Norwich City marching to a new beat
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If first impressions count then Norwich City’s Championship rivals should fear Alex Neil’s arrival.
"If Bournemouth was the benchmark, then Norwich have nothing to fear in the Championship. "
This was an epic statement of intent from the Canaries’ new young manager and his much-maligned set of players.
It is far too simplistic to draw parallels with another passionate Scot who prowled the touchline in these parts, that is hugely unfair on Neil himself, but his presence in the technical area for the final quarter of a tumultuous win had a galvanising impact.
Neil appeared in the midst of City’s darkest moment on the south coast after Jonny Howson had been red-carded for a lunging challenge on Yann Kermorgant. Ryan Bennett then departed barely eight minutes after his own entrance with a hamstring injury following an abrupt introduction for the sickly Steven Whittaker.
The 33-year-old’s response was to calmly move front of house to direct operations. Alex Tettey switched to an unaccustomed right-back berth. Russell Martin moved inside after a brief cameo on the flank to accommodate Bennett and Gary O’Neil bolstered a midfield now one light after Howson’s exit.
City erected a barrier and extended an invitation to Bournemouth to use the best part of 30 minutes to find a chink in the armour, to dislodge a brick in the yellow wall in front of John Ruddy.
They failed. Norwich’s number one never had a save worthy of the name in a defiantly cohesive offering that has been absent too often over recent testing times.
A point in such trying circumstances would have been a triumph but Cameron Jerome served up another instinctive piece of attacking brilliance to stun the Cherries.
Norwich had matched a side feted for their technical excellence and goalscoring potency; a squad under the astute leadership of Eddie Howe who had not been beaten at home in the league since September 16.
Perhaps only at 2-0 down against Cardiff away have City conquered such insurmountable odds this season. For Neil to find answers to such a complex equation the day after meeting his players was akin to taking your driving test on the M25.
The Scot was quick to praise the work of Mike Phelan and Gary Holt during an inevitably disrupted preparation, but there is no doubt Bournemouth will be seen as the start of his reign.
Yet City have suffered too many false dawns already to draw premature conclusions. Norwich will need the same intensity and sense of camaraderie for the rest of this season to force their way firmly into promotion contention.
There would have been something intrinsically flawed in the collective psyche of Norwich’s players not to have produced a positive, committed response to the seismic upheaval triggered by Neil Adams’ departure.
Russell Martin and his team mates have endured heavy criticism because, on stellar days like these, they emphatically prove what they are capable of.
If Bournemouth was the benchmark, then Norwich have nothing to fear in the Championship. They merely have to sustain a consistent seam of form to justify why Howe and many of his contemporaries speak almost in reverential tones about the quality and pedigree now inherited by Neil.
The Norwich manager faces many obstacles ahead. Not least the relatively abbreviated time left in the current January transfer window to leave his mark on the squad; to make decisions on those who have had limited opportunity to impress and to target new additions from effectively a standing start.
But he has already achieved one major objective. Neil appears to exude an inner confidence and self-belief, admirable traits embodied by his battling players at Bournemouth. The stench of under-achievement and enduring frustration evaporated with each passing minute of a pulsating contest.
It could easily be overlooked in the midst of second half tumult prior to a winning salvo, but Norwich had fallen behind early to the leaders after Marc Pugh and Matt Ritchie exposed defensive vulnerability.
Howe was adamant Norwich’s equaliser owed much to Michael Turner’s arm, which had diverted Jerome’s headed rebound into the path of Gary Hooper. He may have a case but Norwich had been full value for parity right up until Howson’s dismissal; the point at which a football match descended into a gladiatorial contest.
There was a wonderfully vibrant outpouring of emotion in the immediate aftermath of Jerome’s stunning match-winner. Only Ruddy remained at his post as the nine other Norwich outfield players surrounded the striker in front of a packed travelling support, who rose to acclaim the men in green and yellow. In that moment the unity was palpable. You could almost taste it in the south-coast air.
City need to harness it, nourish it and unleash it on Championship opponents for the rest of a campaign which now contains limitless possibilities.