or downright shocking stood a chance against us. Every. Single. One.
Those who struggled to create clear-cut opportunities themselves would, if they could stay in the game and were patient enough, be gifted a goal. Often from a set piece – a horror that’s a hangover from the Championship – but not exclusively. We can be equally generous in open play.
Every day is Christmas day when you’re playing Norwich City’s Class of 2020.
And yet, prior to the COVID-19 enforced lockdown we still loved them and believed in them. We had that evening at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium; that Friday night under the lights against Leicester, and Farke still believed.
All of the frailties mentioned above were still evident, but there was something going on that kept us all invested; a spark, a cheekiness, that meant, while still Santa-in-disguise, there was stuff going on that made us proud.
To coin another phrase, they had a little something about them. Even when the team’s only serious goalscorer stopped scoring goals, we still believed in them, even if we didn’t necessarily believe they had enough in the tank to limp to 17th.
But we cared not. We had a plan. This was merely a step en route and if that route meant we were relegated but went down swinging we’d just about be okay with that.
What happened between March 7 and June 19 needs no explanation. For most of that time football meant nothing, but when Project Restart gradually became Project Reality, we were left with nine games to save our season.
Farke spoke bullishly of our chances, citing a nine-game series that would be tackled head-on with a view to getting the four/five wins that could save us. He still believed it and, therefore, so did we.
It was odd. Football but not as we know it, and it had a pre-season feel, where some teams can hit the ground running and make hay while others feel their way into the new campaign.
We needed to be that team that came flying out of the blocks.
The restart had to work in our favour, didn’t it? A chance to reset; to shed some of the baggage that had slowed us down from Christmas onwards and an opportunity to further ingratiate the winter window signings in the new Norwich way.
A win against Southampton and it would be game on. Especially if those directly above us were to drop points. But, let’s be honest, from the moment Danny Ings pounced on that loose ball on the edge of City’s box and whistled it past Krul’s flailing right hand it was game over.
Since that moment, at no stage, hardly for a split-second, did any combination of XI players look remotely close to pulling off anything other than a disheartening slide back to the Championship.
At no point did they look like winning a game.
Rarely did they look like scoring a goal.
Always they looked fragile and vulnerable.
Other words that have been chucked around, and not just by me: gutless, insipid, weak, half-hearted, and distracted. All equally hard to contest.
And so it’s not relegation per se that’s so fuelled an agitated Yellow Army. That’s been coming for some time. But it’s the manner of relegation. The lack of fight. The absence of heart.
Where once there were yellow corner flags…
I’m positive this is not the case, but it felt (or feels) as if without a Carrow Road crowd or a vocal away following there to remind the players to give a $hit, they haven’t.
I mean, I know they do, and as others have reminded me, from afar, a debilitating lack of confidence can be easily confused for a lack of effort but, whatever the reason, with the prize so huge, the paucity of performance has been alarming.
I’ll not delve again into the stats but I guarantee whichever one you choose will be damning. Take your pick.
Yet, there will be those who remind me – in the comments here and on Twitter – that I’m being over-critical; that I should take a step back, appreciate what we have, and be grateful.
And I am. I appreciate we still have a club to support and that others have it far worse. I get that. I even still love the plan – to a point. But I don’t want to be looking two seasons hence in perpetuity. For once, I would love this club to grasp the here and now.
To go into the Premier League and know the odds are stacked against us is one thing; to do so and not give ourselves a fighting chance of staying is another.
Injuries haven’t helped of course and multiple things – not all within the club’s control – have gone awry, but to meekly accept that we’re Norwich City and these things happen feels wrong. Three Premier League relegations in seven seasons isn’t something to be proud of.
One day, just maybe, these invitations to dine at the top table will cease.