Admitting failure, Chris Hughton’s demeanour, missing out on Dwight Gayle and Norwich City getting schooled by their own vision – Six Things we learned from the Championship weekend before Christmas
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With Christmas fast approaching and festive spirit in short supply at Carrow Road, Michael Bailey offers six talking points from the weekend’s Championship action – starting with the faltering Canaries…
1 – An admission of failure
It was probably only professional pride that prevented them calling it outright; there was still the qualifier to take each game as it comes for now.
The thing was, 24 hours later and wins for Newcastle and Brighton arguably underlined the point Alex Neil and Jonny Howson made on Friday.
We are still one game away from crossing the halfway mark of the current Championship campaign, and City are 15 points off the top two.
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As good as being promoted through the play-offs is, it’s the toughest route and far from the one you’d want to rely on.
So for the Canaries, their sizeable parachute payments and dwarfing wage bill, to already be so far drift of the easy route back to the top flight – and actually ruling it out as an option – is about as damning as it gets in the first half of a season.
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Howson’s assertion that City went on a stunning run to earn promotion two years ago – and were so close to doing it automatically – of course shows all sorts of things are possible.
But this situation is more dire than the one Neil inherited – and the man who turned that one around isn’t about.
2 – Chris is in his element
There was a tweet from one Norwich City fan floating around on Saturday night, lamenting Chris Hughton’s spell as manager at Carrow Road – regardless of what the ex-Spurs defender had managed in his other jobs at Newcastle, Birmingham and now Brighton.
There is one crucial caveat in all that, of course. City remains Hughton’s only real Premier League job and, as was seen when Hughton took charge of a Brighton side scraping for Championship survival just two seasons ago, things tend to be a little more sticky when he’s having to fight against a more negative situation.
But when things are flying, it works – probably best illustrated by his remarkably restrained celebrations when Albion picked up a stunning injury-time win at his former club on Saturday. More on that in a bit.
Newcastle are shoo-ins – but the reality is, Albion should be treated as such too. They racked up the points last term, added astutely to their squad without losing anyone of note, their current unbeaten run is now 16 games and it’s all there for them if they want it.
3 – Gayle force raises the bar
There are a few signings and misses that have defined Norwich City’s progress for years: The arrival of Darren Huckerby, the six months too late signing of Dean Ashton, the non-purchase of Dean Windass and the remarkable story of Grant Holt’s City career.
Maybe there should be one more added to the mix.
It was August 2015 when Dwight Gayle was on Norwich’s wish list. As soon as they failed to recruit Steven Naismith, they looked to bring in the Crystal Palace forward – but lost on the virtue of taking too long and allowing Palace to sell Glenn Murray to Bournemouth, therefore not feeling able to let Gayle exit Selhurst Park too.
Firstly, should City’s recruitment have ever really put Naismith ahead of Gayle?
Secondly, Murray is now doing City more damage as he leads Brighton to the top table.
And finally, Gayle could have kept City in the Premier League. Either way, he has 17 goals for Newcastle in the second tier this term. In the best squad in the division, he’s proving a cut above.
4 – At least we’ve now seen the vision
Let’s ignore playing well come the second half when you are already behind – because in reality, that’s a very different situation to having a known philosophy and ideal you want to show off, and delivering that with your own game plan from kick-off.
There was a side at Carrow Road on Friday that played with high energy. They moved the ball with tempo and quality. Almost every pass in that first half fizzed to its destination like an arrow.
They had just one striker in their 4-2-3-1, yet the movement and energy provided a fluidity that meant there was more than enough support in attack when they needed it.
It’s hard to imagine having a conversation with Alex Neil where he would say Huddersfield didn’t embody a lot of what he would want his side to do.
The City boss said his team looked leggy against an opponent that was always going to play with energy and tempo – which surely offers some serious questions over Neil’s original team selection.
But the reality is Huddersfield have outworked a lot of sides this season. City have rarely looked like doing that throughout 2016.
5 – Evolution matters
Almost exactly two years ago, 10-man Huddersfield were being brushed aside at Carrow Road with a 5-0 second-half salvo inspired by Nathan Redmond.
That was before Alex Neil’s arrival. Once the Scot was in charge, it took a very late show from Jamar Loza to pick up an away point in the return.
The Terriers were battling for survival that season. Last season, under David Wagner for most of it, they didn’t once break into the top half. But this season is very different – as their statement City performance underlined.
Three of Huddersfield’s 18 were also named in their squad at Carrow Road two years ago; only two were involved in the return fixture.
City had seven named in both Carrow Road 18s; nine in the last two meetings.
The respective managerial situations impact all that but given the Terriers’ clear progress, clear plan and players suited to their roles and requirements, it shows how wrong City have got things in the last 18 months.
One more point: the average age of City’s XI on Friday was 26.9 years old; it was just above 27 when I checked earlier this term. Huddersfield’s was 24.5.
6 – The promotion rivals find a way
It’s often the late ones that linger; the ones that feel like they define a season.
Well this is what we got on Saturday alone.
There was a Steven Fletcher penalty in the 94th minute that earned Sheffield Wednesday a 1-0 home win over Rotherham.
Reading’s winner in their 3-2 victory at Blackburn Rovers came thanks to George Evans’ strike in the 92nd minute at Ewood Park.
Leeds captain Kyle Bartley headed the hosts to a 1-0 win over Brentford at Elland Road in the 89th minute. Almost early, that.
Barnsley will still feel they have a shot at the play-offs this season, and Ryan Williams’ 95th minute strike in their 4-3 win at Cardiff will help.
And as I’ve already nodded to, Glenn Murray’s headed winner for Brighton at Birmingham also came in the fifth minute of stoppage time at St Andrew’s.
All bar one of those sides are above Norwich in the table.
And the only times the table doesn’t really lie is at the end of the season – and at halfway.
Meanwhile City have come from behind to win – or even draw – just once this season.