Goals don’t win prizes for ageing Norwich – Interview
Thursday, 4th May 2017 17:52 by Clive Whittingham
Free-scoring, with parachute payments, and eight wins from the first dozen games, but no promotion push from Norwich City. Phil Harris explains where it all went wrong.
Assess Norwich's season for us…
PH: Norwich City has been a restless club of late. Six promotions or relegations since 2009, spanning three divisions, have entertained and exasperated in near equal measure and it is difficult, despite all that has happened, to shake off the sense that we are now back where we started in the mid to late noughties: a mid-table Championship side struggling with financial constrictions and a sloppiness which has allowed genuine opportunity to slip through our grasp.
At the start of this season, most supporters were anticipating the yo-yo’s familiar ascent and we began with a pleasing run of eight wins and two draws from our first 12 games. The team weren’t firing on all cylinders and, yes, there was an intangible *something* not quite right about many of the performances. But in a division without too many obvious bear traps, the narrative appeared set. However, a limp defeat at home to Preston in late October was followed by a catastrophic collapse at Brighton a week later. This led to a pitiful run of five straight league defeats which sent the yo-yo crashing to the lino and rolling under the sofa. There had been signs that all was not well, yet this was an unfathomably bad run from which the season never properly recovered.
Since then, the pattern has been one of consistent inconsistency – some flat-track bullying wins against inferior opposition at home and meek collapses, primarily away from home, against pretty much anyone. On the road, we’re flaky on an equal opportunities basis and are just as happy to lose at Rotherham and Burton as we are at Brighton and Newcastle. Even when we began nudging a little closer back towards the play-offs there was never really any confidence that the side could sustain a run of results and after almost any victory, no matter how exhilarating, the crushing inevitability of another limp defeat was just around the corner.
And yet, remarkably, in a season of disappointment, we are still somehow the second highest scorers in the division. Norwich are the only side to break 50 goals at home, with proper shellackings handed down to Brentford, Nottingham Forest and Reading. The latter was a frankly bizarre 7-1 victory against the play-off-bound Royals, which saw all but one goal scored in the first 41 minutes and a host of other gilt-edged chances fluffed in a game where 11 Norwich goals genuinely would not have flattered. Meanwhile the victory against Nottingham Forest contained two of the finest goals ever seen at Carrow Road - the first, a volley by Jonny Howson, genuinely up there with the Fashanu strike of yore.
So 150 goals in 45 Norwich games may, for some, paint us as the great entertainers. However, in reality, this team is the division’s underachievers, with an ageing squad appearing frazzled by expectation. There has been plenty to enjoy this season - some of it has genuinely been a lot of fun - but we know deep down that the best opportunity to bounce back from relegation is your first and next season, with huge changes throughout the club, will be a tentative step in to the unknown.
What went wrong for Alex Neil?
PH: Alex Neil’s dismissal in the week after another signature surrender away from home, this time at Sheffield Wednesday, came too late for many – and almost certainly too late to rescue any hopes of an unlikely sneak in to the play-offs.
He must take a fair share of the blame for what went wrong, although - in his defence - this season’s underachievement cannot be laid entirely at his door. This squad thought it was good enough and Neil’s “we’ll just score more goals than you” approach appeared to work early on. Yet this has been a side invariably unable to respond to adversity, who crumble when they go behind and who became all too easy to work out – particularly away from home. Norwich have only won one game from a losing position all season, suggesting a mental fragility, a lack of steel and a lack of direction which would ordinarily be the manager’s job to resolve.
Neil arrived in January 2015 as a punchy and sharp breath of fresh air. Confident and focused, he prided himself (in his own words) on meticulous attention to detail and results bore out his self-belief when promotion was secured at Wembley. Recruitment that summer was poor however and although steps were made to put this right the following January, Norwich slid out of the Premier League as much because of an absence of quality as management failings.
Nevertheless, Neil subsequently made a number of mistakes which – in fairness to him – he has admitted to in candid and honourable interviews since his dismissal. Primarily he failed to get to grips with the age of the squad and relied too heavily on players, who helped Norwich to promotion in 2015, to deliver once again, two years later. The glaring example of this flawed policy was the contract extension for Stephen Whittaker who was barely heard from after appearing in the play-off final and yet somehow was rewarded with another season on the basis of historical achievements.
This suggested a timidity of thought and a conservatism which had hitherto not been apparent and set the tone for a season where Neil appeared helpless and hapless in the face of surrenders away from home and the inability to beat a single team above the Canaries in the table prior to his departure. The attention to detail was gone to be replaced by finger crossing, team selections out of a hat and furrowed brows.
He’s young and I’m sure he’ll come again but he just couldn’t pull himself or the team out of the hole and his despatching in early March didn’t really come as a great surprise.
Who's in line for the job? Take it Irvine not being considered?
PH: Irvine has held the fort with good grace and it is clear from many of his frank pre and post-match observations that he understands the issues which need to be resolved. He has been told that there may still be a role for him at the club and by picking Alex Pritchard for every game, unlike Neil who fielded him intermittently, he does at least appear to have a greater understanding of who our better players are.
However, following a restructure of football operations at Carrow Road, newly arrived sporting director, Stuart Webber, will shortly appoint a head coach with names in the running including Uwe Rosler, Garry Monk and Michael O’Neill.
Rosler, after a blip at Leeds, is doing an outstanding job at Fleetwood and, if messageboards are anything to go by, supporters appear keen. The trick, however, will be to appoint someone with the appropriate level of ability and experience to lead a side that expects to challenge for promotion to the Premier League while also slotting in to a new management structure, as head coach, which eschews some of the roles of the traditional club manager. Supporters are not necessarily expecting a big name but they will expect someone who gets the team passing the ball while plugging leaks at the back. No easy task.
Some big names on the release list, Ruddy, Bassong etc; what did you make of that?
PH: The less said about the hapless Sebastian Bassong, the better. Remember Michael Turner? No, neither do we. Also shown the door this week have been Youssouf Mulumbu, a decent player on an indecent salary, beset by injury for much of his two years with the club; Ryan Bennett – who will doubtless return to his natural level in League One; Playboy Mansion’s Kyle Lafferty; Stephen Whittaker and John Ruddy – a good goalkeeper prone to periods of not being very good, but probably the player we will miss the most. Signed by Paul Lambert after promotion from League One, he’s seen it all at Carrow Road and will be given a proper send off by the faithful this weekend.
As this summary may suggest, the releases have gone down pretty well with supporters. A cull of players earning far too much money and delivering very little in return, freeing up salaries for a squad rebuild, has been long overdue. It may look to some like a desperate fire sale but the reality is that only Ruddy could consider himself unlucky not be considered for renewal while the rest have just hung around too long, not progressing, no longer delivering and, in some cases, absolutely stinking the place out. It genuinely feels like a weight lifted, although there is now a huge amount of work to be done to fill the gaps they’ve left behind.
There's been comings and goings at exec level as well, what's the story there?
Following two poor seasons, chairman Ed Balls (opinions of whom still appear to be wearyingly divided along parochial political lines) has led a review of club operations and the board agreed earlier this year to introduce a new structure which does away with the old CEO/manager model. In its place is a managing director to focus on club and financial matters and a sporting director to oversee all football operations, including recruitment and youth development. A new head coach will be appointed with the sole purpose of managing and preparing the first team squad.
Webber was appointed to the sporting director role in March and has already raised eyebrows with his uncompromising views on events at Carrow Road and his philosophy for improvement. He has a good track record in the game, most recently at Huddersfield Town where, in tandem with Head Coach David Wagner, the Terriers have risen from relegation probables to the play-offs.
Former CEO Jez Moxey is all but forgotten; a man who appeared to spend more than a decade winding Wolves supporters up in to an absolute lather before joining Norwich and going down like a lead balloon with the hierarchy and staff alike. The local press took an instant dislike to him also and a smug interview, exclusively with the club’s own TV channel at a point when supporters were restless enough already, hastened his departure. Steve Stone, the MD, and Webber have already shown an entirely different, more candid approach to supporter relations with recent fan-site interviews setting a pleasing tone.
Talk is cheap of course and until the club have the new structure entirely in place and a ball is kicked next season, there is no knowing whether it will be a success. But the portents are good and supporters are generally optimistic.
Who's in the running for POTY?
PH: In the same way that Paul Newman won an Oscar for the Color of Money, largely because he hadn’t won one before, Wes Hoolahan appears favourite for the award. Loved by everyone, he is still mesmerising defences as he approaches his 36th year and his sumptuous goals against Rotherham and Nottingham Forest are up there with his very best. But it hasn’t been the greatest season for the Irish Messi, he has been less influential than in his pomp and we are sadly coming to terms with the fact that his Carrow Road career will be ending sooner rather than later.
If Alex Pritchard had played 10 more games, he may well have been in the running and right back Ivo Pinto is a fan favourite with his buccaneering style and wide grin. Nelson Oliveira has been outstanding in patches and last season’s winner Jonny Howson, though occasionally quiet, is also likely to get some votes. Jacob Murphy’s season has tailed off but he has been the pick of the young players.
Personally though, my vote has gone to Cameron Jerome. He’ll miss more chances than he scores but he is, without question, the hardest working and most selfless player in the squad. He’s grabbed 16 goals this season and absolutely always puts in a shift. The lone striker role can be thankless and yet I’m not sure I’ve seen a more uncomplaining player in my life. He leads by example and is my stand-out candidate. CamJam for me. All the way.
Where does the team need strengthening for next season?
PH: Defence, defence, defence. Our supposed Premier League saviour Timm Klose has gone backwards at a velocity all but matched by the departing Ryan Bennett, while captain Russell Martin - a proper man and leader, but not a centre back - has been press-ganged in to duties frankly beyond his pay grade by the frailties of others.
With bullocking loanee left back Mitchell Dijks likely to return to Ajax in the summer and the future of Klose to be decided, the long overdue rebuilding of the defence begins this summer in earnest, with at least four new players required. It’s going to be very tough and the presumption that new partnerships will be fully-formed and ready for the August kick-off will heap pressure on to the new management team.
Further up the field, things look a little less fraught with a core of young players – Ben Godfrey, James Maddison, the Murphy twins and Alex Pritchard – all likely to continue improving. As already observed, goal scoring hasn’t been a problem and although there are issues to resolve in midfield, this is less of a priority.
It was a no-brainer to show the likes of Bassong, Lafferty and Turner the door but it will get more interesting as the summer progresses and decisions need to be made about older players who have contributed but who may need to be moved on to free up money and facilitate a change to the overall attitude, philosophy and direction of the squad.
It feels like we are at a crossroads, not seen since the appointment of Paul Lambert in 2009. The club, in its defence, has acknowledged this and the next three months will be the most fascinating in recent times. The decisions taken now will resonate for seasons to come. Get them right and there is no reason why we cannot have a crack at promotion next season. However, more false steps could lead to the wilderness and you only have to travel 40 miles south down the A140 to see quite how grim and dispiriting that wilderness can be.
The Twitter @kingswell, @loftforwords
Pictures – Action Images
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