City crisis: Who's to blame?

STEVE DOWNES Norwich City are flirting with relegation to the third tier for the first time in more than 40 years. They have gone six games without a goal for the first time since 1912.

STEVE DOWNES

Norwich City are flirting with relegation to the third tier for the first time in more than 40 years. They have gone six games without a goal for the first time since 1912. So who is to blame for the current crisis? STEVE DOWNES puts the board, the manager and the players under the spotlight.

THE BOARD

Some say the buck stops with the manager. But who gave Peter Grant the job, complete with glowing tributes? The board. Given a blank sheet on paper in the wake of Nigel Worthington's departure, Delia Smith, Neil Doncaster et al put their faith in a man with no previous managerial experience and who had next to no top-level playing career to fall back on. The appointment was a massive gamble, and it has backfired.

For the seeds of the current crisis, however, the clock has to be turned back by more than three years. In May 2004, City were celebrating the unstoppable surge to the Premiership. They finished the season one win away from safety. Arguably, they were one or two quality players away from laying firm foundations in the top flight. But the board's policy of “prudence with ambition” delivered relegation. Less prudence, more ambition may have been the way forward. Speculate to accumulate.

Worthington was given a fair chance to get the Canaries back to the top table. He was also given money to spend - though not on the same scale as some clubs in their first season down. Pretty quickly it was obvious that City were not going to bounce right back, but fans' protests were ignored as Worthington was allowed to stay at the helm.

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At the start of the next season, after a run of dreadful performances, Worthy was out. But the board stood accused of leaving it far too late. By the time Grant was in, City were deep into their second and final season of parachute payments, and the combative Scot had little more than a mid-table finish and a root-and-branch player review to contemplate.

With this season just weeks away, Rob Earnshaw and Dickson Etuhu were allowed to leave - courtesy of puzzling escape clauses that were in their contracts with the full knowledge of the board. Grant's foundations were crumbling before he even began his first full season in charge. Given relative peanuts to spend, he shopped in the bargain bin - and appears to have got a load of rubbish for his money.

The manager has borne the wrath of many fans, but in big business the casualties of failure are found at the very top. Should a board that has been almost immune from criticism for years share much of the blame for underinvestment, lack of ambition, poor judgement and indecision that have combined to take City to the brink?

THE EX-MANAGER

Peter Grant spends entire matches pointing the finger at players, telling them what to do, where to stand and how to kick the ball. But should the finger be pointing at him? When he was appointed a year ago, he asked to be judged on his own team. He has put that team together and City are in a more parlous state than when he replaced Worthington. Some of the players, including Julien Brellier, Chris Brown, David Strihavka and Luke Chadwick look off the pace and bereft of quality.

Injuries to key players have not helped his cause, but the manager has chopped and changed the team and the tactics so often that nobody - least of all the players - has any idea what is expected of them. For many fans, the sight of striker Chris Brown trying to play in midfield against Sheffield Wednesday summed up Grant's muddled ideas.

But perhaps the worst of his crimes has been his handling of the players. Star turn Huckerby was publicly dressed down for failing to tackle back - not something he was asked to do when he tore apart defences during the 2003/4 promotion season. And Jamie Cureton's reward for a two-goal debut against Barnet was to be hauled off, blanked, then publicly humiliated for failing to pass to another player when he was aiming for hat-trick. The top managers rarely, if ever, go public in attacking individual players. To do so is dangerous, but to target two key senior players was bordering on crazy.

Another scathing criticism of Grant is that he does not trust the players to carry out his pre-match instructions. He is a relentless presence on the touchline during matches, waving his arms and shouting so much that he looks like a drowning man desperately trying to catch the attention of a rescuer. The players look bemused, confused and irritated by the whirling dervish performance.

All of which points to one possible conclusion. The public dressings down, the constant instructions, the tactical tinkering and the lack of previous experience have combined to leave Grant without the support of the players. And, as Worthington found when City crumbled 4-1 at home to Burnley in his final match, that is the beginning of the end.

THE PLAYERS

Huckerby, Marshall, Cureton, Shackell, Drury, Croft, Martin, Russell, Dublin. Most managers in the Championship would rub their hands with glee if they had players of this quality to choose from. But inexplicably the players have failed to perform. They may be simmering away behind the scenes, muttering darkly about the manager and the tactics, but only they can materially affect results. And the fact is, almost to a man they haven't performed this season.

Pre-match battle-cries, promises of all-out effort and pledges to fight for the cause have had a hollow ring. For when the whistle has blown, many of them have appeared to be going through the motions. Wolves and QPR away are merely the most recent examples of no-shows. For the fans who pay a small fortune to watch the games, and the manager who put his faith in them, that is a disgrace.

Having conceded 11 goals in 10 league games, perhaps the defenders should escape much of the flak. But the midfield has been invisible, lacking bite or creativity, and the strikers - though feeding on scraps - look pedestrian. The fans expect them to give their all. If that results in defeat, it is easier to take. But when they are shorn of commitment, it is the unforgiveable sin. Few supporters have the talent or the energy to perform on the pitch. But even fewer would be accused of a lack of effort if they got the chance. They would bust a gut for their beloved team.

Unfortunately, the players appear to have withdrawn their labour. They are on the pitch during games, but look as though they are going through the motions in a bid to force a change of manager. Such thinking, which you would have thought beyond the wit of an average bunch of footballers, is cynical and indefensible. They may get their wish, but they won't earn any respect.