‘Vitriol after Norwich City’s Aston Villa defeat is a depressing sign of the times for modern football’
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The scale of the mourning for the loss of those three Premier League points for Norwich City at Aston Villa has been staggering.
Losing to a club 10 points adrift of Norwich City at kick-off was the final insult for many after a wretched January punctured all that festive optimism.
The depth of the fallout, the vitriol aimed in the direction of Alex Neil and his players is a modern phenomenon fanned by social media.
Everyone has a say, everyone can express it. The man who dragged Norwich out of the Championship on a breathless ascent that culminated in the most sublime day at Wembley is now out of his depth, unable to lead and tactically floundering - depending on who you listen to. No light or shade, just black and white. Messiah to misguided in the space of a month.
When Norwich beat Southampton 1-0 at Carrow Road on January 2 Neil could do no wrong. Now he can do no right. Neil is a sharp operator, an intelligent man with a hard, ruthless edge. He knows he is in a precarious profession and he knows what the fates have in store if he fails to halt the tailspin. His former Barnsley team mate, Garry Monk, was dismissed half a season after guiding Swansea City to their highest-ever top tier finish. That is the job people like Monk and Neil willingly sign up to. They do not need our sympathy or our pity when results turn and fans turn even quicker.
Neil is not a tactical genius, nor is he tactically inept. The Scot unveiled a bold template at Manchester City in late October, with three centre backs operating for the first time in his Norwich reign, flanked by two wing-backs. Had John Ruddy not spilled a cross to unleash a chain of events that culminated in Yaya Toure’s 89th minute penalty winner, Neil would have been feted for his innovation.
City counter-attacked their way to victory at home to Aston Villa in December and Neil opted for the same approach last weekend. It was wrecked by a failure to track a man on a free-kick and a rash decision to vacate his goal by a young keeper now operating in a hazardous environment at the wrong end of the table. As Neil himself said in the aftermath, the seeds of City’s painful defeat at Villa Park were not in his selections or formation.
That is not to say Neil is immune from criticism or scrutiny. The buck stops with him and five league defeats and a deluge of goals conceded raise serious questions over his selection policy, his methods and his instructions. The Scot’s desire to constantly evolve, the thirst for re-invention, appear to be constricting Norwich’s quest for upward mobility.
Neil reiterated prior to the weekend he will stand and fall by his own judgements as we approach the defining end-game; there will be no sounding boards or experienced counsel sought.
That single-mindedness was a coveted trait when Norwich were thrashing about on the periphery of the Championship play-offs. Now some portray it as weakness, a stubborn refusal to accept guidance.
Those who castigate him were no doubt the ones hailing him as a managerial visionary. Credit drains brutally quickly at the elite level. There is still much to savour about our national game, even in an era of inflated admission prices and rampant commercialism, but a culture of short-termism fuelled by technology amplifying the critic’s voice is a poisonous by-product.
City may fall short in the final reckoning. Expect the recriminations to top those of recent weeks if they do, but jettisoning the man who got them there in the first place is the easy answer. Should Norwich crash out of the Premier League they will need leadership to stand any chance of a swift return.