Another Norwich game – at this stage, who cares?
Well, there are one or two reasons to.
I’ll get to a preview of the game. First, with your indulgence, a detour.
A good friend of mine is a life-long Fulham fan. We share thoughts and reminiscences on the – remarkably similar – highs and lows our clubs have brought us.
Talking after Fulham clinched the Championship title this week, I said “I know exactly how you’re feeling”. He replied he knew exactly how I was feeling too – before adding that he was already dreading next season.
He said he envied me next season when Norwich would be challenging for yet another promotion. I baulked, as many City fans probably would right now.
While every relegation feels lousy, this season’s been as depressing as any since we went down to League 1 in 2009. Last summer was an out-and-out disaster: Covid’s wrecking of our carefully planned pre-season, accompanied by a set of signings that proved unfit for the immediate and prime purpose of staying in the Premier League.
Even with that bad foundation, we had a right to expect more spirit and desire from our players than they’ve often shown us.
So it’s hard to feel optimism as we stand. On sober reflection, though, I suspect my friend may be right.
Dean Smith and Stuart Webber both have exceptional records of preparing teams for the Championship. There’ll be changes to the squad this summer – something that wasn’t possible in January – to align it with the plans of Smith and Craig Shakespeare. Like his literary namesake, Shakey also knows a thing or two about his profession.
In the Championship context, we’ll have some significant advantages – including a core of players with the experience and know-how to lead us. And, of course, a passionate home crowd, if they’re given something to get behind.
Some would look at our season ticket sales and say our fans are too forgiving. But it’s a fantastic asset, as Dean Smith is well aware.
As a potential bonus, Smith and Shakey have another crack at solving the riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma that’s Todd Cantwell. There’s still a really good player in there somewhere.
Time will tell about all that. Meanwhile, there’s Saturday’s game with West Ham.
The Hammers suffered disappointment last night, losing the second-leg of their Europa League semi-final against Eintracht Frankfurt and so getting knocked out of the competition, but we know they’ll be tough opposition on Saturday – because that’s the way with David Moyes.
I confess I’m a long-term admirer. A few years ago someone published an analysis of Premier League teams, comparing their resources with league positions. The two were highly correlated, as they still would be: the clubs with bigger resources tended to fill the top positions.
But one exception stood out, a club that hugely over-achieved on the field in relation to its resources and spending: David Moyes’ Everton.
He’d done the same at Preston, and now does it at West Ham (who were in the relegation zone when he arrived in November 2017).
At Everton, he twice won the LMA Manager of the Year. For me, he should be a strong candidate again this year. The Hammers will fall just short of a Champions League spot – but look at the spending of the clubs around them, and the fact they’ve been in contention is nothing short of remarkable.
So: West Ham are still fighting to consolidate at least another Europa Cup spot, and they’re exactly the kind of pressing team that Norwich tends to struggle against. We’re relegated; our performances were insipid even before it was confirmed.
Why could we possibly look forward to Sunday?
Well, perhaps “look forward” isn’t quite right. But there’s a fair bit at stake, for City as well as the Hammers.
For one thing, it’s worth a couple of million pounds to finish 19th rather than 20th. I’d rather Norwich had that money than Watford; I suspect Dean Smith and Stuart Webber would agree.
There’s also the mood of the place.
The past fortnight has been one of turmoil and unhappiness in the Canary family. Showing some pride on the pitch would help take the sting out of fans’ discontent.
One thing I don’t expect is wholesale change in our team selection. That would undermine the integrity of the game and disrespect the teams around West Ham. Smith will try to put out his strongest starting XI.
That said, it may be that someone like Jon Rowe gets more game time than previously. Especially if the expectation of leaving at the end of the season – which seems to be the case for Milot Rashica, for example – shows in players’ performances and commitment.
I’ve long since given up making score predictions (though they were perhaps the most entertaining bit of my columns, when compared to the actual results). But I’m hoping Norwich will give a decent account of themselves and leave us with a bit of pride and optimism for next year.
Optimistically, I’ll proffer that there’ll be one goal in it.
Best wishes to all, and – despite everything – OTBC.