March 11 2014 Latest news:
Monday, August 20, 2012
Fulham 5, Norwich City 0: In the cold light of day, Norwich City lost a football match. Yet the total nature of the capitulation should be a cause of concern for the rest of the Premier League season.
Whatever else happens from this point forward, no-one connected in any way to the Canary cause should forget this dispiriting display. Fulham are a decent side. They were made to look like world-beaters.
Fulham have never lost on the opening day in the Premier League era. They will have had no easier assignments than this one. Fulham’s wage bill and total transfer outlay, like the majority of other top flight clubs, will continue to dwarf that available to Chris Hughton. But that does not disguise the fact Fulham were emphatically better without the ball as they were with it.
They closed down and harried when City were fleetingly in possession, and attacked with venom when the Canaries were frequently forced to hit reverse gear. John Ruddy aside, every outfield player in white was better than his counterpart. Given such a disparity, Norwich may well look upon the final margin of defeat with a degree of relief.
Detach the emotion, the raw sense of disbelief another magnificent turnout of away supporters must have felt as they trudged away from the Cottage, and it is still tough to remain dispassionate regarding the limpness of Norwich’s endeavours.
Frankly, it is ridiculous to even contemplate using the opening slice of 90 minutes to define a season nine months in gestation. Nor do Norwich’s squad warrant castigation. All bar two of the men on duty at Fulham were at the club when they slipped to the customary defeat in south-west London back in March.
The core of that group have carried City on their shoulders from the dark days of League One. Onwards and upwards through the Football League and beyond the limits of their supposed ability to an uplifting mid-table Premier League finish.
They are honest footballers. They have strained every sinew and wrung every last drop of fabled team spirit and undoubted technical quality at their disposal to make that journey such a thrilling one for those they represent with pride.
They are solid professionals. Hughton, media pundits or the messageboard fraternity for that matter do not need to tell them they fell so far short of the standards they have set that it was bordering on embarrassment at times as Fulham’s white line advanced upon Ruddy’s goal with apparent impunity.
They will know that any failure to accept personal and collective responsibility – from both management and players – and this season will be an arduous one. Better the wake-up call came on the opening day. Optimism does not need to dissipate into pessimism.
Any such attempt to file this game away in the drawer marked, ‘freak result,’ and City’s loyal support would have to rapidly become immune to watching their side swatted in such dismissive fashion.
Hughton received a tumultuous reception as he strode purposefully across the lush turf minutes before kick off to take up his position on the opposition touchline. The decibel level was only slightly less raucous when he returned after a chastening opening day experience. Hughton acknowledged the fans again, but the full extent of the dismantling he had overseen was evident on his features.
The experienced City manager is a proud man. That defeat and the manner of the loss will cut deep. His reputation, just like his players, is on the line every time a fresh Premier League test comes around. The richest club league in world football is an unforgiving place. Across the technical area stood the man who had put him on the path that eventually led to Carrow Road.
There was not a flicker of sentiment from Martin Jol towards his old assistant manager; not that Hughton have would entertained it. Top flight football is a cut throat business. The financial risk and reward is too great to show compassion in the white heat of battle.
Fulham are now where Norwich aspire to be. A stable, well-run, established Premier League club who illustrate with each passing season of membership it is possible to compete against the biggest and the best despite the obvious structural disparities in support, stadium capacity constraints and revenue streams. Fulham will have endured the same growing pains as Norwich will inevitably be subjected to if they wish to follow suit.
In 2007, they survived by a single point. The following season they survived on goal difference by virtue of a final day win at Portsmouth – and look where Pompey have ended up since. If days like Saturday are what Norwich must suffer to reach the stated objective, then the pain is worth it. City’s own recent history underlines what can be achieved from opening day disaster.
Hughton is a sharp operator. He is likely to take the same salutary lesson from the wreckage of this beating as those he selected for duty. Fall below the standard that Norwich is feasibly capable of producing at this rarefied level and the Canaries will more often than not get beaten.
The margins are too finely balanced for them not to perform to their collective maximum. Plunge to the level witnessed at Craven Cottage and they must be ready to batten down the hatches.
Andrew Surman and Anthony Pilkington were accommodated in a bolstered midfield designed to suffocate the central threats emanating from Mousa Dembele and the Cottagers’ insurance policy Mahamadou Diarra.
Grant Holt’s lone threat was to be supplemented by quick raiding midfield forays, with debutant Robert Snodgrass paired in tandem with his Scottish international colleague, Russell Martin.
Perhaps ironically given the final tale of the tape, it was the visitors who fashioned the best initial chance after the early sparring had receded. Holt’s cushioned flick around the corner from Ryan Bennett’s pass freed Surman. Momentary hesitation on his less favoured right foot was enough to narrow the angle and tip the odds in Mark Schwarzer’s favour as the big Australian shovelled the ball around a post.
In one flowing move, Hughton’s gameplan had been laid bare. Populate the midfield and then break with precision. It was an isolated incident of intent. Dembele and Diarra wrestled the initiative and refused to let go of it for the remainder of a contest in name only.
City were never able to get close enough as Fulham intelligently switched play at pace. The sweltering conditions sapped Norwich’s energy levels, but Fulham’s speed of thought and deed had a far more debilitating effect. Damien Duff and Alex Kacaniklic started to forage down the flanks. John Arne Riise moved into the vacant space to supplement the growing surge towards Ruddy. City dropped deeper. Bryan Ruiz should have punished a rare aberration from Norwich’s England man when a miscued clearance dropped at his feet. Ruddy redeemed himself midway through the half when he won a duel with Riise after the Norwegian had slipped Snodgrass’ attentions. Mladen Petric was given time and space – a recurring theme all afternoon – to control Riise’s angled ball and test Ruddy. The walls of the dam looked increasingly unstable. Yet Duff’s opener owed as much to his cool finish as it did the defensive indecision between Marc Tierney and the rest of Norwich’s backline. Bennett’s last ditch block foiled Petric, but relief was temporary. The Croatian rose above Martin and Tierney to powerfully despatch Duff’s corner.
Michael Turner will have better days in Norwich yellow. He could hardly have worse. The centre-back inadvertently deflected Petric’s speculative hit beyond Ruddy before the hour mark. The game was up.
All that remained was the margin of conquest. Kacaniklic stabbed past Ruddy after Dembele and Petric had teased Norwich’s harassed defence again before Turner’s attempt to rectify his miscued clearance ended with Hugo Rodallega sprawled on the deck. There was no need for fresh controversies involving Mr Oliver. Steve Sidwell applied the coup de grace.
As wake-up calls go, it was as loud as the jets screaming over Craven Cottage on their way into Heathrow. You hope the underlying message and the response is just as deafening.