Thursday, February 7, 2013
Norwich City have served up their share of highs this Premier League season, but the scale and manner of their opening day reverse at Fulham was a painfully desperate low.
Others might view FA Cup defeat to Luton or heavy losses in both fixtures against Liverpool as potential rivals, but Fulham was meant to be the dawn of a new era. Instead we got a jarring introduction to Chris Hughton’s tenure on a day when City’s collective deficiencies were ruthlessly exposed by a well-drilled Cottagers’ outfit inspired by Mousa Dembele.
Life has changed dramatically for both the Belgian and the Canaries ahead of this weekend’s reunion. Few at Craven Cottage that sweltering August day would have backed City to be on level terms when Fulham arrived in Norfolk.
Martin Jol’s men now head Norwich only on goal difference in the current Premier League standings – in large part a result of that 5-0 drubbing. Dembele has departed for Tottenham but another craftsman has filled the void in Dimitar Berbatov.
The pre-match talk over the coming days will predictably centre on some common themes; revenge being the obvious one, bucking the historical trend another, with Norwich’s last home victory in this fixture dating back to the mid-1980s.
Both extraneous factors which ultimately will have no bearing on how Hughton and his players approach the task. City have continued to experience chastening setbacks since the opening day, but they are a far more cohesive outfit – bolstered by the arrival of men like Sebastien Bassong and the passage of precious time for others such as Michael Turner and Robert Snodgrass to grow within the fabric of the squad dynamic.
Picking through the carcasses of City’s darker days this season emphasises the rate of relative progress. Norwich were too open, too sluggish, too defensively naïve down by the Thames. Fulham were sharp, inventive and ready for the battle.
Norwich, by way of stark contrast, looked like a work in progress; which of course they were always going to be with a manager and a group of players still in transition. It is perhaps worth noting only six of Norwich’s starting line up that afternoon have remained permanent fixtures in a largely settled Premier League rota. John Ruddy in all probability would make seven, but for his long term thigh injury, yet that is still a substantial overhaul in such an abbreviated period.
Fulham was less the starting point of Hughton’s reign but the beginning of an evolutionary approach to equipping the Canaries with a method to survive and, during concerted phases of the season, prosper. That is why Fulham’s return this weekend is much more fascinating if you look beyond the easy headlines.
Not only does it present a fresh opportunity to secure that long-overdue first top flight win since beating Wigan on December 15, but it also serves to measure both the contrast and the rate of development in City’s growth under Hughton.
In many respects Fulham is the club Norwich should strive to become; a regular Premier League staple with a similar-sized infrastructure in terms of stadium capacity and support base – albeit run along vastly different ownership lines.
The Cottagers’ can afford to make the odd marquee signing in Berbatov or a Bryan Ruiz, but Jol and his predecessors have also made the most of the extended European transfer market to unearth cost-effective talent such as Brede Hangeland. The foreign imports are integrated into a domestic core of players like Aaron Hughes and Chris Baird along with quality operators in the shape of Mark Schwarzer and Damien Duff who have spent their careers at the top level in this country.
Fulham had their brushes with relegation in those first few uncertain seasons back in the Premier League, but now they appear a club who have adopted a winning formula if success is framed in top flight longevity.
But all that forms part of a much longer process.
The 90 minutes at Carrow Road this weekend is really about proving Norwich have caught up on the pitch with their opening day conquerors.