Michael Bailey: The cup run is dead, long live Norwich City’s league and its focus
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In his weekly column, Norwich City correspondent and Pink Un Show host Michael Bailey wonders where it all went so right after that Sheffield spanking.
Where on earth has all this positivity, this fluid football and sense of togetherness come from? How has it all happened, such a huge leap forward from the Norwich City side of last season? And especially late last season.
It's a wide-ranging subject that we'll get to. But first things first: acknowledging the size of the gap the Canaries have bridged, and that needs a pertinent look at the starting point.
For me, it drops us off at Sunday, May 6 and Hillsborough. In essence just 16 Championship games ago, but in so many other ways a lifetime.
There's the starting XI: Angus Gunn, Harrison Reed, James Maddison and Josh Murphy are now all elsewhere, while Nelson Oliveira is persona non grata – leaving Christoph Zimmermann, Timm Klose, Jamal Lewis, Moritz Leitner, and Onel Hernández to return on Saturday and Tom Trybull hoping for involvement.
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That final day of last season – a second successive 5-1 hammering at the home of Sheffield Wednesday – was ugly. Maddison's early knee injury threatened a summer fire sale. City looked spineless, rudderless and more desperate to write-off a treacherous campaign with each passing second.
And that was without considering the future: the prospect of big-talent summer sales and the squad left behind suffering an even worse fate than a 14th-placed Championship finish.
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'That was not only painful, it was embarrassing,' a visibly angry Timm Klose told me after that Owls smashing.
'It was school kids against adults. Mistakes happen, it's just how you react – and we didn't do it at all. We have to take ourselves by the nose and do it better next season, but it's annoying and painful to end the season like this.
'The fans deserve that we go over there to apologise. The last game with nothing to play for and especially on a Sunday, they still want to come here to support us…and we play rubbish like that.'
Usually the Championship gives you a swift opportunity to put a defeat right. On this occasion City had a whole summer to stew on that desperate feeling.
This Saturday, just six months later, Norwich head back to Hillsborough where they have lost their previous two visits 5-1, failed to win since 2001 – and they will do it during a month in which they have failed to win away from Carrow Road since 2008.
Likewise they sit fourth in the table and with one Premier League scalp in the Carabao Cup – in truth they should have collected a second in Bournemouth. The radar is beeping for national journalists and opposition fans alike. Opposition bosses too.
'It was a tough night for us,' said Bournemouth boss Eddie Howe. 'Norwich played very well so full credit to them. We'd watched them a lot, they're an improving team and on that evidence will take some stopping in the Championship.'
The changes since May are wide-reaching. The very sales that worried some fans have been smoothed over by the recruitment of astute replacements and a more cohesive team, a more dynamic and pragmatic approach, a clear identity and well coached structure that can withstand personnel changes.
Perhaps most striking of all, it's a group of players who now feel on a level with their supporters. Especially away from home.
'It was one of our poorest games,' admitted Vrancic in midweek, of that end of season Hillsborough defeat. 'It was a disappointing conclusion so we are kind of looking forward to going there and it's not revenge, but to prove we can do better than the last game of the last season.'
Interestingly, Wednesday are in the midst of looking at Norwich's model and considering an attempt at emulating it – only it would be after years of their owners ploughing money into the club, rather than Premier League relegation and parachute payments running out.
Still, the predicament is the same and given a huge wage bill has failed to win promotion, the Owls want to see if there is another way – or at least a slightly cheaper way – to go about things.
For Norwich, the situation now is simple. After their fourth-round Carabao Cup extra-time exit at Arsenal last season, the wheels came off. Freshness was sacrificed for continuity, and the results suffered.
Last season Daniel Farke made just four changes ahead of 120 minutes of gruelling football at Arsenal, and then three more for the visit of a well-rested Derby four days later; both 2-1 defeats. City won only one more game before Christmas – ironically at home to the Owls.
This time around, Farke made eight changes for the League Cup trip to Bournemouth. You imagine it will be similar again come Saturday at 2pm.
That is evidential stuff in terms of Farke's Championship experience. More curious ahead of the weekend is all the talk: the psychological worry of history repeating, rather than the actually likelihood of it happening again.
It's a little test of character this weekend for Norwich City and judging by some much more relevant recent experience since their previous trip to Hillsborough, City are passing those examinations this season with flying colours. Here's to it happening again.
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