Michael Bailey: Are you ready for a reunion with the prime example of City’s wasted chances?
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In his latest weekly column, Norwich City correspondent and Pink Un Show host Michael Bailey discusses Gary Hooper – the Sheffield Wednesday striker who sums up so much of the Canaries’ past failings.
It’s official. Norwich City wasted a lot of money over the last few years. Most of those involved then and now, have since apologised for it – that was the predominant theme of last week’s annual general meeting. And this weekend, we get a reunion with one of that period’s finest examples.
Gary Hooper was 25 years old when he was signed by the Canaries in 2013. That was for about £5.5m after a persistent and protracted pursuit by a Premier League Canaries directed at Glasgow Celtic.
The age was good and his goalscoring record was superb. The City fans wanted him, and the club duly delivered.
That was about as good as it got, for everyone concerned.
Frittering away money – or urinating it against a wall, as Stuart Webber so eloquently put last week – is strong imagery and makes an impact. That impact is still needed too, as the size of the financial mauling the club faced – and is still threatened with – filters through the minds of its supporter base.
But the frustration of the intricacies grates too.
One of the key reasons it never really got better than Hooper’s initial signing was how he was used – or rather not.
It has always bemused me how infrequently City play a striker in behind, and that feeling goes back years. Most of the time it was because they didn’t have the right striker to do it.
Yet even when they have, such opportunities have appeared fleeting – almost to the point where it seems like a conscious coaching reluctance.
And be it Chris Hughton, Neil Adams or Alex Neil – all of whom were repaid with some crucial goals – Hooper never seemed to play in the framework that made the best of his not-so-secret abilities: poaching goals and getting in behind.
Hooper can take a slice of the blame too of course. His City team-mates would regularly list the Harlow-born striker as the best finisher at the club – yet simultaneously betray that with questions over his hunger to prove so on a regular, consistent basis.
And Hooper did get chances during his two and a half years, 70 appearances – 29 of them from the bench – and 20 goals in Norfolk.
But if we’re all honest, it never really worked – and I don’t personally feel that was down to the player, as much as the way he was played.
It’s been far from plain sailing since he left for big-spending Sheffield Wednesday on January 2016 for another £3m, and some of the hang-ups have continued for him at Hillsborough – where his arrival was deemed more costly and the supporters’ expectations weren’t being met.
Arguably the Owls are enduring their worst season since he arrived, but there have been recent signs their form is turning for the better – and that is coinciding with Hooper’s own rise: 11 goals from his 21 appearances so far this term.
That includes a brace in his last outing, as Wednesday were held 2-2 at home by Hull on Saturday – in Leonid Slutsky’s final game as Tigers’ boss. It was enough to book Hooper’s place in last weekend’s EFL team of the week across its three divisions.
It also tees up Hooper’s return to Carrow Road on Saturday, when you imagine he’ll look sharper than his 72 minutes in the same fixture at the start of last season.
That one finished goalless and while the Owls’ away record and City’s at home make a repeat seem particularly likely, the Norwich fans will know exactly what a fit and firing Hooper is capable of if the Canaries take him lightly.
From managers not playing to their players’ strengths, takes us neatly on to Daniel Farke – a head coach in desperate need of a positive result and cohesive performance in front of the fans at Carrow Road, if only to buy a little breathing space.
Farke’s own coaching philosophies are now stamped all over his side and in fairness, also tie in with the recruitment beside it led by Webber. However, we’re getting a few too many performances where I have the same conversation with opposition correspondents – roughly along the lines of: “They look good and they’re neat on the ball… They just lack a bit of cutting edge and some grit.”
That may be an English attitude to what is a continental style of football. It’s also criticism not beyond Farke’s squad to rectify.
The most perplexing part of recent games is the disappearance of a steely edge that put the backs up of Sheffield United, Middesbrough and Reading – and that was all far from solely down to Alex Tettey’s presence.
In Hooper, City will be reunited with a missed chance. At the same time, it’s their shot at proving they are now better at getting it right.
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