Michael Bailey: Why Norwich City will survive, and how about that Swansea rivalry?
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It wasn't mischief-making, honest. More musing that turned into a question Anthony Pilkington dead-batted very well. From the moment the Canaries were taunted during and after their 3-0 defeat at the Liberty Stadium two seasons ago, people on this side of the country had an added hunger to outdo the Championship's pass masters.
• Two defeats on the bounce for West Brom then. They wouldn’t be the first team to start a season like a house on fire before realising they’d completely burnt out by Christmas – and just when I thought they were the real deal. That said, they could go for the rest of the season without a win and still enjoy a healthier atmosphere than the one currently at Stamford Bridge. At this rate Chelsea won’t only hold the first top-flight sacking of the season, but the second too. Keep them on your implosion watch.
• One of the questions at Friday’s pre-Sunderland press conference saw Chris Hughton asked if he’d be adding City’s name to the long list of would-be David Beckham suitors. His customary polite response was ‘no’ – if you ask me, Becks won’t end up playing in England again anyway. So that leaves the rest of the world to fight over his merchandising skills. He may even take the odd free-kick.
• Sunday was a tough competitive managerial return to Carrow Road for Martin O’Neill – but I still have no doubts he will see them safe.
City had the biggest laugh when leaving the second tier – automatic promotion preceding Swansea’s last hurrah over Reading in the play-offs – before the rivalry blossomed during their Premier League terms as Swans and City fought over every plaudit going.
More often than not, they had to share them – indeed, it was rare for one to be mentioned without the other, whatever the subject.
The two clubs could barely be separated, finishing on the same points total – 47 – with the 11th-placed Welshmen getting the nod thanks to a better goal difference.
And it was a similar theme in the summer as the managers behind the success at both clubs left for grander jobs.
Arguably Swansea were the darlings – sumptuous football that would be the future of the game in this country; City occasionally relegated to being plucky, fiercely competitive and rudimentary.
Those were the narratives played out – and while few officials of a yellow disposition went on record about it, plenty of fans felt hard done-by over a perception of playing second best to the Swans swooning.
That said, there was one insight into the feeling inside Colney: “Shock they manage to squeeze talking about Swansea into our highlights! #getoutoftheira**e #thanksforthe6points,” tweeted John Ruddy during the latter stages of last season.
The tweet wasn’t long for public consumption, and this isn’t about raking over old ground. More a window into something that clearly bugged City last season.
It also reminds you Norwich were too good for them – two wins, both deserved. But times change, things move on. For better or worse, last season feels a world away.
“I don’t know, I haven’t really felt that (rivalry),” said Pilkington on Sunday. “It’s just another game for us…they are going really well as well, so it’s going to be a tough game. It always is against them.”
To bring the comparisons to the here and now, City are doing extremely well to sustain their greater progression of recent years, despite the loss of the man who drove it. Swansea’s rise was more steady – a philosophy built on by a run of managers. No doubt that has helped with their apparent improvement on last season – as have some truly fantastic summer additions.
But that’s them. For Norwich, Saturday will be a mixture of trying to take that first away win of the season, and preserving their nine-match unbeaten run – all against one of the division’s flourishing sides. The good news is that already, City’s hard work means Premier League history is firmly on their side in surviving for a third term.
Since the top flight was reduced to 20 teams, coincidentally following the Canaries’ relegation in 1994-95, only three clubs to amass 19 points or more after their opening 15 matches have gone on to be relegated.
Crystal Palace in 1997-98 and Middlesbrough in 2008-09 both had 19 points before sinking faster than a stone. And just when you thought you had avoided all mentions of Blackpool’s one-season stay in the top flight – yes they were the third and last team to lose out, also with 19 after 15.
So it’s fair to say that while Norwich need to keep up the good work, their season so far is most definitely heading in the right direction despite its shaky start.
Pilkington’s 29-pass winning goal over Sunderland was the highest of the Premier League season – outdoing their renowned Welsh rivals and Saturday’s hosts, as well as the rest.
Arguably that’s one strike back from the Canaries to the Welsh team sitting seventh. Add to that leaving Wales with a positive result, and maybe City can hive off another little bit of the Swansea love for themselves.