We’ve already got plenty of reason for cheer at Norwich City
Scouring the stats as I attempt to pick a player of the season, the most heartening thing is that it already gives me so much hope for next season.
Whether we find ourselves in the Championship or the Premier League, it looks to me as if Paul Lambert will already have in place the nucleus of a good squad to either try to keep us in the top tier or have another crack at getting there.
There are a dozen players in our current squad who have appeared in 25 or more of our league fixtures so far this season and, under my own rules at least, can be classed as regular enough to be considered for the player of the season award.
Should we go up, I would argue that, based on performances this season, of these arguably John Ruddy, Leon Barnett, Elliott Ward, Russell Martin, Andrew Crofts, Wes Hoolahan and, yes, Grant Holt have what it takes to play at a higher level.
I deliberately highlight Holt’s name because, just as when we were promoted last season, the jury still seems to be out among many as to whether our captain could cut it in the Premier League. But for me it’s a no-brainer.
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There’s a reason why he’s not only the most feared, but also probably the most hated, striker in the league as far as opposition defenders and fans are concerned, and that’s because he causes such a nuisance.
Given the right service, I still think that would be the case against the best defenders in the land, which is real testament to how far he has come in the two years since we plucked him out of League Two.
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With all due respect to the remaining five ‘regulars’, namely David Fox, Simeon Jackson, Korey Smith, Simon Lappin and Chris Martin, you would have to say their Premier League pedigree is less clear. The same goes with our current left-back of choice, Marc Tierney.
However, if you could throw into the mix regular availability from Andrew Surman and Zak Whitbread, and maybe, just maybe, season-long loans for Dani Pacheco and Henri Lansbury, we could already have eleven players pencilled in for what would be a fantastic ride.
Should we, dare I say it, miss out on promotion you would hope that very few of the current crop would be knocking on the gaffer’s door demanding an immediate transfer from the club.
I’m pretty sure that a big thing Lambert looks for when he so carefully makes his signings is a desire amongst players to remain at the club and be a long-term part of its progression. If things don’t quite go how we would want them to between now and the end of the season, some of those players could be asked to prove it.
Obviously the elephant in the room is whether an unpromoted Norwich City could keep hold of its talented manager should the bigger boys come calling, but as long as we do there’s plenty to be positive about for 2011/12 – whatever league we are in.
But what then of the reason why I started this list in the first place – to try and decide my player of the season?
Of those 12 regulars, I have instantly ruled out six names for a variety of reasons. Lappin and Chris Martin have both been hampered by injuries and failure to hold down a regular spot, the injured Barnett misses out through injury and no fault of his own, Jackson has shown promise but not quite made the impression we, nor he, would have hoped, Smith has had a season all about gaining experience to hopefully make him a regular at Carrow Road in the years to come and Fox, while brilliant in the last few weeks, has emerged as a regular too late on to make a bid for the title.
This leaves a shortlist of six to choose from, namely Ruddy, Ward, Russell Martin, Crofts, Hoolahan and Holt.
I’m immediately whittling this down to three, removing Ruddy, Ward and Crofts. They have all been excellent but it’s testament to just how good the squad in general has been that they cannot make the top three.
We are certainly a world away from just two years ago when a lack of anything to celebrate at the end of the season saw Lee Croft given the prize.
Once I am left with the final three, the struggle really begins.
Russell Martin has been a revelation – his performances have risen so much in such a short space of time. As I have said before, at times he performs two roles in the team – right-back and right-midfield.
It was exactly a year ago this week that Norwich stuttered somewhat with a 2-1 defeat away to Leyton Orient and I’m sure Martin himself would admit to having an absolute stinker.
Rightly or wrongly, some of the fans were starting to get on his back and you couldn’t help but wonder if he would step up a level.
We know now that a serious illness was hampering him, but with this problem seemingly resolved, no one could be left questioning his place in the team, which is why he has been in the starting eleven for every one of our games this season.
As was shown against Swansea on Saturday, and to a certain extent against Watford on Tuesday night, Hoolahan has become the heartbeat of the team, so often the link man, so often the creator.
He has even added many new elements to his game, like a desire, and fitness, to get back and defend and an improved final ball. I swear I even saw him head the ball the other week.
And as for Holt, I don’t really need to say any more than 21 goals in 43 games. But nevertheless I will add to his achievements numerous assists and his emergence as the leader of the team.
Should he win the title he would become just the eighth player to do so twice, his name easily deserving of being mentioned alongside the other legends as Darren Huckerby, Iwan Roberts, Bryan Gunn, Kevin Drinkell, Martin Peters, Kevin Keelan and Ken Foggo.
However, as far as I’m concerned that might have to wait until next season.
For where he has come from and what he has had to overcome I can’t see past our ever-present right-back, who is deservedly building up a reputation as “Norwich’s Cafu”.
• FIVE OF THE REST
1. One point from six and a drop out of the top two may sound like a pretty rubbish week to be a City fan. But you won’t find me making any judgements until around 10pm on Friday night. While we should always aim high, I always felt that a return of a win, draw and a defeat would not have been a bad return for what has to go down as one of the toughest weeks of the season in terms of quality, and quantity, of the opposition. What‘s more, the remaining five games, three of them at home, still provide us with enough of a chance to get the points needed to secure automatic promotion.
2. Whether they intend it or not there are always fans at every club who are quick to push the panic button at the slightest sight of something going wrong. And one thing that panic and stress can so often do is quickly spread to those nearby, eventually impacting performance levels. That’s another reason I was so glad we picked up at least a point on Tuesday night. The last thing we need at this stage of the season is the doom-mongers to come out of the woodwork.
3. When appointed Norwich boss last season, financial constraints meant that, barring a few signings, Paul Lambert very much had to work with the tools provided to him. Fortunately, one of his greatest traits is finding another level of performance in players. In the last few weeks, however, we have really started to see Lambert’s favourite team emerge. Some 13 players appeared in more than 30 league games last term, but of those only three (Holt, Hoolahan and Russell Martin) would regard themselves as nailed on first-team starters. The rest have either left the club completely, are no longer part of his first-team plans or for whatever reason are currently only on the fringes of the first team squad.
4. Has there ever been a team so dull and dispiriting to watch as the current Manchester City side? And watching their tepid, one-paced and non-committal performance against Liverpool on Monday night made me fully realise how important it is to consider personality as a trait when signing players, something our own Paul Lambert seems to have got so right. Could you ever imagine the City team showing the same spirit and unity to battle back from adversity as much as our own team has?
5. Our better halves have known it all along, but Tuesday night pretty much proved to me that, as a man, I struggle to do several things at once. City commentary on Radio Norfolk, fan updates on the Pink ‘Un, Manchester United v Chelsea on the television and score updates via my I-phone were just too much for my brain to cope with.