If you find yourself on the rota to preview a Norwich-Watford, game, the cardinal rule is “Don’t write it too early”.
The usual reason is the likelihood of Watford changing manager in the days before the game.
Though it would be rash to discount the possibility of Watford carrying out one of their regular executions before Monday, this time it’s City who wielded the axe. And we’ve had a game to help us gauge the outcome.
At this point, being a regular columnist here, I should be trying to persuade you of my sharp insight and perspicacious judgement.
Not this time.
I was happy with Dean Smith’s appointment and slow to accept the necessity of parting company with him. A decent and quiet-humoured man with a record of inspiring admiration and affection at his previous clubs, I thought he might be a good fit for us – certainly more so than Frank Lampard.
After 12 games this season our record was won 7, drawn 3, lost 2. The style wasn’t inspiring, but we were on course.
Some poor results followed, but the coaching pedigree of Smith and Shakespeare suggested that, with the opportunity provided by the World Cup break, they might inject the players with a fresh purpose and energy.
As I wrote my preview for Blackburn, that hope still seemed possible. After Blackburn and Luton, its unrealism was laid bare.
Smith had to go. When fans turn against a manager as ours did, it almost doesn’t matter whether the players back him or not; the mood in the stadium will inhibit them and we enter a vicious circle.
Credit to those who claim they saw all along that Dean Smith wasn’t right for us (assuming they really did). I can’t claim to be among them.
Meanwhile, of course, I’ve been following messageboards. A lot of:
“With our players, we should be doing so much better”
“There’s no way we should be losing to these teams”
“This should be a fortress – not a soft touch for visiting teams”
“The problems here are deeper than just the manager”
These sentiments are familiar to us – but perhaps not the specific comments. They’re not from Norwich’s messageboards, but Watford’s.
It doesn’t mitigate City’s shortcomings, but we’re not alone. Two changes of manager since the end of last season – par for the course with Watford – haven’t set either the team or the fan base on track.
While I admire and support much of Mick Dennis’ article here a couple of weeks ago, I part with him on one point. Yes, Norwich fans have greater expectations of automatic success in the Championship than they perhaps should. Having now watched most other teams in this year’s division, though, I believe high expectations of our squad are justified.
Ditto Watford. Neither of us should be 13 or 14 points adrift of the top two.
So what frame of mind might the two sides be in for Monday?
I’ll say Norwich’s should be more positive than Watford’s.
The draw with Reading was a “could have won it” story similar to previous home games like Wigan, Preston or Middlesbrough. But the mood was different, in parallel with a more positive approach from the players.
Their greater freedom against Reading will have partly reflected instructions from Allan Russell and Steve Weaver. But the absence of Dean Smith and the mood he provoked will have been a factor too.
Greater freedom and a more positive mindset will only take you so far. Clubs have given interim managers a permanent role on the basis of a few liberated performances, only to find that they lack the skills to bring about sustained improvement.
In terms of Monday’s game, however, it may be enough. For the first time in a while, the players will have enjoyed playing at Carrow Road and will be looking forward to more. Several looked happier and better than in recent games.
The return of Adam Idah to the side is a particular plus; his goal will have given him a real fillip.
No such encouragement for Watford. Like City, they’ve only won one of four games since the resumption. And it’s worsened: their deflating home loss to Millwall on Boxing Day was compounded on Friday by a 4-0 thumping at Swansea.
I can attest it’s a long journey home from Swansea to Watford. And it won’t have been a happy one for them.
Like Blackburn a couple of weeks ago, they’ll be keen to bounce back at Carrow Road. But they have significant injuries, notably to the impressive Joao Pedro (who I very much doubt will be playing in the Championship next season).
Watford still have dangerous players, not least Ismaila Sara who’s caused us plenty of problems in the past. In Yaser Asprilla, they have a mercurial young talent.
City, though, have more reason to go into the game feeling upbeat. The interim head coaches will be urging them to go one better than on Friday night and secure three points.
It won’t surprise me if they do.
Whatever the football brings us, I wish you all a happy and healthy New Year.