The opposition may have the same coloured shirts, we may go in as big underdogs once again, the game may be the same, but the atmosphere will be totally different.
While last time around City faced the pressure of the largest crowd they’d played in front of as a team, in 2021 it’s the weight of expectation they’ll be fighting against. The task for Daniel Farke’s side is to avoid being crushed by it.
Make no mistake, there will be very few Canaries fans heading to Carrow Road expecting to open with three points. While the Reds have perhaps passed the peak they were entering in the summer of 2019, they’re still a Champions League side with a wage bill that dwarfs City’s. They’re still expected to be comfortably in the top four mix while City contest a relegation battle.
What’s different this time, however, is that the Canaries stand a chance this season. Farke repeatedly stated that survival would be a “little miracle” throughout 2019/20; a stance he won’t be taking for 2021/22.
The players that haven’t been improved upon in the transfer market have a season of Premier League experience to draw on, and the make-up of the squad Stuart Webber has assembled allows for increased versatility and game-by-game tactical tweaking, whereas a rigid 4-2-3-1 was the only way previously.
Besides, no matter what the expectation was before kick-off on that surreal Friday night, there’s not much you can do to legislate for a ball slicing off your captain and into the net in the seventh minute.
Grant Hanley’s transformation since that moment – from laughing stock on his haunches to crucial rock in the middle of a sturdy defence – epitomises better than anything City’s metamorphosis. Whether the ‘fleet-footed King of Dumfries’ will be involved this weekend remains contentious given his minute-less, Covid-destroyed pre-season, but the fact that he’s even an option highlights the 29-year-old’s improvement.
Along with Farke’s “little miracle” trope sits Webber’s admission that he “sent Farke into war without a gun” in the list of key Norwich City metaphors. The latter has been perhaps the most repeated quote this summer, Angus’ arrival leaving the obvious joke simply irresistible for many.
In Webber’s own words: “Now (Farke)’s got a gun, a few grenades and a bazooka. We haven’t quite got a tank yet, maybe that’ll come in the future when we stay up a few seasons.”
To contextualise this business, the Canaries have spent around £50million on fees this summer, while the £750,000 they paid for Sam Byram amounted to the total spent on permanent arrivals in the summer of 2019.
All of this meant that, despite losing 4-1 two years ago, City fans actually felt relatively positive post-match. It was all about performance, which in hindsight was a naïve take on the best league in the world.
The difference now is that City fans have been there and done it, bought the t-shirt for £50 and seen beautiful football fail to yield results. It’s all about staying in the top flight this time around and there’s no room for ‘free hits’ or time to acclimatise.
Saturday is about the points: simply the first of 38 opportunities to get them; first of 19 opportunities for Canary supporters to have their voices heard; and the first opportunity in 18 months for a packed Carrow Road to yell ‘On the Ball City’.
Of course, football is all about the fans and as an occasion, Saturday night will be spectacular, but the desire to win and the pursuit of success is what gives supporting a football team meaning.
There’s something in the air in 2021/22. It feels different to 2019/20.