Norwich City spirit put off the inevitable
Matches like Saturday’s don’t come around very often.
Not the mere fact of facing English football’s current top dogs – a point that was hard to escape after a couple of hours in Manchester M16, what with the endless references to “the Premier League champions”, “19” and the “Theatre of Dreams” –but that it was a game from which you realistically knew you would get absolutely nothing.
It doesn’t happen in the Championship or League One, or any home match, for that matter.
I would also suggest that it wasn’t the case at Chelsea in August because it was our first appearance “on the big stage” in six years and – “you just never know, do you?”
No, I would say that the last time we went into such a game with no hope of getting anything was away to Arsenal in March 2005.
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We were two down inside the first quarter and, in the end, could have lost by an awful lot more than 4-1.
All too many players that day just didn’t have any belief in themselves. Darren Huckerby was a notable exception and scored an outstanding individual goal.
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The contrast between that defeat at Highbury and Saturday’s loss at Old Trafford could not have been greater.
You could not point a finger of suspicion at anyone in a yellow shirt at the weekend for their determination and commitment.
It’s just that continuing inability to take our chances that is so, so frustrating.
For it to happen once at Chelsea was unfortunate, but when the exact same situation occurs five weeks later at Manchester United it does leave you to think more than once “if only”.
Would we have lost both games had we gone 2-1 up at Stamford Bridge and taken the lead at Old Trafford? Don’t think so, somehow.
My biggest regret of the season so far is not that we aren’t creating enough chances but that the fixture list didn’t give us an early trip to Arsenal, because on the evidence of these two other games we would surely go there and claim our first major scalp.
Sadly, however, in the Premier League you don’t get bonus points for narrow defeats as you do in the Rugby World Cup, so the only consolation City can take from Saturday is that they forced Manchester United into making changes they perhaps hadn’t anticipated.
They never really posed too many defensive problems until they brought on Ryan Giggs to provide more probing balls upfield, and it was a sign of Sir Alex Ferguson’s unease at a single-goal lead that he brought on Rio Ferdinand in the closing stages to shore up the centre of his defence.
Conceding two goals at Old Trafford is almost an achievement in its own right when you look at Manchester United’s other results this season and it’s a measure of how much we were able to stop them from playing their usual game.
How many of City’s team on Saturday would ever have played at such a ground or in front of so large a crowd?
It would have been easy for them to have suffered a collective freeze and wilt under the pressure of in-form opposition.
I mean, look at March 4, 1995, when Manchester United struck after 15, 19, 37, 53, 55, 59, 65, 72 and 87 minutes as they set a Premier League record for a winning margin. There was no way that the Canaries were ever going to wilt in a similar fashion.
You look at how Blackburn fared against Manchester City, and the way Bolton lost to Chelsea, not to mention how poor Sunderland were last Monday night and you can see that there are other clubs with a lot more to worry about than us.
If we can live up to the early standards we have set in the other matches which matter we will not have to wait another seven years for our next shot at the really big time.
And with another 12 months’ Premier League experience under our belts who knows what might happen then?
• ATMOSPHERE AT THEATRE OF DREAMS WAS SLEEPY
It might have been the biggest attendance ever to see a Norwich City league fixture, but, boy was it one of the worst atmospheres – outside the away area, that is.
Buy this, see that, go on this tour… it was like visiting a giant theme park that had its very own football team attached.
With one exception. There are some tourist attractions where the production of a National Trust or English Heritage membership card might give you a discount on the ticket price – I can’t see this happening at Old Trafford any time soon.
I’ve been to Old Trafford now maybe six times – though I’ve still to see anything other than a City defeat – and it just gets worse and worse.
Since our last visit they’ve added another 9,000 seats by filling in a couple of corners and all that this has done is allow another 9,000 sleeping souls to enjoy the Theatre of Dreams matchday experience.
It simply defies belief how so many people can create so little noise.
City’s battling performance apart – and the fact that playing at grounds such as this show how far we’ve come in a couple of seasons – it was barely two years ago that we were last up this way to visit Edgeley Park, Stockport – going to Old Trafford has become an increasingly hollow experience.
A ripple of noise following the spat over Steve Morison putting the ball out was all that you could hear apart from a noisy away end until their heroes finally took their expected lead. And even then that didn’t last long, and within 10 minutes people started to stream out, no doubt to beat the traffic rather than avoid the possibility of seeing the lowly visitors score an unlikely equaliser.
It’s experiences like this that leave you wondering what the point of it all is.
While I wouldn’t want my club to sink to the level of the old Third Division again, I did, on Saturday, occasionally think back to games like Yeovil or Leyton Orient when the fans really were a part of the occasion.
Should City survive for a second season of Premier League football you wonder how many of Saturday’s travelling support will decide to give a return visit a miss and find other, non Premier League-endorsed methods of watching the game and save themselves �43 or �52, assuming, of course, that those prices don’t rise further to fund next summer’s big signing.
• HOME GAMES WILL PROVE SO IMPORTANT
That late Kieran Richardson effort last Monday – Paul Lambert is going to be so annoyed about conceding such a late away goal: it might cost us dear in the second leg of the Friendship Trophy (for all I know, like the Willhire Cup, last seen on eBay rather than in a trophy cabinet).
Apart from that, though, the evening was a triumph.
Win the matches which matter and it doesn’t really matter what happens at the likes of Old Trafford. You could suffer an Ipswich Town-type humiliation – although given the choice I’d really rather not, thanks – as long as you beat teams at the other end of the table.
And so it will be for the next couple of months. As long as we can win at home to Swansea, Blackburn and QPR, anything we manage against Liverpool, Aston Villa and Arsenal will be a bonus.
If we can get to the end of next month with five wins on board from our first 13 fixtures it will give us a real shot at survival and will be a world away from the never-ending “so near but so far” failings of seven years ago.
• COUNTY WILL NEVER FORGET
Having already mentioned Stockport elsewhere on this page I should point out that I stayed there over the weekend to see some friends.
It’s a sign of how much things have changed that we are now four levels ahead of County, but also how the locals view Paul Lambert.
Mention the Norwich manager’s name there and locals do not think of a rising star who had plainly done his homework at the weekend and come up with a tactical plan at Old Trafford that would have made others sit up and take notice.
No, they will always look back to a war of words with the Stockport manager before, during and after the 2008 League Two play-off semi-finals.
It’s hard to explain that this is exactly the same man who now seldom puts a foot wrong on or off the field at Norwich.