Week 34 – Off with your head (2013-14 Premier League column for Goal Japan)
The decision by Norwich City to dispense with the services of manager Chris Hughton – plus assistant Colin Calderwood and coach Paul Trollope – has the feel of an all-or-nothing gamble. Interim boss Neil Adams can harness the experience of leading an exciting Canaries U-18 side to the FA Youth Cup last season, but in the short term, even just the superficial galvanising effect a change of boss can have (see Paolo di Canio at the Stadium of Light a year ago) would do the trick. The task is straightforward and immediate – beat Fulham at Craven Cottage next Saturday to pull eight points clear of their opponents and a step closer to survival; Sunderland’s games in hand notwithstanding.
Adams will be sensible to ensure the club’s entire focus this week is on that one fixture. It is when viewed in a wider context that the gravity of their plight becomes stark. Norwich travel to London having failed to collect a single point from their last six away matches; a seventh straight loss on the road would bring the Cottagers back to within two. And then we enter a final four weekends of the calendar which Canaries fans would have circled in red on the calendar, like dreaded exams or deadlines for paying back a dodgy loan shark. Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea, and Arsenal are the daunting final quartet of hurdles; this is why Norwich really needed to sort out their survival before now.
The club’s statement on Sunday evening praised Hughton for his “excellent” achievement in guiding City to an 11th-place finish last term – their best league position since challenging for the inaugural Premier League title and eventually placing third back in 1992/93. But really, the rot had already begun to set in during that debut season for the former Newcastle United and Birmingham City boss. Norwich may have bettered the 12th place recorded in Paul Lambert’s last season in charge, yet they had three points fewer. The 2011/12 side scored 52 league goals, with Grant Holt netting 15 and Wes Hoolahan a dangerous foil between the opposing lines. A year later, they mustered just 41.
Revitalising the struggling attack was such a priority that Hughton signed fully five strikers in 2013. Sierra Leone international Kei Kamara shone only briefly during a four-month loan spell; Luciano Becchio became the latest in a string of players to join from Leeds United that same January but never once scored and is now reduced to occasional substitute. The transfer activity was even more aggressive ahead of the new season – Johan Elmander came in on loan, Gary Hooper finally joined in a £5 million switch from Celtic, while much of Europe was taken aback when an £8.5 million deal was announced as early as March 2013 for the widely coveted Ricky van Wolfswinkel.
To suit his new, theoretically attacking approach, Hughton began playing more frequently with a front two. To say this has not gone quite as intended would be an understatement. Hooper’s strike rate has fallen to around 25% the potency he enjoyed in Scotland, but at least his five goals compare favourably to the measly one apiece contributed by Elmander and Van Wolfswinkel. The Dutchman joined Norwich on the advice of such illustrious names as Johan Neeskens and Robin van Persie but has endured a miserably barren time since marking his debut with an equaliser against Everton. Both he and Hooper thrived in symbiotic strike partnerships earlier in their careers but not one of the possible combinations this season at Carrow Road has looked right. The goals for column stands at just 26; still ten short of the club record low of 36 for a league season.
Hoolahan may not be the ideal solution anymore at 31 years of age, but even so, he has only started five league games in his favoured central position this term; the 4-4-2 system serving to shoehorn him onto the wing where he is less effective. The Irishman lost patience with the whole setup in January, describing Norwich as “a fucking shithouse club” as he tried to engineer a move to Lambert’s Aston Villa only to have to traverse back over the burnt bridge when it all fell through. Days earlier, Robert Snodgrass had sworn angrily at fans who jeered him against Newcastle United, while John Ruddy had to be pulled away by stewards after remonstrating with the stand behind his goal following Saturday’s miserable loss to West Bromwich Albion.
All has not been as tranquil as the image usually associated with East Anglia. Supporters have been frustrated not only with the results, but the increasing lack of ideas, cohesion, and drive on the pitch. Towards the end of the West Brom game, they sang “We want Hughton out”, and threw the cardboard clappers distributed by a sponsor to help improve atmosphere onto the pitch with play still in progress. The situation had become untenable. In The Guardian, Richard Rae wrote: “One long-standing player, an important and respected figure within the club, has privately let it be known that what they perceived to be Hughton’s constant criticism and emphasis on the negative meant the players were going into games more focused on not making mistakes than on creating opportunities.”
A summer departure for Hughton was expected anyway, but with Norwich still requiring points for survival, the club felt they needed to roll the dice in a desperate last attempt to get out of this rut. Adams is in a no-lose situation as survival makes him the hero while relegation would be blamed on his predecessor, but even the immediate task is not easy. The Canaries have not beaten Fulham in any of their last 15 meetings since March 1986.
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