Paddy Davitt verdict: Humble Smith is City's new ringleader
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Simplicity is a wise tactic for Dean Smith after embracing the challenge of reviving Norwich City’s Premier League prospects.
Everything about the former Aston Villa, Brentford and Walsall boss is under-stated. But beneath the affable public exterior is an astute football man.
As he himself said at his official unveiling he had only been out of work for four months since the age of 16. That tells you the survival instincts are strong, and his knowledge vast, to endure in such a volatile industry.
Smith almost sheepishly waited in the mouth of the Carrow Road tunnel to accept the obligatory pre-match welcome afforded any new managerial appointment. He barely entered the field of play before turning to take his place in the home dug out.
The Canaries’ new boss proved similarly circumspect at the final whistle as the bedlam erupted, following a pulsating comeback from his new charges that electrified the home support.
Smith took a few steps onto the same playing surface to shake hands with every player in yellow and green. There was a beaming smile and a salute to all four corners of Carrow Road, before he headed down the tunnel.
No grand gestures, no massive outpouring of emotion. Smith, and his wily assistant Craig Shakespeare, know the circuit and the pitfalls.
Yet they have set a high bar after 90 minutes, two training sessions and a whirlwind few days when Smith swapped the Big Apple for the bottom of the barrel.
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But in plotting a second consecutive top flight win Norwich moved above Newcastle United in the table.
A victory all the more remarkable given the desperate start that reminded any who may have forgotten, after being swept up in the tumultuous events since Daniel Farke’s Brentford departure, there remain unresolved issues.
Smith revealed his pre-match address to the home players carried the reminder ‘football is a simple game’.
The opposition need to score goals, we need to score goals. Get too high when you do, too low when you do not, and you will be buffeted by the turbulence that envelops every club fighting for Premier League survival.
One can reasonably assume there was a harsher tone to his messages at the interval, after Southampton’s uncomfortable dominance.
The by-product of his tactical tweaks was a storming second half riposte from the Canaries that illustrated there is real substance to the new City chief, allied to his ability to see the unfolding picture and alter the narrative in real-time.
The ineffective Todd Cantwell was replaced by the energetic Josh Sargent; presumably in part to try and nullify the residual threat from Kyle Walker-Peters.
City’s exposed right flank was a rich source of attacking intent from the Saints in a first half which, bar Teemu Pukki’s incisive header, did little to convince this was a marked departure from what had gone before.
Milot Rashica was mercifully switched to the opposite flank in a collective unit who pressed higher, with more urgency and a real desire that City fans had craved this season.
Southampton were jolted out of their smooth stride. Ralph Hasenhuttl rang the changes but could not change the tide. City swarmed forward, the game almost exclusively now in the Saints’ half when trenches had been dug in front of Tim Krul’s goal for most of the opening period.
Then in the midst of the gathering surge Grant Hanley leapt skywards to clamber above Brandon Williams, and direct Billy Gilmour’s corner beyond Alex McCarthy’s despairing dive.
Smith afforded himself a double fist pump in celebration before he and Shakespeare convened to plot a route to safety.
There was only one late moment of alarm, when Theo Walcott rose unmarked but slid a header beyond Krul’s right-hand post from a teasing James Ward-Prowse delivery.
The fates were with Smith and Norwich. Football is not just about words or tactics but good fortune at critical moments. City will feel they deserved a dollop for the manner they responded to fresh adversity.
Smith is no fool. He knows the scale of the task and the work ahead. City remain in the relegation zone with an horrendous negative goal difference.
But they are alive, the pulse is strong and the belief is rising. Carrow Road felt different in that second half to the sense of gloom, the feeling of drift and the inevitability of an immediate return to the Championship.
If nothing else, Smith and Shakespeare have already transformed the mood. That will do for starters.