A crowded division
David Cuffley Norwich City's Championship survival mission was still not complete as they headed west for today's match at Bristol City - but planning for the next promotion assault is already under way.
Norwich City's Championship survival mission was still not complete as they headed west for today's match at Bristol City - but planning for the next promotion assault is already under way.
If the Canaries safely negotiate their way into safe waters over the closing weeks of the season, as they should, manager Glenn Roeder believes the very even nature of English football's second tier - with just 15 points between the teams in sixth place and third from bottom before today's games - offers them real hope of challenging again for a place in the Premier League, if, and it's a big if, he can recruit the players he wants in the summer.
“If we could get the right people in, then yes, definitely,” said Roeder. “First we've got to make sure we get ourselves as quickly as we can over our winning line.
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“We're already looking at players. I was up in the North East on Monday watching a game but it wasn't Newcastle, Middlesbrough or Sunderland. Some people would say it was North Yorkshire.”
In this instance, his trip to a League One game - at Hartlepool, to judge from the fixtures - was not a fruitful one. “A wasted journey” was his verdict. But there will be plenty more scouting missions to come for Roeder and his staff as he prepares for the next campaign, hoping to find the extra ounce of quality that will give City the edge in what could be another tight division.
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He said: “It's incredible. I'm not an expert on the Championship but I've got a picture in my mind where, normally at this time of the year, there are two or three teams who have burst away with 80 points already. And what is the top team on? Not even 70 yet. And that is why it's so squeezed at the bottom.
“The teams at the top have been beaten by the teams at the bottom. We've seen Preston beating Stoke, then Queen's Park Rangers beating them and they were top of the league going into that week.
“I know we lost to Stoke 1-0 but we were the better team on the night, there's no doubt about that. And I think we more than matched them in the away game when we lost in the last minute.
“And they could well be in the Premier League next year. The swing on ability between all the teams in the Championship is very narrow this year.
“I personally think there is one team that is better than the rest. For various reasons, I don't know why they've not shot away.
“That's West Brom. I think they play good football as well and I think they've got the strongest squad in terms of having decent footballers and players in every position doubled up.
“So as long as the FA Cup semi-final doesn't get in their way - or even the final if they go to the final - I think West Brom will be one of the automatically promoted teams. I think they will deserve it anyway.”
But while he believes City can challenge at the top end of the table next season, Roeder is under no illusions about the difficulty for promoted teams in trying to stay up.
“There is a big gulf, a massive gulf,” he said. “I don't care what anyone says. Apart from the occasional FA Cup shock, you've only got to look at Derby. There is a huge, huge difference. So anyone who says there is not is just trying to con you, con the supporters.”
He said Championship players were, in most cases, playing in that division for a reason.
“They have Premiership performances in them during the year but they're not consistent enough and that's what keeps them in the Championship rather than in the Premiership,” he said. “That will be one factor - consistency - and another factor would be the physical aspect of those individual players.
“Lots of them, although they can play to a Premiership level at times during the year, physically they can't maintain it.
“And I've always said, if you take the football away, let's have a sports day - 100 metres, 200 metres, 400, 800, 1500, throw the javelin, shot put, whatever, the Premiership squads would blow the Championship squads away - blow them away.”
Portsmouth were an example of a team that had bucked the trend by reaching the Premier League and staying there, but it was thanks to big money and sound recruitment, said Roeder.
“Money well spent keeps you up, like Harry Redknapp has done at Portsmouth,” he said. “He's always managed to be in a fortunate position of having wealthy owners, whether it's Mandaric or this Russian guy.
“But what you would have to say with Harry is that he's spent it well. As he says, he's spent it on a certain type of player.
“When he went to Portsmouth the average height was something like 5ft 10 in and now it's 6ft 3in because he realises he needs athletes and good footballers - because Portsmouth play good football, very good football.
“You've only got to look at the goalkeeper and their back four. You wouldn't fancy taking them on at anything.”
t CITY GET GREENER BY THE DAY
City's Yellow and Greener campaign came under the spotlight at last week's home match against Colchester with a half-time recycle race involving Bertie the giant bottle and the club mascots.
A whole range of environmentally friendly initiatives have been introduced by the Canaries as they try to reduce their “carbon footprint”.
Bottle bins, recycled mobile phones, electricity from renewable sources, re-usable bags and the Flybe Canary Express coach service are all worthwhile ways of promoting a more green approach.
How long before the club stops flying the team to long-distance away games and has a cycle shed built for the players at Colney?