Winning when it counts
The bright, sunny weather – plus the rarity of a 3pm home kick-off – meant that Saturday almost had the feel of the opening day of the season.
A full ground and the expectation of three points against a fellow newly-promoted team… it had all the hallmarks of the fixture against Crystal Palace at the start of the 2004/5 season.
But if ever a game showed the difference between that ultimately unsuccessful campaign and this season it was that one.
City just couldn’t finish Palace off after being unable to get the vital second goal – and how costly were those two dropped points to prove nine months later?
I don’t intend any direct criticism of anyone connected with our last time in the Premier League, because it was an incredible achievement to go up the way we did, but we just didn’t have enough organisational or tactical wherewithal to make the step up.
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You certainly wouldn’t have seen the approach taken against Swansea, that’s for sure.
Come the end of the first half on Saturday the Canaries were pretty well hanging on for the last 15 minutes and you did wonder whether they’d peaked too soon and Brendan Rodgers’ side might come out in the second half and really step up a gear.
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They simply weren’t allowed to.
At half-time on Saturday I was reminded of when we lost 4-3 at Southampton in April 2005. It was one of those games which every time a team went forward they looked like scoring, and at 3-3 at the break you thought that if only we could tighten up in the second half Southampton were there for the taking.
We didn’t, and they weren’t.
One half-time reorganisation later on Saturday City pressed Swansea much higher up the pitch in the second period and wrestled back the initiative for a win that was as comfortable and vital as the one the Swans enjoyed over us back in April.
Because for all the glamour of running Chelsea or Manchester United close you might just as well get hammered if you can’t beat the likes of Swansea or Blackburn (surely this season’s Southampton what with also being an established top-flight club fallen on hard times and having an unpopular chairman and insecure management).
These are the sort of games you have to win to stay up – I would say you perhaps need to take nine points off the fellow Premier League new boys to have much of a chance of staying up.
In 2004/5 we were denied at home by Palace, threw away a 3-1 lead at Selhurst Park, settled for a 0-0 draw at the Hawthorns when we might have pushed on and won, and needed an 85th-minute goal to win the return against West Brom.
How different would the next six seasons have been had we managed to collect a full 12 points from those fixtures rather than just six?
Because if our subsequent fixtures against Swansea and QPR are anything like those games I would fully expect City to come away with maximum points, such is their obvious organisation and resolve nowadays.
That 3-2 home win over West Brom is particularly worthy of mention now.
Not only did we twice have to come from behind to win – in contrast to Saturday’s slightly more straightforward scoring pattern – but also it was a real slog, with even the loyal club website admitting “in a match they (City) were second best in for long periods”.
Most tellingly, however, it, was also our third win of a Premier League campaign.
Just one slight difference, though: it came in the 26th fixture of the season, on February 5, when we were already ensnared in the bottom three.
On the evidence of this season’s first eight games it’s increasingly hard to see a repeat of that struggle because City have already mastered one important tool of Premier League survival: to win the games that really count.
Would we have come away with anything from Old Trafford had Anthony Pilkington put away one of his chances? With hindsight, probably not.
But it matters an awful lot more that he takes his opportunities against the likes of Swansea at home – they’re far less likely to be able to come back.
And so it goes on… I’m not expecting anything from Anfield on Saturday, but if we can beat Blackburn at Carrow Road the following week that’ll be four wins from 10.
And subsequently anything we can get against Aston Villa and Arsenal will be a bonus, but if we can see off QPR at Carrow Road on November 26 that will be a minimum of five victories and 17 points from our first 13 games - and that’s survival form.
And as you go through the rest of the season you target various fixtures – Fulham (h), West Brom (a), Bolton (h), Wigan (h), Wolves (h) and Blackburn (a) for starters – that are all likely staging posts on the route to the magic 40-point total.
And give City the chance of kicking off another Premier League season at home. But with a win this time.
• TICKET PRICES EXPOSE THE GREED OF TOP CLUBS
This Saturday sees my fourth visit to see a Liverpool versus Norwich game at Anfield, and can you spot any trend in the ticket prices?
For the FA Cup tie of January 1986 it was �4.25 (although cheaper options were available), then for the first season in the Premier League in 1992 this figure had risen to �12.
By the time of our previous visit in September 2004 seat prices had reached �28 and this weekend they will be �44.
Had that 1986 price risen in line with inflation a seat in the away end at Anfield this Saturday would have cost �9.48. Using the same process, the 1992 price – perhaps a more realistic yardstick – would now have increased to �18.96.
Even the 2004 price should now be only �32.76 rather than having actually increased by almost 60pc in the space of just seven years.
Anyone who’s a regular away attendee will perhaps not be surprised in the slightest by this trend, but it’s still worth mentioning in the light of the furore over the comments about overseas television rights by Liverpool managing director Ian Ayre this past week.
And in the same way that millionaire cabinet members telling a job-threatened population that “we’re all in this together” comes across as hollow, meaningless words, this episode almost leaves you thinking that if this is the prevalent view of England’s leading clubs then those at the top of the game are even more of a self-centred, revenue-stream obsessed money-grabbing bunch of loathsome individuals than you might previously have thought. If anything events of the past week have sent our rather mixed messages.
On the one hand the inference is that fans of the EPL – how I hate that term – in downtown Kuala Lumpur aren’t really going to want to watch Liverpool take on a bunch of unknowns like Norwich when you can offer them far more enticing match-ups at Anfield such as the one on Saturday lunchtime.
However, in reality newly-promoted teams such as the Canaries do have their uses on a one-off basis because they’ll hoover up 3,000 tickets in the away end, no matter what the cost, to aid Liverpool‘s increasingly forlorn attempts to keep up with Manchester United in the financial stakes.
Every little helps – although they must now rather be hoping that they couldn’t have stuck a few extra quid on ticket prices to have made even more money out of loyal Norwich fans.
And judging by Swansea’s turn-out at Carrow Road on Saturday no doubt their allocation for Anfield will be just as over-subscribed as the Canaries’ was.
But what happens in season 2012/13 if – as seems quite possible on the basis of Saturday’s clinical collection of another three points – that Norwich are still in the Premier League?
How many supporters will pay, let’s say, �46 – because prices never stand still in football – or just decide to go down the pub or find an online stream?
Both these alternatives certainly offer more legroom than what you’ll find in the away end at Anfield, that’s for sure.
• A DIFFERENT TIME FOR CITY
At least the Canaries’ record Premier League home crowd was something of a match to remember.
Unless someone comes here and needs even less segregation than Swansea did it’s hard to imagine there are that many more places inside Carrow Road which could be filled so it’s an attendance figure which could last for a little while (or at least 12 days, anyway, until Blackburn turn up).
It’s hard to picture the contrast between Saturday and the occasion of the lowest Premier League crowd at Carrow Road.
On September 5, 1992 City went into the home game against Southampton having taken 13 points from their first six games to become the early-season pacesetters and attracted a crowd of just… 12,452.
Looking back now, it’s like another world. It’s as hard to imagine as a 7-1 home defeat, or playing a village club in the FA Cup first round, or having to enter the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.
I mean, such unlikely occurrences don’t happen at a club on the up such as Norwich. Do they?
• TILSON NOT ON OUR RADAR NOW
How times change…
Steve Tilson, on more than one occasion a serious contender to become the next manager of Norwich City, has been bombed out of Lincoln City on the back of a 4-0 defeat at Tamworth, just three wins in 14 Blue Square Bet Premier fixtures and a growing lack of supporter interest which has seen crowds at Sincil Bank sink as low as 1,587.
It’s going to take either an awful lot of career turning around or a disastrous loss of status for the Canaries before his name is going to get mentioned in these circles again.