Chris Hughton has managed to re-instil the belief in Norwich City
There’s every chance, when we look back on what will hopefully be a successful second consecutive season of Premier League football, the defining game within it didn’t even involve Norwich City.
It could be that the turning point for the club’s battle to stay in the promised land and secure all the riches that entails, came with England’s 5-0 victory against San Marino on Friday, October 12.
Cast your mind back to that week and things were looking glum, to say the least.
Seven games in and Norwich were second bottom of the league with just three points – still awaiting that elusive first league win of the season.
We’d just been on the end of two thrashings in a row, 5-2 to Liverpool at home and 4-1 to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. The defence contained more holes than the Titanic, we’d been made the bookies’ favourites to go down and player and fan confidence was horribly low.
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Even pundit Alan Hansen was putting the boot in, putting on his best Dad’s Army impression to declare that ‘We’re doomed’.
Survey the landscape six weeks on and it’s gone from barren and gloomy to lush and green (plus a bit of yellow of course).
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Five further league games have brought 11 points and we’ve had a memorable League Cup win thrown in for good measure.
Those defensive holes have been patched up and I write this on the back of what has to go down as one of the best results in Norwich’s 110-year lifetime – certainly one of the best in its recent history.
So what’s changed then? What did Hughton and his team manage to put right in those two weeks without a Premier League game?
Well, pretty much everything seems to have changed actually – everything that was bad anyway.
At the start of October’s international break I spelled out in this column exactly where I felt things were going wrong.
It wasn’t that I claimed to have some great insight ahead of anyone else – more that the deficiencies were there for all to see.
The six key areas I identified were:
• Work out a preferred way of playing, a settled team and a settled formation.
• Settle the centre of defence.
• Bring back the belief.
• Find a role for David Fox and Johnny Howson.
• Stop standing off.
• Attack, attack, attack – get our players higher up the field, in particular against the weaker teams.
Whether these were areas and issues worked upon during that break we’ll never know – I’m as unsure of what goes on behind the scenes at Colney as the next man.
But in the weeks since, all bar one problem seems to have been eradicated.
We have settled upon a preferred way of playing, namely a 4-4-1-1 formation. This has helped to settle the team as well as the centre of defence.
In fact the same first eleven has started the past three league games. Meanwhile, Michael Turner and S�bastien Bassong are building a solid partnership. It’s staggering to think we have let in just one goal in the past 450 minutes of Premier League football.
The belief is back and that has brought with it a renewed sense of urgency. Take both the Arsenal and Manchester United games – no standing off and letting the opponents dictate the play as we did in some of the early season thrashings.
And Norwich may not be scoring by the bucketload, but there’s been a noticeable improvement in our attacking play, especially on the wings.
This has been proved by the fact the last four league goals have all come from crosses. We’re not only getting more balls in the danger areas, but more players as well.
Granted we’ve not seen David Fox return and Johnny Howson has featured rarely.
But that’s mainly been down to two more factors that have been so instrumental in the turnaround – Wes Hoolahan and Alexander Tettey.
Back in October, Hoolahan’s season hadn’t really got going –Hughton was still trying to work him out, going through the same crisis in confidence that befall so many of the Irishman’s bosses – initially anyway. Tettey, meanwhile, had featured rarely.
Since the break, both have become the lynchpins of the side. Tettey brings the energy and drive and Hoolahan the magic.
I mention the name Paul Lambert with caution, but over the past few weeks Hughton seems to have taken some of the best features of the past few seasons and added several of his own ingredients at the same time.
So while the belief, energy and ability to pull off an amazing result was something mastered by the players under Lambert, the discipline, determination, brilliant wing play and organisation from the back is Hughton and his team’s own work.
All these factors are certainly forming a wonderfully magic potion at this moment in time.
• Some words from our chief executive David McNally: “Our guiding principles are always to focus on supporting our football team and serving our supporters. Retaining our Premier League status is the toughest challenge we face but the most rewarding opportunity we have. We have the best owners in the business in Delia, Michael (Wynn Jones) and Michael (Foulger), and they have supported this club more than anyone could possibly imagine. Alongside that, we want to remain solvent, and we cannot go back to the debts we had two years ago. We want to strengthen the balance sheet and reduce our indebtedness and increase turnover each year, so we can produce operating profits annually. We need to do this to give Paul the money the club needs. Any free cash will be re-invested in football.” These were the words he spoke at the club’s last AGM 12 months ago. A year on he just needs to swap ‘Paul’ for ‘Chris’ and he could probably read from the same script. That’s a sure-fire sign of a ship being steadily steered in the right direction.
• It would appear the idea of safe standing in grounds is gathering momentum yet again, with MPs being addressed on the issue next month by Paul Faulkner, Aston Villa’s chief executive and a leading proponent of the idea. I suspect we’ll see a trial in the UK in the next couple of years. Don’t expect to see Norwich City at the front of the queue however. I spoke to McNally on this issue earlier in the year and he was very cool on the idea.
• I have a theory as to why Grant Holt hasn’t and is unlikely to be called up for England. It’s the fault of Michael Ricketts, David Nugent, Francis Jeffers, Jay Bothroyd and Kevin Davies. Unpopular England managers have a history of being remembered and often derided for their ‘one-cap wonders’ and I just wonder if Hodgson feels it not worth the risk when there are more fashionable players he could turn to. He must know that if he picks Holt and he doesn’t perform, the national media are likely to enjoy pointing out that fact.
• I’ve become a Spurs fan in the last few weeks – and you may want to consider doing the same. The reason? Well I’m not trying to tempt fate, but if they keep struggling and Andr� Villas-Boas gets the boot, they might just consider it a good idea to turn to a former club legend currently doing wonders at a fellow Premier League club.