11/12 Review: 6. Zak Whitbread
It’s 17 May 2012 and Zak Whitbread is released by Norwich City. My heart nearly breaks. A tear forms in my eye. A cruel twist of fate as I come close to finishing my Whitbread wordings. However, with a heavy heart, what follows is my review of the strawberry blonde defensive lynchpin’s final season at Carrow Road.
Back in August with the sun shining, City started their first Premier League season since 2004/05. After a shaky display on opening day against Wigan and the 4-0 League Cup defeat we shall never speak of again, Zak had hardly set the world alight. With the possibility of a very small man crush developing on the American-Scouser though, I retained faith in his abilities. And then injury struck.
After limping off against Chelsea in late August with a hamstring injury, Whitbread wasn’t seen until the home game against Newcastle on 10 December. By this time Russell Martin had impressed at the heart of the defence. Alongside him though, Leon Barnett’s heart-in-your-mouth style of distribution had many fans on his back, so it was only right for Lambo to recall Zak. In what was not a major shock for a Norwich City defender, Zak was to set up a pair Magpies goals, losing Ba when the ball was played over the top for the first, and with a wayward pass for the second. Ba finished to punish sheepish defending, but with City winning the game I put Whitbread’s errors down to rustiness.
In the next couple of months Zak truly showed his worth to the squad, and cemented my view that he was easily our best central defender. When the Fulham game came around on New Year’s Eve, Dani Ayala had recovered from an injury lay-off and the Canaries went on an unbeaten run that would last throughout the whole of January. It was during this time I felt the Yank/Spaniard partnership was our most effective of the season, and indeed results may suggest this. Both players are good with the ball at their feet, which added an extra element to our game. Zak excellently organised Ayala who, despite being talented on the ball, was still rash in the challenge, and his older head really helped the youngster at times. It was during this period that Zak really displayed his leadership skills. Whether this was because the two were fluent in Scouse, we may never know.
Then, on 21 January 2012 a miracle happened – Norwich actually kept a clean sheet, and against Chelsea to make it even more impressive. In the battle of the blondes, Zak kept Torres quiet all afternoon and the Spaniard was eventually hauled off. It was one of the best defensive performances I’ve seen at Carrow Road for many years. Whitbread was first to every loose ball, there for every block, dealt with everything in the air and was firm and decisive in the tackle. The favoured football saying ‘body on the line’ comes to mind. Even the media were complimenting him after this game, and he was the hero of many a Norwich City blog. Zak’s best ever performance in a City shirt? Definitely. And, with that many superlatives, it was only a matter of time before that man crush grew deeper.
In our next home game against Bolton, Zak and Ayala both picked up match ending injuries. This was to be the last we saw of the Whayala partnership. With only one loss, a turgid performance away at Sunderland in which no-one came out with any credit, it’s a shame we never got to find out how the combination might have flourished.
Whitbread returned from injury against Manchester United at Fortress Carrow Road and his headed assist set up Holty for THAT goal. Strawberry blonde sets up top banana.
During the next four games the Ward/Whitbread partnership was restored. It worked well again. Results were mixed, but both Zak and Ward dealt comfortably with Stoke’s famous style of play at The Britannia. The American-Scouser again heading away most that came his way, even if his passing was off in an awful ‘game’ of football. Whitbread nearly scored against Newcastle in mid March, but was also perhaps at fault for the Toon goal. It was during this game that the Norwich Fanzone commentator on Sky referred to Zak as a ‘strawberry blonde defensive lynchpin’. I’d dared him to use it before the game on Twitter; at least there was something to cheer after defeat.
Against Wolves the next week at home, Lambert played three at the back. City won the game but Whitbread was not as effective in a wider defensive role. This formation was again used at Fulham at the end of March. This was a game where Zak struggled, getting caught out of position several times as he tried to set up attacks. He was taken off at half time, and would never play in a Norwich shirt again; injury again disrupting his season.
A frustrating season in terms of injuries, much like the rest of his Norwich City career. Commanding, aerially good, handy with the ball and consistent when in the team. But this was the problem; fitness. It’s a crying shame we never saw Zak have a prolonged stint in the team – I very much believe he could have become a City great. In two and a half seasons at Carrow Road, he played just 1 in 3 games. Whether this was one of the reasons Paul Lambert decided to let him go, or whether it was contractual, we will probably never find out. In terms of performances, another contract would definitely have been justified.
So, as a memorable season ends, only two questions remain. Firstly, will we see Zak playing against us next term, and more importantly will my friend receive the Whitbread marriage proposal she craves? One thing’s for certain though, she won’t be the only interested party in acquiring Zak’s services this summer.