Great expectations are all part and parcel of football
In one of his less heralded film roles, John Cleese played a school headmaster whose carefully-planned journey to Norwich to address a teachers’ conference turned into a catalogue of disaster – yet there was always the chance that he might just make it in time.
At one stage, he turned to the pupil who inadvertently became his travelling companion and uttered: “It’s not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.”
Not for the first or last time in a movie, the “Norwich” portrayed was not really our fine city at all – remember Mike Bassett: England Manager. But perhaps those who live in the real Norwich, and in many cases live for their Saturday afternoons following their football team, can identify with fictional headmaster Brian Stimpson’s sentiments in Clockwise.
After several years of coping stoically with despair, City supporters were given hope in abundance by the manner in which they swept to the League One title last season. And now, after an encouraging start to their Championship campaign, with Paul Lambert’s men in fifth place after 14 games, they may be experiencing a bit more than that – the dreaded word “expectation”, which Lambert believes all managers at Norwich have to deal with. But is it all too much, too soon? The manager and chief executive certainly appear to feel there is a need to keep the lid on the fireworks box, to judge from their comments at the latest supporters’ forum.
David McNally applauded Lambert for punching above his weight and “transforming our football above anyone’s expectations”. But he stated that finishing in the top half of the Championship this season would be a fantastic achievement.
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Lambert argued that the “non-stop rise” City had experienced over the past 14 months was not guaranteed to last and admitted: “There might come a time when we wonder where the next win comes from.”
McNally outlined the Canaries’ careful approach, with a seven-year plan for re-establishing themselves as a Premier League club and balancing the books.
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The problem with such long-term planning is that circumstances – and personnel – change very quickly in football. Most clubs experience rapid ups and downs, and dramatic peaks and troughs rather than a gradual progression up the ladder, or a gradual slide into obscurity.
Success can be a very transient thing. It comes quickly and can vanish just as swiftly, as illustrated by City’s own recent history. Just 18 months after taking over a team that looked favourites for relegation, Nigel Worthington took City to within a successful penalty shoot-out of the Premiership. Two years later, they were back in the top flight – and down again inside 12 months.
And just 18 months after Mike Walker’s team knocked Bayern Munich out of the UEFA Cup, the Canaries were relegated from the Premiership. A few seasons earlier, Dave Stringer had transformed a doomed looking team into contenders for the Football League title in less than a year, but it was difficult to sustain, not least with the constant sale of top players.
The current board are keen to make more measured progress, not to fly too close to the sun and get burned. And it’s probable that most supporters would regard a top 10 finish this season as a commendable – if not “fantastic” – achievement. But the momentum created last season has not subsided yet and deep down, they will be hoping for more than consolidation. A tough November programme may yet change the picture, but if City are still in the top six at the end of the month, with nearly half the season gone, there is everything to play for.
And there is something to be said for striking while the iron is hot.
• BALE’S CAREER TOOK A TURN FOR THE BETTER ON COLNEY PITCHES
Norwich City’s first encounter with Gareth Bale at first team level was a costly one.
Almost four years ago, in December 2006, the 17-year-old full-back curled in a glorious free-kick to help Southampton to a 2-1 Championship victory over the Canaries at St Mary’s Stadium.
City manager Peter Grant spent much of his post-match Press conference berating referee Uriah Rennie for trying to take centre stage. “It’s all about him,” lamented Grant.
For most of us, however, it had largely been about Bale, who wreaked havoc on the left flank for the Saints that afternoon – with the valuable assistance of a certain Andrew Surman. The only surprise is that it has taken nearly four years from that day for the gifted young Welshman to start creating big headlines beyond domestic football, thanks to his thrilling exploits for Tottenham against Inter Milan.
One national newspaper yesterday cited an even earlier encounter with Norwich as one of the most vital games in Bale’s career, when as an injury-hit 15-year-old he helped Southampton Under-18s to victory over the Canaries in an FA Premier Academy League game at Colney in January 2005.
His impressive performance in what was, for him, apparently a make-or-break game clinched him an academy scholarship with the Saints, although it was not quite the 5-1 demolition job claimed by the Telegraph yesterday and nor did Theo Walcott score a hat-trick. Walcott scored both goals in a 2-1 win and was substituted at half-time, but seven months later he was in the Southampton first team as a 16-year-old, and less than 18 months later, after his move to Arsenal, he was in England’s World Cup squad.
Midfielder Adam Lallana, one of the most impressive players City faced in League One last season, was also in that Southampton side at Colney nearly six years ago. Bale, Walcott, Lallana . . . all in all, not a bad crop that year.