When to shift focus from Norwich City’s past to the future?
The Johnstone’s Paint Trophy will always carry a bit of relevance for Norwich City fans. A trip to Swindon is especially – and surprisingly – fresh in the memory given it was the worst 90 minutes of football I have seen in four and a half years.
It was followed by a marginally exciting penalty shoot-out where Jamie Cureton booked City’s safe County Ground passage into the snappily titled Southern Area semi-final, and eventual shoot-out heartbreak(ish) at Southampton.
The only reason such stories raise a smile now is because Norwich’s involvement in the competition was so fleeting – one novelty season to kick-start the club’s historic rise.
Norwich’s Premier League clash with Wolves at the weekend was entertaining, if not exactly of the highest quality at times. But watching this year’s JPT final between Chesterfield and Swindon, it was still a stark reminder of exactly how far the Canaries’ footballing abilities had fallen – and, as has been written more times than I care to remember, how far the club has risen since.
Swansea continue to earn unrivalled plaudits for their efforts this season – be it the style and philosophy that has accomplished it, some eye-catching results against the big boys and thanks to Brendan Rodgers’ affable manner.
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At the same time, City’s rise from the depths of League One to Premier League midtable in the frightening space of just 118 games has almost become forgotten in national circles since the turn of the year – if not Norwich’s own impressive efforts this term.
And that offers up a big question for how Norwich City move forward beyond 2011-12. When do we all stop revelling in just how far Norwich have come in such a short space of time, and focus more on where they can go?
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After all, Southampton are on course to host Norwich as a top-flight club next season – and for the first time since that JPT exit in 2009. The Saints may well go one better than the Canaries’ own double promotion, and arrive in the Premier League as Football League champions.
City boss Paul Lambert has reaffirmed his ambitions with talk of “winning things”, and you only have to spend a few minutes in his company to understand he is not a man for standing still.
The brutal truth is that when next season starts, the goals will be the same as this season: reach 40 points as quickly as possible and beat the teams likely to be scratching around at the bottom – possibly including the likes of West Ham, Reading, Birmingham or Middlesbrough.
There is nothing to say City won’t do that nice and early – leaving sights to rise as the season progresses, but with a healthier foundation of top-flight experience than this season’s return.
However, it will require a patience that City fans haven’t needed in recent years.
The current contract situation at Carrow Road presents a taste of what is to follow.
There is nothing new in City playing the waiting game over who will be asked to stay and leave – the current method is proven over past seasons, when names such as Gary Doherty moved on.
It’s a balance between trusting you are letting the right people go, getting the best replacements in – and all while trying to keep the squad balanced, team spirit in tact and bringing the quality up.
Sir Alex Ferguson has perfected it at Manchester United, while Tony Pulis has been seamless with Stoke’s progression. That is the managerial challenge over the coming months for Paul Lambert – and arguably his biggest test yet.