Norwich City boss Chris Hughton can treat triumph and disaster just the same
Perhaps it was with one eye on the Christmas fixture schedule that manager Chris Hughton deliberately played down Norwich City’s sudden elevation to seventh place in the Premier League earlier this month.
No one could have accused Hughton of getting carried away after the 2-1 home win over Wigan Athletic lifted the Canaries five places in the table and within striking distance of the Champions League hopefuls – though they slipped a place 48 hours later thanks to Arsenal’s victory at Reading.
“The best way for us is to make sure we know how to compete in every game. If that is the case, then we have a chance of doing OK but we never come away from the reality of what we are,” he said at the time.
“I don’t think it is being negative but for clubs likes ourselves it is very much about trying to keep as big a gap as you can between us and going down. There is no shame in saying that. It is fact and reality for most clubs like ourselves.”
This was typically measured comment from Hughton, as calm and matter of fact about City’s prospects after a 10-match unbeaten run as he had been after they were beaten 4-1 at Chelsea in October, sat a depressing second from bottom with just three points from the first seven league games, and we all wondered when the tide was going to turn.
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Seventh place has given way to 11th in the wake of successive defeats at the hands of West Bromwich Albion and Chelsea, and with tomorrow’s visit of reigning champions Manchester City followed by a New Year’s Day trip to West Ham, any points at all for the Canaries over the holiday period will be very hard-earned.
But whether or not they add to their tally in the next two matches, reaching the halfway stage of the league programme with 25 points has given City a very solid platform from which to secure a third successive season in the top flight – which the manager has always maintained is the club’s overriding objective.
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“If you had offered that to me at the start of the season, then yes, certainly, I would have taken it,” said Hughton after the defeat by Chelsea. “You only have to look at the Premier League week in, week out and see some of the results and that emphasises what a good run we were on.”
A total of 40 points is generally regarded as enough to secure Premier League survival, though it was a close-run thing two seasons ago when Wolves stayed up with 40 and both Birmingham and Blackpool went down with 39.
Last season, Bolton finished third from bottom with 36, while Queens Park Rangers survived with 37 and Aston Villa with 38.
One has to go back 10 seasons for the last time a team was relegated from the Premier League with 40 points or more, and that was something of a freak when West Ham went down with 42 at the end of 2002-03 campaign, despite finishing 16 points clear of the team below them.
So if 40 is the safety target for City, it means winning five games in the second half of the season or collecting the equivalent number of points, 15, from a combination of wins and draws.
We have seen previous Norwich sides collapse in the second half of the season – 1985 and 1995 live painfully in the memory – but it would be unusually pessimistic to imagine the current team imploding in the same way.
The Capital One Cup home defeat by Aston Villa may have illustrated the fact that City are vulnerable if they cannot field their first choice back five – and they cannot do so at the moment – and the fact they have not had a clean sheet in the last eight league and cup games may be a concern.
But the Canaries have 10 home matches to go, and five of those are against teams currently below them in the bottom half of the table. Garnering another 15 points, and a few more as added insurance, ought not to be beyond them. There will certainly be no complacency from the manager.
• NO LOSERS WITH THIS BONUS
Aston Villa were quick to respond to a report in one national newspaper this week that manager Paul Lambert had “lost” his legal battle with his former club, Norwich City.
Villa asked for clarification, pointing out that they, Norwich and Lambert had agreed a settlement relating to his departure last summer, described in the statement issued by the Canaries on Sunday evening – soon after Villa’s 8-0 defeat at Chelsea – as “a final settlement of all claims and disputes between the parties”.
City have not released the figures publicly, but the same story claimed Villa would pay �1.5m compensation for the services of Lambert, Ian Culverhouse and Gary Karsa, and that the bonus Lambert was entitled to at the end of last season was “about �800,000”.
It may not have been the biggest bonus paid at Carrow Road last season, but on that sort of money I’m sure we could all live with being “losers”.
• HOW DOES HE GET AWAY WITH IT?
City fans who travelled to Tranmere on Good Friday for an evening kick-off in League One three seasons ago will doubtless recall referee Eddie Ilderton sending manager Paul Lambert to the stands in the second half when he ran on to the field to kick the ball back to keep the game moving.
There have been numerous other trivial dismissals for assorted managers, so it seems perverse that Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson will not face punishment for confronting three officials at Old Trafford on Boxing Day.
The FA confirmed no action would be taken as referee Mike Dean made no reference to Ferguson confronting him in his report. But millions of TV viewers saw Ferguson approach Dean as he made his way out for the second half, before he rounded on fourth official Neil Swarbrick and assistant Jake Collin.
What a fine example he is to us all.