The five-letter word to get us promoted
RICK WAGHORN I was off for Crewe. I did Southampton, but as many have them written off as a crisis club, they clearly can't count. So as we all scratch our heads and wonder what, exactly, went horribly right in the back-to-back victories against Sheffield United, Burnley and Leicester City that duly handed Norwich City manager Nigel Worthington December's Manager of the Month award and at the same time gave the next committee meeting of the Norwich City Independent Supporters Association something of a presentational headache to ponder, so one five letter word crossed my mind.
I was off for Crewe. I did Southampton, but as many have them written off as a crisis club, they clearly can't count.
So as we all scratch our heads and wonder what, exactly, went horribly right in the back-to-back victories against Sheffield United, Burnley and Leicester City that duly handed Norwich City manager Nigel Worthington December's Manager of the Month award and at the same time gave the next committee meeting of the Norwich City Independent Supporters Association something of a presentational headache to ponder, so one five letter word crossed my mind. Heart.
That and the image of Canary skipper Craig Fleming coming back for more after being given a thumping New Year headache by Foxes' striker Mark De Vries at the Walkers' Stadium when a wayward elbow dug a dirty great gash out of his left eyebrow.
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Because if there was one constant to those three victories - away at Bramall Lane, at home to Burnley and away to Leicester City - it was the fact that all three sides belong to the more muscular end of the Championship market.
Which in a way, merely supports that idea that we should all ignore all that sweet, free-flowing football stuff against Southampton. After all Theo Walcott is not exactly Ade Akinbiyi, Neil Shipperley or Fleming's pal De Vries. Nor is he Rob Hulse. Or Paul Furlong. Or Steve Howard. Or Daniele Dichio.
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These are the players that lie at the heart of the Championship beast. And for once I use the word 'beast' for a purpose. Because that is exactly what this league is all about - it's a beast of a division to play in. A wholly different animal than the Premiership.
And without over-extending the Tarzan-thing, the only sure-fire way to get out of this division is by taming the beast - or in other words, making sure that you've got enough players in your side who are willing to get down and get dirty when the situation all-too often requires.
Again, go back to the 2004 model Canaries. After all, when everything else is said and done, they won this division by a country mile. Something in the set-up of that side, within the make-up of that squad, contained the key to unlocking this league.
In the two years since, I doubt much has changed. If it has, it will be for the worse football-wise. There won't be more teams playing Premiership-style tappy-tappy football, there'll be less.
Look again at that squad and within it were more than enough boys who could, to coin a phrase, “look after themselves”. Your Flemings, Roberts' and Mackays' speak for themselves, but there were others. Leon McKenzie clearly can, but then so could Mathias Svensson. Lovely bloke off the pitch, but just ask Darren Eadie what he can be like on it. I don't think Damien Francis carries quite the same menace as Dickson Etuhu, but if only through Damien's sheer physicality you'd think twice about having a pop. Dig slightly deeper and another 'character' lies hidden in the woodwork - one whose role in forging that team into something with the required harder edge has all too often been ignored. In fairness, it is easy to do. He did, after all, barely play a game in City's Championship triumph. But you ask any of the players involved as to who helped shape that 2004 dressing room and I'd bet the name Paul Crichton would figure large. History would have him down as little more than the dressing room clown; the man at the heart of all the playground japes that makes for a happy dressing room. But, I suspect, deep in the very heart of that squad - far from prying eyes, where supporters groups and message-board goers never get to tread - Crichton's influence far out-weighed his actual impact on the pitch.
If the last four or five months has taught anyone anything, it might just be how difficult it is to rebuild a Championship-team out of a collection of once-Premiership individuals.
All credit to both Reading and Sheffield United; they are walking away with the two automatic promotion places this year and they deserve it. Because, as the table proves, they are the best teams in this division - teams that have been forged, shaped, built and tweaked in a Championship furnace by managers who (a) know this league inside out and (b) have been given the time to mould their perfect Championship fighting machines. Warnock has been at Bramall Lane since 1999; Coppell may only have been at the Royals since 2003, but the team that Alan Pardew left to go to West Ham wasn't a million miles away already.
Crucially, however, neither have been in the top flight of late. They don't have all the baggage that that brings.
Where City have struggled - in common with both Palace and Southampton - is finding the cement with which you bind great teams together.
For great teams aren't built on a pitch; they're built in a dressing-room - that's why footballers the world over make so much fuss over the great, dressing room 'characters'. In that inner, inner circle it is being “a good lad” that can count even more than being a good player.
It's getting enough “good lads” together and, in a small squad, keeping those “good lads” fit and on the pitch on a regular enough basis that can make all the difference.
If Fleming provided one, big moment of being a “good lad” by returning to the pitch with his left eye-brow hurriedly stapled back together and then immediately throwing himself into another big header, he offered another one in the 2-2 draw at Coventry City. Being bullied out of the game by a typically robust Micky Adams' side, Fleming's arrival off the substitutes' bench saw one or two people getting some back - most notably Matt Heath who was left in a big heap moments after Marcus Hall had dumped Ian Henderson to the floor. That, in dressing room eyes, is the behaviour of a “good lad”; as is putting your eye in where it hurts - on the end of de Vries' elbow in Fleming's case.
Which may, in part, explain one 'mystery' to City's sudden about-turn in fortunes - why Norwich have flourished in the absence of Calum Davenport when all too many expected Norwich's much-maligned defence to fold completely once the England Under-21 star headed back to his gilded life in the Premiership.
And then there's Andy Hughes, whose absence of late has also been noted. Actually bother to talk to a player and they'll sing from the same hymn-sheet - “Hughesy's a good lad”. Youssef Safri was busily doing it, unprompted, after the Southampton game when the injured team skipper put his cheekbone and eye-socket in where it hurts - on top of Neil McCann's knee. The fact that he will have no qualms about throwing himself back into the fray at Plymouth next weekend - complete with face mask, metal plate and rebuilt eye socket - is text-book “good lad” behaviour. Carl Robinson, playing with a pain-killing injection with two cracked ribs, another “good lad”; Dean Ashton, playing with nothing but a heavy bandage on a fractured sinus cavity, “good lad”.
Next time you play a game on a Sunday morning have a look round the dressing room and think about the “good lads” that you see there - the ones you can rely on; the ones with the story from the night before; the ones with the banter and the smile; the ones that you know will be straight in there if it ever gets a bit lively; the ones that will get hurt for the boys.
A professional dressing room - for all the mystique that all-too often goes with it - is absolutely no different. The best football dressing rooms are always full of “good lads”. And it is “good lads”, in particular, that get you out of this division. That and a very big heart.