I hate making footballing predictions. They make me anxious. The thought of being constantly reminded of my ineptitude and poked with a sharp stick whittled from my own pathetic punditry is enough to make me avoid making rash statements.
As for second guessing Norwich’s fortunes? Mug’s game. Last season I wouldn’t have hesitated for a second if asked if City would stay in the Premier League.
“There’s three teams worse than us,” I’d cheep like a happy Canary.
Well, you know the rest.
The trouble is that sitting on the fence doesn’t make for a scintillating read. In fact, it very much does the opposite.
That’s not to say that I’m going to pack my petrol blue City away shirt and inflatable Canary in a case and jump aboard HMS Pi.ss the League without a care in the world. Nor am I going to leave a note on the mantlepiece for my nearest and dearest, before succumbing to the pessimism and lack of hope shown by those hanging around in the dark corners of Norwich City fans’ Facebook pages.
There’s no doubt about it, this is an exciting squad. It’s a mix of genuine potential and proven Championship performers. It’s one that should be capable of making the play-offs – but would be disappointed not to be in the running for the top two. I would expect these guys to shoulder the burden of expectation and make an immediate return to the Premier League.
There. I’ve said it. There’s no going back. I can hear wood being cut to a vicious point and etched with the legend ‘Made in Suffolk’ as I type.
If we fast forward to the successful conclusion of the Canaries’ 2021 Championship promotion campaign, who are the players being held up as the heroes? Who is being announced as the new Mayor of Norwich and showered in Mad Dog 20:20 on the balcony of City Hall?
For me, Jordan Hugill will be pivotal. He’s not going to score 30 goals this season (in fact I would be surprised if he got 15), nor carry the entire team on his back. His signing is important because of what he can potentially offer the team in terms of support for his fellow strikers, nous and physicality, and helping us to be more adaptable in terms of playing style during games.
So often last season we turned up for Premier League fights lacking aggression, determination, and a knock-out punch. Very often it was like Alan Partridge had been thrown into a world-title bout with Tyson Fury.
Hugill is going to be a huge help in making us be that bit nastier, stronger, and imposing. We’ve all moved quickly to hold him up to the light and compare him with Grant Holt, so I won’t spend any time doing this. What I will say is that if he’s only half as influential as the legendary Number 9, we’ll have a very decent player.
I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but we’re pretty good at scoring goals in the second tier. And we weren’t too bad in the Premier League, especially at home. We outscored Manchester City, dismantled Newcastle, and scored goals against teams that finished in and around the top four, such as Chelsea, Leicester, Arsenal, and Tottenham.
Current reasons to be cheerful are that architects of those goals, the likes of Emi Buendia, Todd Cantwell, and Teemu Pukki, remain City players.
Okay, yes, the transfer window is still open. I acknowledge there may be some late big money bids to come. Yet I think there’s every chance we’ll be seeing these guys play at Carrow Road at least until the January window opens – if not beyond. If that is the case, we’ll see goals. Lots of them.
Even without those guys we have hungry, young and technically proficient attacking talents like Adam Idah, Josh Martin, Przemyslaw Placheta and Daniel Sinani waiting for their opportunity to prove themselves.
Now, let’s not start popping the champagne corks and savouring the sweet taste of success just yet. The season could offer something far more unpalatable – under achievement. If this is the case it wouldn’t be because of the power of our attack, but our porous backline.
Quite often it’s difficult to mount a defence of our back four – the amount of crimes against football they have committed over the last three seasons under Farke are many. From being utterly averse to man-to-man marketing at set pieces to playing loose balls direct to the opposition in our final third, we’ve done much to regularly shoot ourselves in the foot.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve got Emi, Todd, Teemu, Jordan, or even Lionel Messi on a free transfer, if you’re careless at the back then you will lose games. If you’re old enough to remember Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle of the late 90s then you’ll know that to be true.
If we don’t address our defensive frailties, then we’ll continue to be our own worst enemy. I fear no Championship team more than our own ability to gift goals courtesy of a head-in-hands defensive howler.
We can’t point the finger of blame exclusively at our back four. It wasn’t helped in the Premier League by crippling injuries nor a midfield that was not fit for purpose defensively. The two midfielders deployed to shield Tim Krul and company were often not up to the rigours of top-flight football. And even in the most intense onslaughts they were rarely helped out by the three attacking midfielders’ work rate either. (Though Onel was an exception in the closing stages of the season.)
It doesn’t matter what your defensive wall is made of, if the pressure is unrelenting then it will crumble. Let’s hope the imminent arrival of Ben Gibson will help address this.
The arrivals of the highly-rated Oliver Skipp from Spurs, the lively Kieran Dowell from Everton (who shone for Wigan in the Championship last season), and the Danish U21 international Jacob Sorensen will give the midfield extra ballast and energy. While Spanish full-back Xavi Quintilla looks a decent capture, having a fully fit quintet of centre-backs to choose from is as important and morale-boosting as a new signing.
Christoph Zimmerman, Grant Hanley and Ben Godfrey (and Gibson) will carry the greatest responsibility and workload this season, with Tim Klose likely to be the back-up. Get Sam Byram fit and I think we’ll be in a very decent position defensively – especially if Jamal Lewis and Max Aarons remain City players for the foreseeable.
We can also fall to our knees and thank the Lord Stephen Fry that we still have our Dutch master in goal. He is by far the best goalkeeper in the Championship and will be worth 10–15 points to us next season.
The Championship is the footballing equivalent of quicksand, but I think we’ve got a squad capable of avoiding getting stuck in it. None of us need to have any psychic ability or special footballing insight to know this will be a long, tough, emotional season.
I’m feeling confident in Webber’s recruitment, Farke’s football, and a squad with depth. So much so that I’m going to stick my neck right out and predict our 2020/21 journey will end at Wembley – there would be no better way to celebrate promotion than to win the FA Cup.