Alex Neil hadn't read the script ahead of Paul Lambert's big return to Norwich City
PUBLISHED: 07:00 24 January 2017
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Being at Carrow Road on Saturday felt like tuning in for one of those special Eastenders episodes when Grant Mitchell or Dirty Den make a surprise return to Albert Square.
With Paul Lambert back on the touchline, it seemed the perfect storm was brewing. All the hallmarks were there for another thrilling edition of the soap opera that is Norwich City. But if there’s one thing holding Alex Neil back from a job behind the bar in the Queen Vic it’s his constant refusal to obediently go along with the script.
It’s now getting on for five years since Lambert left. In Eastenders terms he departed in a taxi to ‘go and live in Birmingham’, which was code for ‘you won’t be seeing me every week, but when a story line needs a bit of livening up, they’ll probably throw me back in for an episode or two’.
No matter how much water has passed under Carrow Bridge since, the former City boss still carries an ability to get fans hot under the collar. Some were determined to give the old manager a warm welcome and use memories of his proud record at Norwich as another stick with which to beat the current regime. Others were insulted by such treachery and urged that bygones be left as bygones. It wasn’t, after all, the first time this ghost of seasons past had returned to haunt the stadium.
I’m going to indulge in a tremendous bit of fence sitting here by suggesting that both sides of this fearsome social media debate were equally in the right. That probably makes me seem like some sort of lily-livered Ian Beale type character but if you don’t mind watching my stall for a moment, I’ll explain.
The Paul Lambert era was one of the great times to be a Norwich City fan. From the depths of League One to mid-table in the Premier League inside two-and-a-half years that included two thumping wins over Ipswich, some pulsating last minute winners and successive promotions. It is one of those spells that should never be forgotten or written off as misty-eyed nostalgia.
I have supported the Canaries for long enough to know that these purple patches must be embraced, enjoyed and have as much entertainment as possible milked out of them. The lean years far outweigh the fat ones for regulars in the stands at Carrow Road so Paul Lambert, Grant Holt and co. deserve to be held in similar esteem to Mike Walker and Jeremy Goss for the UEFA Cup experiences and any of the famous 59ers for what they did.
If we can’t herald these relative success stories forever then what’s the point in turning up every week in the hope that we may, some day, see their like again?
However, having an instinct to wallow in folklore and tradition doesn’t automatically mean you’re against the here and now. It’s okay to like The Beatles and appreciate Ed Sheeran, admire Messi as much as Maradona or, in Norfolk terms, spend as much money in John Lewis as you did in Bonds.
Once the game was under way it didn’t really matter who was on the touchline. 25,000 people seemed to finally agree that the common desire was to see Norwich win. We all gasped when Johnny Howson hit the bar, cheered when Steven Naismith expertly tucked in the rebound and joyously booed when Carl Ikeme dared to floor Wes Hoolahan twice in the space of a few seconds.
Ultimately Lambert was undone by one of the very traits that made him such a popular manager at Carrow Road.
His willingness to affect change meant that all three substitutions had been made by the time his goalkeeper lost his temper. So we were left with the light relief that all great soap operas need, the site of an outfield player having to go in goal is always joyous.
Although why the home fans continued to sarcastically cheer any backpass to the unfortunate Matt Doherty was slightly baffling. If there’s one thing a stand-in goalkeeper of that ilk should be able to deal with comfortably it is a ball to feet along the ground.
In the end there was no cliff hanger ending, Norwich won and most fans seemed to go home happy with what they’d seen. Whatever theories or beliefs exist online before the game, supporters are united by the fact that while the main characters will change regularly, they will be there every week, year after year, keeping the whole thing ticking along with a reassuring sense of routine.
There’s no getting away from it, in the grand scheme of things we’re all just Ian Beales really.
The worry of ‘January limp’
I had a rare day off from commentary duties at the weekend which meant that I went to the football.
So it was much like any other Saturday really, although this time it was only those who were unfortunate enough to be sat in the nearby seats in the South Stand who were victim to my pontifications during the game.
Sitting amongst the crowd made me realise that the introduction of the transfer window has caused a brand new injury for footballers – ‘The January limp’.
Each time Robbie Brady went down during the game, fans around us were sceptical about his need for treatment. With so many rumours doing the rounds about his impending departure, supporters are bracing themselves for a possible goodbye to another Norwich City favourite.
It meant that when the physio came on to see to him in the first half against Wolves, there were a few tongue-in-cheek suggestions from the stands that he was having his phone brought out in order to check for messages from his agent, frightened that an injury could scupper a possible Premier League pay day.
Any real questions about Brady’s commitment were dismissed when he cracked home his penalty but I dare say that any knock he takes between now and January 31 will be received with all the seriousness of the complaints from school children who get a ‘tummy ache’ just before double maths each week.