As ever when Canaries and Black Cats meet, it’s to my old mate from the brilliant Wise Men Say podcast that I turn, Stephen Goldsmith. We managed to have a whole conversation without mentioning the Friendly Cup – which was a first.
G. When we last spoke, in August, you’d made a decent start to life in the Championship and were hopeful that, with a fair win behind you, you could have a good season that would take you at least halfway and possibly to the cusp of the playoff places. Overall that was a pretty good shout and, aside from the three recent defeats, that’s exactly where you’d have been. Do we talk about those defeats or do we look at the bigger picture?
S. A bit of both. When we spoke back then, I think, after a few years in the doldrums, I overestimated this division a bit. Some of our players really stepped up and suddenly we were tearing teams apart with our attacking play and, for the most part, going to the match has been a joy due to watching this young team.
We tried to refrain from getting carried away (PTSD) but by the time in-form teams like Blackburn, then, in particular, Boro, came to the SoL in the second half of the season we were beating them at full value and you started to think, “maybe it’s on”. But our story to that point had a middle part to it that played an unavoidable narrative – and that was when we lost our only two strikers to injury.
Frankly, despite a couple of good results during this period, our form and performances dipped and unless you have a midfield consisting of the likes of Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas, playing without anything resembling a focal point is unsurprisingly difficult.
Though our PPG dipped, we were certainly still competing, and once Ross Stewart and Ellis Simms returned the recovery was instant. Everton then recalled Simms, leaving us with only Stewart, but that was fine, because even if we couldn’t get Simms back in January, there’s no way the recruitment team wouldn’t learn from their own mistakes and leave us short in that area.
I mean what if Stewart got injured again? Oh, he did? and we brought in only one striker in response didn’t we. A young loan player from Leeds who clearly isn’t a number nine. Well, here we are all over again, only this time our form is even worse than last time.
So it’s difficult not to be really disappointed with our form, knowing it could’ve been avoided. The manager’s plea to ensure we a) had more than one striker in the squad and b) to find cover for our only experienced central midfielder, Corey Evans, was ignored/unachieved.
So while it’s been great to see the results of our recruitment policy bring us some young, hungry, talented and energetic players (not to mention a business model to buy young, cheap and make a profit is clearly a sensible one financially) the reluctance/inability to deviate from it even slightly for the benefit of the short term is going to cost us a very realistic and genuine chance of being in the playoffs.
It feels like they have decided a crack at promotion is ahead of schedule for them and therefore not on the agenda. They might dismiss that as being ridiculous, of course, but it’s hard not to be cynical based on the evidence of their transfer strategy and to not be pi**ed off with them for leaving us short when it felt like it was there for us. Especially when the guy who is the public face of it all can never admit we fell short, or even tried to address the issues. He doubles down on it, suggesting it was a judgement call to leave us without any strikers in the squad.
I knew you were short of strikers but wasn’t aware of the chain of events that led to it. Given that you’re only six points shy of the playoff places, as you say, a bit of short-termism may have made a massive difference.
We can’t, of course, ignore the Alex Neil saga. Who knew that 24 hours after our game in August he’d be lured by the bright lights of Stoke-on-Trent?
S. Was absolutely gutted at the time, and I’m not remotely surprised that last week he brought a side here to play against a team low on confidence, who are trying to stumble along without a convincing shape or system, and managed to construct a tactical plan to win (maybe not to that extent). The way he left us in the first place sticks in the throat a bit. He had only been here five minutes and we were on a high still after the Wembley promotion.
And, of course, on a shallow level, I think any fanbase would struggle to accept a manager leaving to go to another side in the same division, who they perceive to be far from a step up. Then once it becomes public knowledge they are on a better contract, then of course that manager is going to get certain things labelled at them. Before playing you lot, he had a pre-match press conference that he just didn’t show up to, before going to watch his new side play the next day, while nothing had even been announced. Bit sh1t that, really.
In hindsight, I don’t think he is the man to work under this setup – i.e. developing young players with next to no control over who comes in – and while the current striker debacle may prove he feels vindicated in not wanting to work under such a transfer strategy, I can see it from the club’s point of view too.
As mentioned in the previous answer, I do feel we need to be more flexible on that front, but from a financial sustainability perspective, the general template we are now using is the correct one. We know more than anyone that allowing a manager to throw money at bringing their own players in just doesn’t work in the long term.
Because once they leave the cycle starts again and it all becomes an expensive mess that gets you nowhere in an upwards direction unless you have an outstanding manager with a track record. And Alex Neil certainly doesn’t have the CV to be the man you would place your trust in to break the process.
Hard to argue with that. In general, how has Mowbray been received in Sunderland? And any discernible differences in playing style to Neil?
S. Vastly different. Neil is pragmatic and incredibly studious of the opposition. Mowbray is very much “let them worry about us” and it’s led to some truly wonderful, attacking football. When it clicks it’s brilliant, and to go over old ground, if Ross Stewart was fit I’m convinced we would be in the top six come the end of the season. I’m honestly not sure I could say that I think the same would have happened with Neil in charge, I think with possibly a better overall squad at Stoke, he generally hasn’t set the world alight, and I do wonder if that is down to never being able to back his players enough to go and express themselves, like as if it’s just not in his nature to do that. It is certainly in Mowbray’s nature!
But you want a balance of the two I guess, and we can bemoan our luck of not having a proper striker available as much as we want, we are where we are, and I am a bit concerned that Mowbray maybe doesn’t have the tactical nous to change things up completely, even if just for a couple of games to try and stop the rot, to mix it up a bit and try and get some confidence back.
That said, he will probably argue there’s only so much you can do with the players he has available. With Corey Evans out for the season, we have Dan Neil as the only fit midfielder who can sit and before Mowbray arrived he was very much considered an attacking midfielder!
Having watched you several times on TV, you look a proper threat going forward with Jack Clarke, Pritchard, Patrick Roberts and Amad Diallo. Are we right to be fearful? (It’s a given that Pritchard will score on his return to Carrow Road by the way).
S. Pritchard bizarrely played alongside Neil as an 8 last Saturday and it was one of the many things Stoke took advantage of. As stated previously, when the players you mention click they are a delight to watch. Amad (on loan from Man U) has gone off the boil a bit lately, but he’s a step above this level. Rotherham, Coventry and Stoke have set a clear blueprint to beat us. We have no focal point (have I mentioned this?) so they have bullied us in the middle of the park knowing we have no out-ball when we need to relieve a bit pressure.
They’ve allowed us to have possession, dropped ten yards further back and then hit us when our attack inevitably breaks down. Yet, despite the Stoke performance being a write-off, against Rotherham and Coventry we played some decent stuff at times and still carried an attacking threat. So it’s gonna be all on you, this.
Stand off us and look to dictate yourselves, play all nicely, then we may have a chance if you leave gaps. We have the players to hurt you. Take the approach of the other sides and we’re in big trouble. I do worry that whatever you/we try, our confidence is that that shot we don’t have a hope regardless.
Never underestimate the power of the ‘Along Come Norwich’ factor. Regardless of our form, we’re always the team to play if your confidence is flagging and you need a boost. Defensive cock-ups are our specialty.
But what have you made of our season? Has our David Wagner-induced improvement registered on Wearside?
S. I don’t think one person in the world was surprised at his appointment. He’s arguably the most Norwich appointment you can get, isn’t he? You’ve recovered under him and the fixture has come at a bad time for us. The playoff race is really exciting and I think you may just creep into them. I think you, Boro and West Brom have shown that, sometimes, making a change is right, even if everyone on the outside is trying to lecture you on why it isn’t.
I can’t see you slipping out of the promotion picture in the next two or three years so it’s all about putting a run together and seizing a chance if it comes. Something we could take on board ourselves.
You have more confidence in us than I have to be honest, although our win at Millwall last Saturday was the type you need as you approach the run-in. I’ve supported this lot for far too long though to get overly excited over what feels like a turned corner.
You’re right about Wagner being an unsurprising appointment. My dad calls him “Norwichy”.
Anyway… enough about us, how far can you go this season? Playoffs still a possibility?
S. Not for me. For the reasons discussed. Hey, did I tell you about our striker situation?
Striker situation? You have a striker situation? 😀
As an aside… thoughts on Sky and their decision to play both of our games this season at lunchtime?
S. Pathetic but unsurprising. We’ve seen it many times over the years and it needs some sort of intervention. They all pretend to care about fans don’t they, but they absolutely don’t. They see Sunderland and Norwich as two of the bigger teams in the league so select it as one of their live games, which you can understand from a broadcasting point of view, but the EFL broadcasting windows aren’t great, lunchtime and evening kick offs to fit round the Premier League schedule.
Again, understandable from their perspective, but do you think during selection discussions that they debate, even for a second, about the high costs and inconvenience this type of fixture causes fans? Well, you know the answer to that. Sunderland are a draw outside the top flight and this year we’ve been on Sky more in one season then I think I can ever remember, so I know it’s not realistic to expect them to be overly accommodating, but you’d hope they would factor distances into these decisions.
Last one… standard… score prediction for Sunday?
S. My head tells me we going to lose comfortably but I’m going to hope the law of averages factor comes into play and we stop the rot. One thing you can’t label at this young side is that they go into hiding. They’ll always have a go and in a way, I would rather you than a Rotherham. Let’s go for 1-1.
Cheers ol’ friend. Appreciated.
So when we make our usual silly defensive mistakes do they have the players capable of taking the gift? And their midfield sounds a bit weak, just what we like. Assuming the football Gods haven‘t bet against us we should and can beat sides like Sunderland. A big club Sunderland and glad to see them clawing their way upwards again.
I’m going to give the predicted 1-1 scorelines about 15 mins to become busted.