Paddy Davitt verdict: The curious case of Norwich City’s upturn
PUBLISHED: 06:00 20 March 2017 | UPDATED: 08:53 20 March 2017
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These are strange times at Norwich City. Less than a week after Alex Neil’s demise appeared to signal the final chapter in a Championship crusade to forget there is hope and optimism.
Granted, Norwich were fortunate to encounter a Barnsley who lacked the punch to match the panache of their energetic, cohesive offerings in open play. Then there was a rather bizarre sequence of results for a series of clubs orbiting the same part of the table, just behind ailing Sheffield Wednesday. The Owls have nose-dived since hammering Norwich at Hillsborough; a result which triggered the beginning of the end for Neil.
For the reassuringly composed Alan Irvine to have guided this crop of under-performing players to within five points of the play-offs, entering the international break, is an upturn few could have foreseen.
Respite may be brief, normal service resumed on the road at a resurgent Aston Villa, but after the prolonged turbulence on and off the pitch this is a spell to savour.
Norwich’s revival merely serves to underline the scale of what appears still a missed opportunity to bounce back to the Premier League at the first attempt. For all the failings, for all the lack of clarity and individual culpability, City remain alive in the promotion race. The pulse may be weak but with games on the horizon against the likes of Fulham and Preston all is not lost.
Whether Norwich succeed or not will hardly disguise the undercurrent of frustration. Norwich’s board have sought to address such negativity with Neil’s dismissal and a bold vision for the future. Much clearly hinges on who they unveil as the de facto football head, in a sporting director role. The logic is sound, the reasoning obvious due to its widespread adoption in various guises across English football. But it is not the job title or the brief on which City’s experiment must be judged; it is tangible results. And in that regard change was inevitable after a prolonged decline one can chart from around the time Gary O’Neil recklessly slid off his feet at Stoke City in January 2016. Bar the odd gloriously uplifting episode since, Norwich’s approach appeared increasingly out of sync, tired and dated.
Nowhere was that more apparent than a chastening trip to Oakwell in the deepest part of that pre-festive rut. Neil’s former charges were dismantled in a ferocious first half of honest endeavour and a dash of quality. The angry response from the travelling support at half-time would swiftly become a soundtrack heard again at home to Huddersfield or away to Reading, Rotherham, Burton and so on.
It was the starkest example Neil’s template was flawed and his players residually vulnerable to a brand of football they struggle to combat. City’s second half surge proved in vain and those images of a dejected Neil at the final whistle proved prophetic.
Some in these parts might harbour a sense of embarrassment at the manner a club with the relatively meagre resources of Barnsley were able to sink Norwich. There was very little discernible difference between the sides again at Carrow Road, apart from City’s greater edge in the key moments. The Tykes’ astute head coach, Paul Heckingbottom, has extracted the maximum from his troops since promotion from League One, and the Reds’ rise is all the more remarkable for selling a core of key men in January, including free-scoring captain Conor Hourihane.
But Barnsley’s success should be a cause for optimism. If Norwich can find the key personnel to match the new model then conditions are still fertile. Few would be foolish enough to underestimate the size of the task to get back to the top table. But it can be done.
The scale and loyalty of City’s fanbase is the envy of most in the second tier. The squad, despite the inevitable summer churn, has enough talent and youthful energy to compete at the top end. Shedding those out of contract on lucrative terms not only improves the financial situation but is the clearest signal yet a sense of renewal can take hold this summer.
But it is the identity of those tasked with the overhaul that will dictate the future direction of travel. The stated aim is to have both a sporting director and head coach installed by the time the guns fall silent on the pitch. If Irvine and those under his command can muster a seam of consistency that might just extend beyond QPR’s final day visit on May 7. Strange times indeed.