Issues to tackle for Norwich City but no cause for worry
Chris Lakey If ever there was a need to find inspiration for the new season ahead, then cast your eyes towards Blackpool. If Blackpool, with average crowds of less than 9,000 last season -can win promotion to the Premier League, then anyone can.
If ever there was a need to find inspiration for the new season ahead, then cast your eyes towards Blackpool.
If Blackpool, with average crowds of less than 9,000 last season -can win promotion to the Premier League, then anyone can.
They will be a constant inspiration for many managers who need to give their players a mid-season lift. Others, Norwich City among them, will site their own attributes as sufficient evidence of their ambitions.
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City's relegation to League One was perhaps the one step backwards the club needed to take it two steps forward. It prompted a change of philosophy, a change of outlook and a change of personality.
Paul Lambert's arrival and subsequent demeanour was the public face of the new Norwich City; businesslike, efficient, everything kept in-house. The doors were closed, the curtains pulled shut and business taken deadly seriously.
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It wasn't the hackneyed “no one likes us we don't care” motivational tool, it was simply a new hard-nosed approach to business and football.
Fast forward a year and League One success is some proof that the attitude worked - and that it will serve the club well in the Championship.
Why the optimism you may ask, after Watford spoiled City's homecoming on Friday night by winning 3-2 at Carrow Road?
Well, first of all, Blackpool didn't win any of their first four games last season and City famously lost their opener in rather unnecessary fashion. It's not clutching at straws to suggest that August isn't the month when titles are decided, is it? It's a marathon not a sprint and all that.
Matches are won on the field, but the demeanour off the field has to be right - dug-out and boardroom - and it's very different nowadays .
No one's saying the team will go and sweep everything in its way: on the evidence of Friday there are issues to be overcome before we can begin to think about escaping from the top end of the division. What few expect is that the disappearing act will be done at the bottom end this time.
The last time City were promoted was in 2004, when they went into the Premier League with a very different attitude: more enjoy the ride than enjoy the stay. You doubt that David McNally and Lambert are the types to view any football match as a “jolly”, so it won't be a case of approaching it in the wrong way. The attitude will be to finish as high as possible - and that means top. There is no use aiming for anything but the title: if not, when in the season do you say “it's okay, we don't need to win this game”? Any football manager worth his salt will demand win, win win.
Don't ask Lambert if the natural conclusion is that win, win, win translates into, 'we want to win the league'. As he pointed out last week, he's not going to supply headlines that easily.
As a club, Norwich was like a fish out of water in League One. There's not an element of snobbery in that statement: Carrow Road is a ground that belongs higher up the league. Whether City are a Championship or Premier League club is up for debate, but you don't get the feeling that the powers that be are gearing themselves up to become the dominant force in the second tier of English football. Again, what's the point?
To that end, Lambert acted quickly in the summer to put together a squad that will compete at the top end. He wanted Fraser Forster back from Newcastle, but didn't get him - the only time a loan player has been mentioned in the same breath as “City's Championship jigsaw”.
The over-reliance on loan players was part of the reason for City's demise, so don't expect to see too many.
However, he did get seven other players - at least six of whom were his first choices. Centre-half Elliott Ward has Championship experience and a �1m fee on his CV: perhaps his career has gone off the tracks a little, but he has a pedigree, and if Zak Whitbread can stay fit long enough to show his undoubted class, then with Michael Nelson and Jens Berthel Askou, City have options.
Four centre-halves, but they were the focus of attention in the pub conversations after the Watford game: Ward and Nelson both had their moments as Danny Graham and Marvin Sordell left them at sixes and sevens. At times they looked like rabbits caught in the headlights.
Nelson has the excuse that it was his first taste of Championship football, but Ward has enough experience to have known what to expect. The hope is that Zak Whitbread returns to fitness soon and provides the competition that should improve performance.
That's where City lost the game on Friday - and if it doesn't improve, they will lose a lot more.
Up front Lambert managed to bring in Simeon Jackson from Gillingham: a fine player who will grow in to the Championship. Just give him time. Jackson, Grant Holt, Chris Martin and Oli Johnson - should be enough.
City do need Holt to get up to speed - forgive the pun - quickly, though. Martin Taylor swallowed up every cross that came his way on Friday and it wasn't until Holt came on near the end that he looked ruffled. Holt doesn't have to touch the ball to unsettle a defence and had City been able to find some momentum, he could have made a difference.
It's in midfield where Lambert has made his most important changes. Andrew Crofts, David Fox and Andrew Surman line up behind Wes Hoolahan: finding a better midfield quartet than that at this level won't be easy. Crofts is the engine, the enforcer, the other two, with respect, more easy on the eye.
The prospect of seeing them all in serious action at Carrow Road is an enticing one, although those who fear for their strength on away days will have been lifted by watching their physical efforts of recent weeks. Fancy dans they're not; just good footballers.
With respect to everyone else, it was the signature of Surman that was the real eye-opener. Having come through the ranks and excelled at Southampton he went to Wolves, but, surprisingly, didn't cut it at Premier League level. But he's had the taste and enjoyed it: his intention is to return, with City - so we have a good footballer here for the right reasons.
Why, then, did they struggle on Friday? Watford pressed and gave them little time to settle and pass, especially in the first half, but when the defence is creaking, the midfield is less secure. Crofts likes to drive on, as he showed with his goal, but he was forced deep.
No City side is complete without Hoolahan, and those who saw him against Newcastle and Everton will have witnessed a player who really looks like he's enjoying his football.
The position Lambert found for him worked, and while it has switched a little on the evidence so far, putting him behind Holt and Chris Martin in a Championship environment could be as fruitful as it was in League One.
Hoolahan expects a little more time to play in the Championship, and given the quality of the three men behind him, perhaps opponents will struggle to double team him: they ignore others at their peril.
He may not have enjoyed Watford, but he still stood out like a sore thumb: it was Hoolahan who looked the most likely to do create something, it was Hoolahan who was double-teamed, and it was Hoolahan who more than any other welcomed Holt's return. He will be a major player this season, but he needs the three behind him to be on their game as well.
Is it all rosy at the end of the tunnel? Perhaps not. What Lambert hasn't got are the resources to go out and solve any major problems. If injuries or suspensions rob him of key players, then the back-up is there -but it only runs so deep. Lose Holt and Martin and suddenly the strike-force looks thin on the ground. And what happens in the January transfer market? If City are struggling, have they the cash to change personnel? Or if they're in a position where promotion is a real possibility, have they the money to go out and buy players to take them over the line as they did with Huckerby and Crouch.
The only parachute cash City have is their share of the money that Newcastle and West Brom won't be needing, courtesy of their instant returns to the Premier League. The consolation is that of the four teams with it, two need it to pay the bills, which cuts down on the number of rivals starting 10 yards ahead of everyone else.
Money doesn't always guarantee success, nor does the lack of it consign clubs to a struggle against the odds. Leicester won League One 12 months before City did, surviving on lower average gates, but finding success thanks to a determined manager. They made it to the play-offs, but it was no fairytale story - they were simply fighting to get out of a division where they felt like fish out of water. A good example for Norwich City to follow.
Perhaps a better one than Blackpool.