City facing cultural conundrum

PUBLISHED: 14:28 10 April 2006 | UPDATED: 09:21 14 September 2010

Right, here's a little conundrum for us all to ponder this summer. On it - in every likelihood - rests both Norwich City Football Club's hopes of returning to the Premiership this time next year and Nigel Worthington's medium-term job prospects.

Right, here's a little conundrum for us all to ponder this summer.

On it - in every likelihood - rests both Norwich City Football Club's hopes of returning to the Premiership this time next year and Nigel Worthington's medium-term job prospects. For someone, somewhere has to square a particularly stubborn circle.

Because everyone in this neck of the woods has been brought up - at least for the last 30 years - on City sides serving up a diet of pretty, passing football. To keep the natives happy Canary teams are expected to play pretty, passing football at Carrow Road.

That is why players of Youssef Safri and Phil Mulryne's ilk are afforded rather more time and patience than some; everyone in Norfolk loves a playmaker. It reminds them of Ian Crook. And Europe. And the Premiership.

That is why the club paid £650,000, or whatever it was, the other summer to relay the pitch at Carrow Road so Norwich teams can play pretty, passing football on their dreamy, flat, state-of-the-art surface.

The kind of flat, state-of-the-art surface that players like Darren Huckerby, Robert Earnshaw and Safri duly dream about. Because it suits their quick feet to perfection. They don't have to worry about the ball bobbling uncontrollably. They can play their precision passes without worrying where the ball might actually opt to bobble next.

And if Worthington, Doug Livermore and Steve Foley didn't actually believe in maintaining that glorious tradition of playing the Norwich way, then I doubt whether any of them would have either gone out - at considerable expense - and recruited the likes of Huckerby, Earnshaw and Safri. Let alone splashed so much cash on a flat piece of grass.

Now that's all fine and dandy. At home. On a flat, Carrow Road pitch when Safri is sat there, in the middle of midfield, pinging balls this way and that on the floor.

However when Safri has got either his groin, his gall bladder or the African Cup of Nations to worry about, it all starts to unravel.

And that's before we go away from home and try and play our pretty, passing football on a pig of a pitch. With a wind. And ten strapping lads smashing into you as if their own play-off hopes depended on it.

It's like asking Tiger Woods to play 72-holes around Augusta one week and then play on Mousehold pitch and putt the next. His game goes out of the window.

When you're playing in the Premiership, of course, every ground is Augusta; back in the Championship, it's off to Mousehold every other week.

City head to Deepdale on Saturday intent on playing the ball - just as they did at Selhurst Park and Turf Moor - and once Safri disappears and the ball bobbles for the first time, so their hearts start to sink.

Because if you can't play it through the middle, on the floor, because you've got neither the personnel nor the pitch to do it on, you're only alternative then is to hit the channels and play percentages - that one, big punt down the middle might, just, find Leon McKenzie heading the ball on for Earnshaw to chase.

Hitting it long, of course, invariably means asking either Earnshaw or Huckerby to head the ball - not one of their speciliaties. God gave them both toes that twinkled when the ball was at thier feet; He skipped on their head for heights.

So here's your conundrum - how do you set-up a team to play the way you want them to play at home, on that billiard table surface, and yet be able to play winning football away from home on something that all too often in this division resembles a ploughed field?

The real danger is that you get caught between two stools; trying to somehow stay loyal to the whole Bond-Brown-Stringer-Walker legacy, but - in these days of six-foot-plus, one hundred mile an hour football - needing to still be able to dig out results away from home in the teeth of that physical gale.

I'm not sure you can do it. Phil Mulryne can't get a game for Cardiff. And he can pass the ball for fun.

Get to Saturday's trip to Deepdale, take one look at the pitch and see no Safri on the team-sheet and Earnshaw and Huckerby know they're in for a long afternoon. It becomes even longer when Claude Davis digs one into Mckenzie's back with ten minutes gone and he disappears; even longer when, ten minutes later, Jason Shackell sends this thumping header crashing in off the underside of his own bar.

The second goal proves the point. Yes, fabulous whipped cross from Simon Whaley that persuades Gary Doherty to nick the ball away beyond the diving - and by now disbelieving Robert Green - but the ball only arrives at Whaley's feet after it has bobbled up and over Adam Drury's boot as the Canaries looked to play and pass their way out from the back.

Two goals up having had just one shot on target themselves, what do Preston do? Go 4-5-1, smother City in midfield and smash big, high balls upfield for substitute and lone striker David Hibbert to chase. And that's how they booked their place in the play-offs.

Against that system, Norwich never had either the time, the space or the simple physical presence to prise Preston apart. Nor, one suspects, at this stage of the season did they ever really have the sheer, do-or-die will to make something happen.

How do you the square the circle? Well, for those in the 'If you can't beat them, join them...' school of thought, the answer is probably very simple. Sell Safri and take a plough to the Carrow Road pitch.

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