A season that's best forgotten

CHRIS WISE There has rarely been a dull moment for Norwich City fans since Nigel Worthington took over as manager five-and-a-half years ago - but all that was to change over the course of the 2005-6 campaign.


There has rarely been a dull moment for Norwich City fans since Nigel Worthington took over as manager five-and-a-half years ago - but all that was to change over the course of the 2005-6 campaign.

After a series of seasons to remember this was undoubtedly one to forget, with the Canaries failing to make an impact at a lower level following their painful exit from the Premiership.

Supporting City went from being a real pleasure to something of a pain as Worthington's side fell well short of expectations, with disappointing results and a distinct lack of entertaining football turning the smiles into frowns, the joy into anger.

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The play-off final in Cardiff, the emphatic title triumph and the heroic failure in the top flight - all quickly became distant memories as a significant number of fans turned on the man who has done so much to transform the fortunes of the club.

Where there was once togetherness there was division, as an ugly split developed in a previously harmonious camp. Some seemed happy enough to give the manager time to turn things around while others backed a 'Worthy Out' campaign that gradually gathered momentum over the course of the season.

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A public meeting was called at St Andrews Hall to discuss "the current situation at Carrow Road", protests were held outside the ground and anti-Worthington chants were heard inside it. Robert Green reacted angrily when a sarcastic chorus of 'hoof' followed a long clearance up field in the game against Stoke while Andy Hughes looked crestfallen as his every touch was jeered following a mistake against QPR. On regular occasions the home crowd descended into an eerie hush during a poor passage of play.

There were one or two highlights that's for sure, and in the end the Canaries did well to rise above the unrest to finish ninth in the table, but overall this was a campaign that will live in the memory for all the wrong reasons - and I dare say most fans will be absolutely delighted to see the back of it.

You won't need reminding that City started the campaign as 6-1 favourites to make a swift return to the Premiership. The previous season may have ended on a disastrous note with a humiliating 6-0 defeat, but with Dean Ashton still on board, and a number of solid Championship players having been added to the squad, hopes were high that Worthington's team would make a serious impact now they were facing the likes of Brighton, Hull and Crewe rather than Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United.

How wrong we all were.

The tone for a bitterly disappointing season was set in the first three games, all of which were staged at Carrow Road. The fact that Coventry's Ricoh Arena wasn't quite ready for the opening fixture handed the Canaries a glorious chance to steal a march on their rivals by making full use of their home advantage. But sadly it wasn't to be, as first the Sky Blues and then Crewe and Crystal Palace left Norwich with 1-1 draws.

The pressure was already on. And when Worthington's men then suffered three defeats on the trot to slump close to the foot of the embryonic table questions were already being asked about the manager and his ability to steer the club back to the promised land.

The Canaries duly took three points from their must-win home fixture against a poor Plymouth side, and then bounced back from another depressing defeat at Watford to edge past Ipswich in a scrappy encounter at Portman Road - but those matches summed up what was to follow for the next three months.

Try as they might, City just couldn't get any consistency into their game, with the occasional good result all too often being followed by a couple of terrible ones, with the back-to-back away defeats at Luton (4-2) and QPR (3-0) being a classic case a point.

Norwich's travelling army - as loyal a bunch as you are ever likely to see - started to turn on their manager during those fixtures. They had applauded the players after witnessing their sorry exit from the Premiership at Craven Cottage - but the sight of them losing in feeble fashion to two pretty ordinary Championship teams was too much to take for some.

"Worthy Out" chants were heard at both Kenilworth Road and Loftus Road, while the first example of gallows humour from the Norwich fans provided another sign that all was not well. When a drunken Rangers supporter dashed on to the pitch near the end before falling in an undignified heap as he attempted a highly ambitious somersault, up went the chant: "Worthy, Worthy sign him up!" It was the sign of things to come.

Attention inevitably started to focus on the men Worthington had added to his squad during the summer, and there was no getting away from the fact that few of them were making a big impression.

Loan signing Calum Davenport looked good, that's for sure, while his Tottenham team-mate Dean Marney also did a solid job before being struck down by a season-ending Achilles injury. Most fans were prepared to give Dutch new-boy Jurgen Colin the benefit of the doubt, but Jason Jarrett, Andy Hughes and Peter Thorne - whose progress was hindered by a knee injury - all struggled to win the supporters over, as did Matthieu Louis-Jean, who quickly faded from the scene before picking up a serious hamstring injury.

With many of the new-boys taking time to settle, and star man Ashton failing to produce the goods on a regular basis after signing a new long-term contract, City were struggling at the wrong end of the table. And they hit rock bottom at Derby on December 3 when a truly dismal 2-0 defeat left them with just 23 points from their opening 22 games - a recipe for relegation if repeated over the second half of the campaign.

When the Canaries went 1-0 behind at Crewe in their next game the writing appeared to be on wall for their long-serving manager, but his side bounced back from the brink by winning the game 2-1, thanks to a late brace from substitute Paul McVeigh, and then notched up four more victories over the festive period to soar up the table and move to within a point of the play-off zone.

Worthington won the manager of the month award for December and one got the impression that a corner had been turned. But the manager's critics - of which there remained many - clearly believed there was still something fundamentally wrong at Carrow Road -and were able to say 'told you so' as City started 2006 with four defeats and a draw to drift back into bottom half of the table.

The Ashton saga certainly didn't help Worthington at that crucial stage of the campaign. Despite having "committed himself" to the club back in August, the young striker wasn't backing up his statements of loyalty by his actions on the pitch and had a look of young man who wanted to be somewhere else in the majority of his games. He took his tally for the season into double figures with a superb hat-trick against Southampton just before Christmas, but that was a rare bright spot and it wasn't a huge surprise when he left the club during the January transfer window, with West Ham paying over £7m for his services.

Worthington re-invested almost half that sum by bringing in another proven goal-scorer in the shape of West Bromwich Albion's Robert Earnshaw. He joined Dickson Etuhu and Carl Robinson and loan recruits Jonatan Johansson and Zesh Rehman in a new-look squad and although results gradually improved after the low-point of a home defeat against Ipswich it was not enough to ignite a late charge for promotion.

The Canaries had simply left themselves with too much to do, with frustrating away defeats at Burnley and Preston finally putting paid to any outside hopes of finishing in the top six.

You wouldn't have guessed it from the reaction of some of the fans, but, based purely on the results, the Canaries actually displayed play-off form after that defeat at Derby, taking 39 points from 24 games. But those statistics can't disguise the fact that the quality of football served up by the men in green and yellow often fell well below the standards expected by their demanding fans.

Generally when you look back on a season you can pick out a good number of games that set the pulses racing. But not his time. The 3-1 home victory over the Saints that featured Ashton's hat-trick was a decent match, as was the 2-1 success over Hull back in September.

Away from home Norwich played really well in the second half at Leeds on their way to a 2-2 draw and served up some good stuff at Bramall Lane on Boxing Day to beat high-flying Sheffield United 3-1. But, generally speaking, there was a distinct lack of thrills and spills over the course of the campaign, with tense, workmanlike wins, lacklustre defeats - and precious few draws - being the order of the day.

Now it's over all I can say is bring on the summer - and let's hope the 2006-7 campaign is a vast improvement. The current managerial team will struggle to survive if it isn't, that's for sure.

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