How Canaries lack a beating midfield heart
RICK WAGHORN Fair play to Reading. They have been far and away the best team in this division and thoroughly deserve to walk away with the Championship title.
Fair play to Reading. They have been far and away the best team in this division and thoroughly deserve to walk away with the Championship title.
Why have they done so well? For one, very simple reason. They have been a team. From day one, the Royals have played to a pattern and a system that suits all concerned.
They haven't had any big stars wishing they weren't there; they haven't spent every other week trying to bang square pegs into round holes; they haven't had to run through the introductions time and time again as the team's midfield changes for the umpteenth time.
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Stevie Sidwell has long been a favourite in this neck of the woods as he bombs, box to box, week in, week out. Or rather most weeks. By his standards the one-time Arsenal youth product has had an injury-ravaged season. He's only played 36 games.
Alongside him, James Harper has been the model of Championship consistency. He's played 48 times for the Royals this season. He's barely missed a game. Harper and Sidwell - the midfield heart of Steve Coppell's team - have together, therefore, played 84 games between them. In every likelihood, that will top the 90 mark come the time the Reading board the bus in triumph and hold the Championship trophy aloft on the town hall balcony.
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How many times have the same central midfield pair played together for the Canaries this season? I've no idea. And, at this stage of the season, I've no inclination to pore over the records and try and work out just who was playing where that day. And if it is a midfield pair playing in a three, does that count as the two playing together?
No. The best - and most telling comparison - is to go back to 2003-2004 when Norwich did a Reading and walked through this division en route back to the Premiership.
And there, of course, stood Gary Holt and Damien Francis. And, yes, on occasion, one might play right-back, the other might play on the right-hand side of midfield.
But to all intents and purposes, Holt-Francis were City's very own Harper-Sidwell.
Certainly, in terms of player type, Sidwell and Francis are fairly inter-changeable.
And how many games to those two play in 2003-2004? Francis played 43 games, Holt 48 - a grand total of 91 games between them. The same as Sidwell and Harper will play this season.
And the point about such central midfield partnerships is that they invariably set the tone for the way the whole team plays.
Given that a UEFA Cup-esque sweeper system is hardly ever seen these days, nine times out of ten teams will set out their stall with four boys at the back. And, nine times out of ten, they don't set the style. That's the job of the midfield. Do we pass and play? Do we run all day? Does one sit, does the other go? That's where the tone is set; that's where a team gets its identity.
That's why when Youssef Safri plays you know, to a pretty good degree, how Norwich City will set themselves out to play.
And all the other players in the team know how the Canaries are supposed to play.
He disappears and try as Carl Robinson might to step easily into his shoes, the whole style question starts to unravel - especially when Robinson's new partner changes by the week too.
The point is that between now and August 5 Canary boss Nigel Worthington has to rediscover a pairing that is straight out of the Sidwell-Harper, Holt-Francis way of thinking. Something that he - and the rest of his team - can rely on to set the tone, week in, week out. Home - and above all - away.
Just as Palace have got Michael Hughes and Ben Watson, so Norwich have to find two players to form the central cornerstone of a solid, competitive outfit. And then stick with them.
That and keep your fingers firmly crossed that the pair stay fit.
MADEJSKI'S PRICE HIKE IS TAKING THE PROVERBIAL
Before we get too carried away by the Reading success story - that City-style 'togetherness' that underpinned Norwich's own title triumph - a word for Reading owner John Madejski after he threw a large spanner into those particular works this week.
For while the Thames Valley is an affluent area and while there will, undoubtedly, be a big demand to see Premiership football from the punters of Marlow, Bray, Maidenhead, Newbury and Slough, to hike your season ticket prices from £360 last year to £545 next is, in all honesty, taking the proverbial.
Particularly when Mr 'Thames Valley Trader' Madejski weighs in at Britain's 153rd richest man with an estimated net worth of £325 million.
Nor are the elderly spared the rod as your Reading OAP sees his season ticket rise from £220 to £385 for his first-ever glimpse of top flight football.
Madejski's argument is that the rises are needed to fund player arrivals in a bid to ensure that having got up, Reading stay up. Which, in one way, is fair enough.
The trouble comes when you don't stay up and, having set the bar that high, don't drop your season ticket prices accordingly when it's back down to The Championship in 2007-2008.
That's when you alienate your core support; those supporters who stood out in the rain at the old Elm Park and aren't your Marlow Johnny Come-Latelys.
“£500 is a bit of a psychological barrier,” said John Keen, of the club's supporters' trust. “The Premiership could price people out of going to watch Reading and that's a great shame,” he added.
Alas Mr Keen, that's the Premiership for you.