Chris Hughton paid the price for his blind faith at Norwich City
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Haunted looks on the faces of Norwich’s players are nothing new but perhaps those ugly images at the final whistle against West Brom convinced City’s board it was time for Chris Hughton to finally pay the price.
"The same helplessness and growing sense of a season careering out of control was evident in the defining moments of 2005 and 2009 on the most recent occasions Norwich City exited a division via the back door."
Alex Tettey and Joseph Yobo stood with hands on hips in the centre circle at the final whistle, staring into space, avoiding eye contact, barely able to process the full magnitude of a desperate afternoon. John Ruddy slumped to his haunches on the edge of his own penalty area before becoming embroiled in an ugly verbal altercation with a frustrated fan that underlined the deep fractures in the ‘special relationship’ triggered by a campaign in freefall.
The same helplessness and growing sense of a season careering out of control was evident in the defining moments of 2005 and 2009 on the most recent occasions City exited a division via the back door.
Hughton’s tenure began at Craven Cottage with a 5-0 pummelling down by the Thames. It ended one game shy of a return where Neil Adams is now tasked with leading the search for some salvation.
The abiding image of Hughton will be a man beaten down by the incessant demands of trying to fight against the prevailing tide as he trooped in to face the media after Norwich’s fortress had been breached by a West Brom outfit who arrived in dire need of resuscitation. Albion were defensively resolute and economical in their counter-attacking urges but Norwich were disjointed and sporadic.
It was a mirror image of the previous league tussle at the Hawthorns when City had soaked up pressure and raided with precision on a rare away day to savour. Ben Foster made an excellent save to deny Johan Elmander before the interval and then diverted Robert Snodgrass’ dipping free-kick against his bar, but this was a weary, lacklustre performance to set aside any of those recent limp away offerings. For it to come when City needed to produce merely fuelled the anger and the resentment that swirled around Carrow Road and erupted at the bitter end. Hughton had survived plenty of mini-crises already. Not this one.
The fear as Norwich failed to ease their plight on the road in 2014 was that eventually they would suffer a detrimental reaction on home turf.
Sunderland was clung to with almost religious fervour in the build- up to underline what was possible when the players and supporters rallied behind the same cause in a unified statement of intent.
Norwich had simply beaten a team who exhibited even fewer of the qualities needed to survive than they have mustered in recent weeks; it was an anomaly in a toxic trend.
Hughton’s search for the formula merely took him down blind alleys. His players look increasingly detached and seemingly incapable of grasping whatever tactical instructions he and the rest of the management team tried to impart.
Ryan Bennett started one week and then found himself out of the match day squad the next. Anthony Pilkington was deemed no better than Jonas Gutierrez or Wes Hoolahan – the latter offering definitive proof against the Baggies he has a limited shelf life as a wide left player.
Hughton’s assertion the Irishman could operate in narrower channels to cut inside and probe centrally completely overlooked the pervasive influence of Albion’s Youssouf Mulumbu positioned right in front of two dominant centre backs. There were simply too many bricks in the red wall even for the mesmeric Dubliner.
Ricky van Wolfswinkel started the previous two games and was then shunted to the back of the queue behind Elmander, Gary Hooper and Luciano Becchio.
Hughton was right to shuffle his pack because those he trusted had failed to deliver, but each fresh disappointment raised more doubts about his own managerial limitations. The case for the defence weakened with each debilitating loss.
That is not to absolve Norwich’s squad. The soothing soundbites fail to tally with the laboured efforts on the pitch. Questions over their ability to problem solve in the white hot heat of battle persist; so too the chronic inability to respond to adversity. Against the Baggies you could add a nervousness and reticence in possession fanned by the realisation this was an unmissable opportunity.
City under the hugely popular Adams must now plot a hazardous route to safety past a rejuvenated Fulham, fresh from beating Aston Villa, and a quartet of final fixtures that grow exponentially tougher with each failure to frame their own destiny.
The overpowering stench of defeat on the final whistle on Saturday evoked memories of a similarly dark episode 12 months earlier when a home reverse against Villa looked to have consigned the club to the Football League. Norwich roused themselves manfully to overcome a disinterested West Brom and managerless Manchester City in the final week of that season, but there is a crucial difference this time around.
Norwich can not rely on such favourable conditions again. They must thwart a relegation rival scrapping for their own existence or shock one of the title challengers.
It is a daunting prospect but the intervention of City’s board and the departure of Hughton may just provide the spark.
• Buy Monday’s Eastern Daily Press for a 12-page pullout and the Evening News for a 10-page special on Chris Hughton’s dismissal and Neil Adams’ appointment at Norwich City