Real threat of relegation battle

DAVID CUFFLEY January, sick and tired, you've been hanging on me... Apologies for retreating into 70s pop - and a bonus point if you can name the band that had this fairly awful No 1 hit - but it seems rather appropriate for the month that Norwich City have just endured.


January, sick and tired, you've been hanging on me . . .

Apologies for retreating into 70s pop - and a bonus point if you can name the band that had this fairly awful No 1 hit - but it seems rather appropriate for the month that Norwich City have just endured.

Three defeats in three Coca-Cola Championship games, the end of any realistic chance of a place in the promotion play-offs, the division's top scorer ruled out for the rest of the season after a groin operation, and a fruitless trip to Burnley for players, officials and 500 fans . . . all have helped make it a miserable start to 2007.

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The one bright spot in all this is that the Canaries are still in the FA Cup - a rarity in itself as we go into February. But with a trip to Chelsea the prize awaiting them if they win their fourth round replay against Blackpool in 10 days' time, don't bank on City relying on Cup involvement for consolation by the time we get to March.

Worse still, their current league form - one win in nine games before today's visit of Leeds - has conjured up the very real threat of being dragged into a relegation battle.

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One would still like to think the Canaries have too much quality in their squad to have to worry about slipping into the third flight of English football for the first time in 47 years. But the unthinkable has happened to bigger clubs than Norwich, and before today's match - against the team bottom of the table this morning - they were still looking for half a dozen wins to avert such a fate.

In case anyone has been out of the country for the past four and a half weeks, January has also been transfer window time, and to judge from his increasing air of frustration as the deadline approached, it was at times a painful introduction into the world of wheeling and dealing for manager Peter Grant.

After the last match of 2006, the 1-0 home win against Queen's Park Rangers, Grant told reporters he was well pleased with the money put at his disposal by the City board and was hoping to bring in three or four new faces in the early part of the month. He had been gazing in the shop window for months and the money was burning a hole in his pocket.

But, despite upgrading the injured Luke Chadwick's loan deal to a permanent move and bringing in four new players, the City boss was more than a little disillusioned by the time the window closed.

He said in his Evening News column yesterday: “A lot of time has been invested in trying to sign players and sometimes it was fruitless . . . but it's this business with loan fees that has been more disappointing than anything else.”

One deal for a Premiership player, believed to be Watford's Matthew Spring, appeared to be done and dusted until his wife vetoed a move to Norfolk - and he went back to Luton instead for what could be a bargain £200,000. And wouldn't it be just like him to score against City at Kenilworth Road next week?

In another case, chief executive Neil Doncaster outlined the late collapse of a raid on a Premiership club.

He said in his EDP column on Thursday: “For a number of weeks, we had been tracking a player at one of the biggest Premiership teams. We were led to believe that the lad wanted to come to us, that acceptable (although expensive) terms had been agreed, and that the club concerned were happy to let the deal go through. But then, virtually at the last minute, it became clear that there was a deal to sell him abroad.”

Grant admitted yesterday that he would dearly love to have brought in at least two more new faces, and he will start looking again when the loan market reopens next week.

At least the new signings are in the right age bracket - old enough to have had valuable experience but young enough to improve.

City's most successful teams have generally been built with players who are on the way up, mostly in their early 20s and snapped up at bargain fees from the lower divisions or from big clubs' reserve sides, and blended with products of the club's own youth teams. The team of 1986 is a classic example, with players such as Woods, Bruce, Watson, Culverhouse, Phelan, Mendham, Barham, Gordon and Drinkell all fitting into one of those categories.

You have to have a few old heads - Dion Dublin has proved the value of that - but too many of City's recruits over the past two and a half years were at a stage in their careers where they had reached a plateau and were not going to get better.

By contrast, David Marshall is 21, Chris Brown 22, Mark Fotheringham 23 and Simon Lappin 24. They may not all be successful, they may not all be here next season, but time is on their side.

Time, alas, is not on City's side and the immediate task for Grant is to put some daylight between his team and the drop zone.

It is of some concern that a team conceding so many goals is so short of defensive cover, a situation not helped by January injuries for Dublin and Jason Shackell and the deadline day departures of Craig Fleming to Rotherham and emergency defender Carl Robinson to Canada.

If loan signings are the next target for Grant, strengthening his defence will surely be top priority.

t “An Evening with Peter Grant” is being billed as a big attraction at the Theatre Royal, Norwich, on Wednesday night.

The new singing sensation, who has a “rich, mature voice” will perform famous numbers such as The Lady is a Tramp, Leroy Brown and The Best is Yet to Come.

There is no truth in reports that he will return the following week with his own rendition of “I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles”, “On the Ball, City” and “I Belong to Glasgow”.

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