Norwich City report card: An underrated star of the show right from kick-off
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Next up in our Norwich City report card series, Michael Bailey wraps a 2018-19 Championship season that would have been completely different for Norwich City without the whirlwind that was Onel Hernandez.
Given the sheer amount of recruitment success Norwich City have enjoyed since sporting director Stuart Webber and his team arrived in Norfolk, it's a real competition to be considered one of the best.
Teemu Pukki? Probably the best free transfer the Championship has even seen.
Emi Buendia? If that £1.5m looks a bargain now, wait until the other side of a season in the Premier League.
All of which raised an eyebrow when I sat next to the Canaries' head of recruitment Kieran Scott - and he opted to make clear just how proud he was of signing Onel Hernandez back in January 2018 and perhaps most pertinently, how much the Cuban winger has developed in his 18 months under City head coach Daniel Farke.
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There is no denying the occasional frustration, of course. Show me a winger who doesn't make you pound the table when they choose the wrong decision. Norwich have certainly enjoyed their fair share over numerous decades of football.
But such is the life of a quick, enigmatic forward. They try things they shouldn't. They play on the edge. When it comes off, they are heralded as brilliant - and when it doesn't, they know all about it.
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The opening day of last season was one of the days it definitely came off.
Indeed, it's remarkable to think the 26-year-old's first equaliser at Birmingham was his first goal for the club. Eight months waiting for your first strike, and the second comes a few minutes later.
Hernandez's was the leading impact in City's start to the campaign - one that wasn't a patch on the following 40 games, but without it Norwich may have never earned their initial foundation to build from.
His hernia operation - like a couple of injuries in those early months of the campaign - came with a feeling of dread, that City's strong team may get a little stretched with the loss of any notable quality for a few weeks.
Norwich actually won three of the four games Onel missed in that September spell - but he would miss only two more throughout the season, and that tells a story in itself.
A regular, even smattering of output - eight goals and 10 assists - kept City's pot simmering.
Cutting in from the left was his trademark, and yet the flexibility to head out to the right when Farke felt a back three was needed was more than useful.
Securing a point at Bristol City within minutes of that tactical tweak - and with Hernandez crossing for Max Aarons on the other flank to head home - was the prime and perfect example.
Cutting inside to drill three points from a tricky trip to Middlesbrough was equally as effective, at such a crucial point in the season.
In fact, Hernandez's fitness and availability was more than welcome given what he is and what he represents.
The winger is a bulldog. Strong, powerful, quick, direct. In a Norwich City side that had almost too much guile, patience and precision for the Championship, opponents were also having to deal with an entirely different threat tucked away on the other side of the pitch.
Simply having that option was a blessing for Norwich - especially given Hernandez was one of the few players Farke would have really struggled to replace over a prolonged absence.
It's almost certainly why players in a similar mould won't be too far away from the top of City's summer shopping list heading into the Premier League.
Which is where Hernandez is headed too, of course. A man who deserves to be called a much stronger word than likeable.
Sure, Argos have benefitted through the sort of free advertising any company would crave - maybe that little relationship will blossom into something bigger over the summer months.
But it also spoke volumes of Hernandez's outlook on life - an effervescent bundle of energy with an infectious smile and personality that would have no doubt kept everyone tied to the floor when City's work on the pitch could have seen them floating off into the clouds.
That said, following City's win at Middlesbrough you could tell - still buzzing from the heat of battle - Hernandez's mind was ticking over at a rate of knots.
The Premier League - so close. Celebrating with thousands of fans away from home. Top of the league, with the potential for even more and even better.
That goes for Norwich City - as much as it does for Hernandez.
The Cuban used his first six months to adjust. He took his game to a new level this season. He still has more to learn and to give - and the fact he's living his dream makes you think he will do it.
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