Eleven and a half months ago Paul Lambert walked out on Norwich, closing the door on three of the most successful, enjoyable years in the history of the club. Trying to make sense of the season that followed, the season that just ended, is difficult.
The feeling upon the appointment of Chris Hughton was a tense excitement, eager to see what a new manager would bring to a successful side. Hughton enjoyed, and continues to enjoy, a reputation as one of the finest men in football, a bright coach often overlooked for a number of reasons, finally getting a secure gig in the top flight. And he had big shoes to fill – it would have to take some spectacular results to get through the season without criticism.
The approach Hughton has taken has been evolutionary, rather than revolutionary – but this doesn’t always mean progression. Early season form was poor and the signs had been there in pre-season, and it became clear where Hughton saw his priority when an entirely new backline of Whittaker, Bassong, Turner and Garrido began to regularly take to the field. A criticism of Lambert was his defensive prowess, yet under the tutelage of Hughton this was to become a strength. Early season hammerings to Fulham, Liverpool & Chelsea made way to solid performances and 1-0 wins ground out over teams as varied as Stoke, Man Utd and Arsenal. But the margin was always fine. It took Norwich until the 37th game of the season to win a match by more than one goal.
At one stage we held the 2nd highest unbeaten record in Europe, and entered December just a couple of points off European places, but a long term injury to John Ruddy coincided with a downturn in form and a protracted period of poor results. Not just results – performances. The pendulum had swung entirely – after the gung-ho Lambert years in which we found it hard to keep clean sheets, came defensive performances in which we found it hard to create chances. Holt was clearly not enjoying ploughing a lone furrow, frequently out of position on the wing or deep, and players were struggling, through instruction or not, to support him.
This was exemplified in Johnny Howson whose performances towards the back end of the first Premier League campaign had been storming. Under Hughton he was played in a different role – withdrawn, disciplined, unable to break forward in characteristic bursts and make an impact in the box. He was regularly the last man back at set pieces, and played deeper than Bradley Johnson. Johnson was the flipside – a player who clearly grew under Hughton’s management and justifiably claimed third place in the Player of the Season voting. But the shape of two deep midfielders was always there, and between January and March we endured a series of 0-0′s in which this seemed imbalanced. Playing two defensive midfielders at home against the likes of Fulham and Newcastle stunk of a lack of ambition, and fans were beginning to question it.
Hughton himself had said it wasn’t always ideal to play with one up front and that chances were harder to come by than he’d like, “but you need to have the right balance.” Yet with 2 wins from 19 games, what suggested the balance struck was right? January came and went, with the only notable signings a Championship striker and an MLS import – the latter having a huge impact in one game, and a muted impact in the rest, even if he did rouse the spirits in the stands.
Indeed, against Everton it felt like a tide had turned. The late comback was all too familiar to Norwich fans, and it didn’t go unnoticed when Hughton claimed post match he would have settled for the draw, but the players pushed on for the win. Settling for the draw felt like a common occurrence, especially away from home, a sort of homage to the Nigel Worthington era where turning up at exotic locations in Sunderland or the North West and trying to get a point seemed ambitious.
Yet the more Norwich struggled, the more basic things became. The football, once crisp and sharp, became one dimensional, aimed at the head of Kei Kamara or Grant Holt. Possession became a thing of the past, especially with David Fox, third placed in the previous years Player of the Season voting, never making it off the bench, and the defence would get deeper and deeper. Make no mistake, matches became a chore, and staying up one turgid result at a time looked like the way things were going. Thanks to the early season form we never looked in danger of being involved in a relegation battle, but as the months wore on, teams around us picked up points while we struggled to pick up goals.
And then another turnaround happened; 2 wins in 19 became 3 wins in 5, shackles broken and goals flying in. Seven in the last two games, three away to Manchester City on the final day. Yet it wasn’t through any change in tactics – the one up front remained. A sudden spurt of confidence, a renewed belief they could actually pass and move, seemed to surge into the squad. Howson, limited as a defensive midfielder, came alive in the final three months to dominate a midfield with driving runs from box to box and tireless performances in harassing the opposition. After a night of praying for a Swansea win to relegate Wigan, Norwich found themselves safe by eight points. In 11th. Better than last season.
But is it better than last season?
Well, relatively, yes. The bottom half of the Premier League clearly got worse, as evidenced by the fact all of us were in a relegation battle until the final fortnight, while Spurs missed out on the Champions League with a records point total. Yet Norwich, objectively, also got worse – points wise, we finished with less than we did last season. This paradox, of finishing higher with less points, is leading to plenty of us to ask where the club is, realistically? Have we moved forward this season? There are clearly ways to see this – the defensive performances were mostly excellent, and players like Ruddy, Pilkington, Snodgrass, Howson, Turner, Bassong and Johnson all shone at different times. We never looked in danger, until we looked in danger.
And yet, have we moved backwards? Stylistically, you could also make a claim. The lack of tactical nous and Hughton’s seeming inability to alter a game once its getting away from us was clear all season. Substitutions were late, players were clearly unhappy fulfilling certain roles in the team, and some never even got a chance.
And so a club either second or third smallest in the league, with a budget to match, finishes secure in mid table with a promising future. Debts are cleared, exciting new players are on the horizon, and Hughton has the chance to put the final nail in the Lambert years and make the team truly his. But when a fan calls Canary Call and claims to still want Hughton gone, he isn’t alone. For the heroics of the final two games, against two teams with nothing to play for, the anguish of the previous 19 matches is stark.
Will the real Norwich City please stand up? Because after 38 games, I still don’t know which it is.