Leon Barnett’s gain is Elliott Ward’s loss in Norwich City’s final countdown
Defender Leon Barnett has been one of the undoubted beneficiaries of a change of management at Carrow Road, nearly nine months after being effectively frozen out of the first team picture.
Barnett started all but one of Norwich City’s first 14 Premier League games last season. His unlikely central defensive partnership with Russell Martin first featured in the 2-1 win at Bolton – the Canaries’ first three-point haul on their return to the top flight – and was a factor in further autumn victories over Sunderland, a game in which he scored, Swansea and Queens Park Rangers.
However, after one costly, stray backpass led to a goal in the 3-2 defeat at Aston Villa, and a poor display in the 5-1 hammering at Manchester City, allied to the return to fitness of Zak Whitbread and later Daniel Ayala, former boss Paul Lambert jettisoned Barnett before Christmas.
He started only one more senior match last season, the dismal 2-1 FA Cup home defeat by Leicester, and there were reports that he had been offered to Peterborough United as part of the deal that brought England Under-21 centre-back Ryan Bennett to Norwich in a reported �3.2m move.
How ironic, then, that it is 26-year-old Barnett and not Bennett who has featured alongside new recruit S�bastien Bassong in the heart of the back four in the Canaries’ much-improved displays against Queens Park Rangers and Tottenham Hotspur.
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Though Barnett played some part in all City’s pre-season games under new boss Chris Hughton, it was apparent from the last two friendlies against Hull and Borussia M�nchengladbach that Bennett and summer capture Michael Turner, from Sunderland, were the men most likely to start on the opening day at Fulham.
And when reports surfaced of a possible loan move to Sheffield Wednesday for Barnett, one wondered if the former West Bromwich Albion defender was heading for pastures new before the summer transfer window closed.
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Instead, Hughton responded to the 5-0 mauling at Craven Cottage by dropping both centre-backs after just one match and giving Barnett his first Premier League start since December for the visit of Rangers a week later.
The manager declared himself delighted with the new partnership after successive 1-1 draws against the two London sides – and Barnett is now the man for the rest to try to dislodge.
His gain has, it seems, been Elliott Ward’s loss with the former West Ham man omitted from Hughton’s Premier League squad of 25, and therefore unable to feature in the first half of the league programme.
Ward, who spent the first six months of last season on the sidelines with a knee problem, has been recovering from an ankle injury sustained during the pre-season programme, but Hughton said last week that injuries would not have a bearing on who was included in his list of 25.
Russell Martin’s versatility gives Hughton a fifth central defensive option, but it is still a slight surprise to see Ward, who was handed the armband for City’s first domestic friendly at Celtic, as the odd man out – unless the injury is going to keep him out longer than originally anticipated.
Whatever Hughton’s ultimate choice, it is important for City to find a settled centre-back pairing this season, for the changes of personnel last term doubtless contributed to a defensive record of just three clean sheets in 42 games in all competitions – and only the three relegated teams conceded more goals.
Halfway through last season, one might have envisaged an Ayala-Whitbread combination as the way forward, but things change quickly in football. Both players are back in the Championship, one on loan at Nottingham Forest, the other permanently at Leicester.
Such has been the turnover that the Barnett-Bassong pairing is the 12th different central defensive combination City have used since the start of last season, or the 14th if we include away matches at Chelsea and Fulham where they kicked off with three centre-backs.
For those of us brought up on the reassuring presence of Stringer and Forbes, Bruce and Watson or Fleming and Mackay at the heart of the Norwich back four – you can choose your own era – it’s about time a new partnership emerged.