Norwich City must strive for more than a Premier League escape
08:00 20 January 2014
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Chris Hughton took the post-match comparison with the famed escapologist Harry Houdini in good spirit but this was undeniably the biggest test of his Norwich City reign.
"Such a draining, debilitating process can not continue; when every few matches and every month is seemingly sign-posted by a crisis that must be conquered or a stand-off that must be endured between those who feel Hughton is the cure and the cause for enduring struggles."
Few would be foolish enough to proclaim a late win over Hull City marks the end of a turbulent period in the Canaries’ Premier League campaign, but three points buys a period of measured reflection.
Norwich’s collective effort was rich in endeavour and magnificently resolute in such fractious circumstances, yet the hosts’ sporadic attacking threat remains a justifiable cause for concern. Allan McGregor was tested once before the interval when he parried Robert Snodgrass’ swerving strike, which was a poor return for all the Canaries’ dominance of territory and possession after Hull’s early surge had subsided.
Hughton again elected to pair Gary Hooper and Ricky van Wolfswinkel up front and the Dutchman looked far more comfortable than the Goodison Park experiment, but the self-doubt and the brittleness took hold again in the home ranks as the second half elapsed and Norwich’s search for a breakthrough floundered around the imposing figure of Curtis Davies.
The limitations of Hughton and his players have been brutally dissected during the current downturn. What is never in doubt is the attitude and application; the manner of Ryan Bennett’s late winning header indicative of the obdurate seam that runs through the Canaries’ dressing room.
That is a commendable trait which has been routinely tested in the fallow periods of a maddeningly frustrating season but Norwich’s quest for upward mobility must be built on more than sheer toil and honest graft.
City have failed to win consecutive Premier League games since beating West Brom and Manchester City in the final week of last season’s fraught passage to safety.
Hughton sought to draw parallels with the poisonous fallout from a midweek FA Cup defeat at Fulham and the scale of the task he faced in overcoming the Baggies when Premier League survival was on the line, but had Norwich failed to beat Hull it is inconcievable to see how he could have ridden out the storm.
Hughton will be acutely aware City can ill afford to bask in the warm afterglow or they risk being sucked back towards the bottom end of the table should they fail to pick up positive results against Newcastle at Carrow Road next week followed by pending league trips to struggling duo Cardiff and West Ham.
Beneath the polished exterior and the calm demeanour Hughton is a fighter - whether or not you retain faith in his methods - and that is an admirable quality along with the unquenchable spirit of his players.
Hughton’s experience is a valuable commodity when you look at the concertinaed nature of the Premier League. Norwich found a way to beat Crystal Palace, West Ham and now Hull at home. Fulham’s Boxing Day visit is a stain on the season until safety is secured, but when City have had to deliver, when the pressure on the manager has reached a ferocious peak as it did following that abject Craven Cottage cup exit, Hughton and his squad have responded.
Such a draining, debilitating process can not continue; when every few matches and every month is seemingly sign-posted by a crisis that must be conquered or a stand-off that must be endured between those who feel Hughton is the cure and the cause for enduring struggles.
Widen the focus and you see that internal sense of conflict has taken root right across the lower reaches of the Premier League. Sunderland’s fan base appeared ready to mutiny when Southampton went two goals in front at the Stadium of Light on Saturday lunchtime prior to the Black Cats’ comeback. Aston Villa and their manager have had to run the gauntlet at home. West Ham’s Sam Allardyce has been berated by his own and Fulham, Crystal Palace and Cardiff all felt compelled to change course.
Norwich have no right to be immune from the same destabilising currents afflicting many of their rivals. What the fans do expect is better than they have witnessed for sustained periods in recent times. Carrow Road appeared shrouded in a fog of anxiety that only lifted when Bennett rose above the Tigers’ defence to crash home Snodgrass’ 87th minute corner.
Norwich’s home support in the main stayed behind their team; such loyalty is never in question but they want visible signs of progress despite operating in the harsh terrain of a Premier League increasingly split between those with European aspirations and the rump.
Hull may be packaged as a priceless victory, but the added presence of both Alex Tettey and Anthony Pilkington on the bench prior to Pilkington’s late introduction underlined the club’s injury crisis is also beginning to ease.
Van Wolfswinkel is now back playing regularly and there is scope for further additions to join Jonas Gutierrez in the final weeks of the transfer window.
Positives could be detected below the headline figures but the challenge now is for Hughton and his squad to break the cycle that has defined their season so far; to dictate and shape Norwich’s future direction rather than being blown along by events and circumstance.