Norwich City struggling to hit their home heights of last term
The home comforts Norwich City supporters began to take for granted last season have proved rather more elusive on their return to the Championship.
The Canaries chalked up 11 consecutive league wins at Carrow Road in 2009-10 – a club record in a single season – en route to winning the League One title.
They were no slouches on their travels, either – five away wins came in their 16-match unbeaten league run between October and February – but it was the way they demolished team after team on their own territory that gave them the kind of lead in the table that they never looked like surrendering.
This season, City’s travelling fans have unquestionably seen them at their best, with the exception of the first half at Doncaster, while those yet to hit the road have witnessed one humdinger of a match against Leicester but also some indifferent games, three of them ending in defeat.
Tuesday’s 2-1 reverse at the hands of Crystal Palace was probably the most disappointing of the three, since the Canaries had their noses in front at half-time against the team second from bottom and without an away goal, but were strangely subdued in the second period as the visitors took the initiative.
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Former City winger Mark Barham, who covers home matches as a Press Association analyst, believes Paul Lambert’s team may have become victims of their own success after going into the Palace game third in the Championship table.
“Expectations have been raised among the fans and the media and ex-players because we believe in Paul and that he can push us forward into the Premier League,” he said.
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“Everyone is thinking we need to win at home as we did last season but last season was a bit different in that we were by far the best side in that league, miles better than everybody, and kept churning out results.
“So Carrow Road is expected to be a fortress, but what’s happened is that we have lost three home games already.”
Barham knew life at Norwich in prosperous times – and tough ones. He played in the Division Two title-winning side of 1985-86 that won 16 and drew four of their 21 home games, but also figured in the team that won only one of the final nine home games the previous season to be relegated from the top flight.
He remembers only too well that mistakes are more severely punished at a higher level, as Lambert and his players have already acknowledged.
“Against Watford in the first home match we didn’t really know what to expect but Malky Mackay did his homework and they probably deserved to win,” said Barham.
“When you play in a higher division, if you don’t take chances, people will punish you and that’s definitely what happened in the Hull game.
“We dominated the match but they had two late chances and won the game.
“But Tuesday night was strange. We were the best side in the first half but it was as if someone turned the tap off after that.
“Perhaps it was the weight of expectation after being third in the table, which could have put a bit too much pressure on the lads.
“At half-time it looked as if we would go on to win by two or three goals, but we started the second half poorly and gave them the impetus and in this division, teams don’t need many chances to score.”
It was in marked contrast to the polished performances at Preston, Bristol City and Queens Park Rangers – where home manager Neil Warnock admitted the Canaries were a class act on their travels.
“People talk about two points dropped but I think away from home is as good as at home now for a lot of teams,” said Warnock.
“I’d definitely prefer to play Norwich away from home, if I’m honest. They will have to come out a lot more with the home fans there – a great atmosphere with 25,000 or 26,000 – and I don’t see any reason we shouldn’t enjoy ourselves away from home.”
Barham believes early leaders Rangers will be subject to the same expectation from the home crowd after such an impressive start to the season.
“Neil Warnock said that because he’s under the same pressure to win at home – he needs points to be in the top two or the top six and if not the pressure builds,” said Barham.
“That’s why it can be easier to play away from home, where you’re not always expected to win.
“Before Paul Lambert came to Norwich we weren’t exactly brilliant away from home, but he has found a very good formula and we seem to be taking the points needed fairly comfortably.
“A counter-attacking game suits our style away from home if we play Wes Hoolahan behind the front two because he’s not man-marked away from home.
“In the three home games where teams have man-marked him they’ve done a good job of stifling him. But I hope tomorrow we can go out and play against Middlesbrough with the same freedom we enjoy away from home.”
Barham – who had a brief injury-hit spell with Middlesbrough under Bruce Rioch towards the end of his career – knows, however, that the visitors may enjoy their own kind of freedom as they go into the game fourth from bottom of the Championship with just one point from six away games, and without a manager.
The lack of expectation could work in their favour.
“Boro’ are not expected to win, whereas if Norwich win everyone will say they should do anyway,” he said. “There is a terrific pitch and a great atmosphere that pumps you up. It’s a nice place to come and play for a visiting team.
“Middlesbrough was one of my old clubs and I enjoyed playing with the players who were there at the time, though I didn’t get on too well with the manager.
“The fans were fantastic but their numbers seem to have gone down, while Norwich’s fan base has grown and grown.”