Monday, February 18, 2013
Norwich City have just returned from a warm weather training camp in Abu Dhabi to prepare for a crucial phase of the Premier League season. EDP Canaries’ writer Paddy Davitt explains why the next few months could prove some of the biggest in their history.
Norwich City’s proud heritage is framed by the stellar games and defining moments. It is no exaggeration to state what happens between now and May could eclipse them all. In the fullness of time, the achievements of Chris Hughton and his squad in their remaining 12 Premier League contests carries the latent potential to transform this 110-year-old Norfolk institution.
Finance is now the currency of choice in modern football. That might sit uneasily for the romantics reared on tales of Johnny Gavin’s scoring exploits, of the 1959 FA Cup giant-killers, of League Cup success in the 1960s and 1980s or even that memorable European excursion of the early 1990s.
This summer marks a watershed. The sums available from the next tranche of broadcasting deals to showcase the most attractive club football product on the planet dwarf the current deal which expires in May.
City’s television revenue grew almost ten-fold between the period covering their successful elevation from the Championship in 2011 and the completion of their first campaign back in the big time. Leave the pounds, shillings and pence to the accountants, but the new domestic contract will guarantee the club finishing bottom of the pile next year banks more than Manchester City did for lifting the Premier League title last season.
That is footballing inflation of the right kind and reason enough for Norwich to remain a member of the most exclusive clique in world football. Factor in the inevitable uplift in other commercial areas of the business from being a regular component of the Premier League brand and it is not hard to comprehend just how imperative it is Norwich do everything in their collective powers to escape the scrap for survival.
David McNally never wavers when questioned on the long term strategy. City do not have access to the bank accounts of billionaire benefactors – what they generate, they re-invest. A simple maxim but the co-operative model encourages a path to self-sufficiency.
Running counter to that is the management of expectations. Norwich’s fan base understandably demand visible signs of progress year-on-year. That is a corollary to annual season ticket figures which underline how deep the reserves of loyalty are towards a club which has tested such devotion in the not too distant past. It is also a by-product of announcing club record accounts just before Christmas which illustrate in black and white on the balance sheet the rejuvenating impact from the first influx of Premier League riches. Taken at face value those conflicting forces meet in the dual transfer windows, when a balance has to be struck between what the fan in the Lower Barclay wants and the board’s pragmatic stance on what they can actually afford. City’s intent during January was laudable, but in both the pursuit of targets like Gary Hooper and Ricky van Wolfswinkel they wisely opted not to over-extend the club financially.
Success on the pitch between now and May and the guaranteed extra revenue that follows will create a new set of circumstances that translates into a likely summer transfer budget never before bestowed on any previous Norwich manager.
The tantalising prospect is there. Just over the horizon, barely a third of a season away. City’s hierarchy will still need to act prudently if Hughton and his players complete their mission. Clubs like Portsmouth and Leeds act as an enduring reminder of the pitfalls when aspiration outstrips ambition, but running a club free of external debt with a strong, committed fan base is an envious foundation for further development.
The competition would remain fierce in all areas of the business, magnified by access to such a bloated new broadcast deal. Expectations would continue to rise ahead of a third consecutive top flight season, but those dilemmas are far more palatable than the alternative.
Not all that long ago, Bolton’s chairman Phil Gartside was one of the leading proponents of a ‘Premier League Two’ experiment which he insisted could help increase competitiveness at the elite end of the professional game. He has got it now and it is still called the Championship. The Trotters are finding out just how difficult it is to plot a route back amongst clubs with similarly heavyweight credentials like Leicester, Middlesbrough, Leeds, Nottingham Forest and Birmingham to name but a few of many thrashing about at the top end of the Football League.
Hughton spoke in measured tones about facing such external pressure from the new broadcast deals earlier this season. The Norwich manager knows precisely the financial imperative of staying in the division – both in his short-term options and the longer-term goals for the football club.
Hughton and his coaching staff have so far managed to insulate Norwich’s squad from the same stresses. City’s deficiencies are obvious to all this season; an enduring lack of creativity to embellish their defensive discipline with a level of goalscoring potency that may have turned the ever-expanding body of league draws into victories.
Yet in good times and bad there has been no sense of a squad playing with fear. The fear that grips teams fighting for their lives at the bottom. The fear that one mistake or one bad performance at this advanced stage of the season could signal the end. The fear of managing infinitesimally small margins on a weekly basis when the latest league defeat seems to carry grave ramifications.
Norwich’s fans would have been able to identify the signs by now, given the bitter memories of 2005 and 2009. City’s 29 league points have afforded them a degree of protection, but it is the next 12 steps that will frame whether the Premier League second time around for the Canaries lived up to expectations.
Given Hughton’s Norwich boast home league wins over Arsenal and Manchester United and an away success at Swansea over the past few months, predicting the outcomes of their final set of fixtures would appear futile.
What you can predict with certainty is they have the opportunity to shape their own destiny by playing four of the six clubs beneath them in the current Premier League standings.
Accomplish that and it will be a feat that stands alongside any in Norwich City’s rich history.