Norwich City must confront the brutal truth
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Norwich City's capacity to frustrate appears boundless after another Championship story of missed opportunity.
Those heady days when the Canaries looked like a Premier League squad-in-waiting and the rest of English football's second tier respected the threat in their midst have disappeared, but even in the recent downturn there was always a sense it would take just a spark, a catalyst to turn the tide.
Norwich squandered that the moment Russell Martin's thumping strike crashed past Brighton's David Stockdale early in the second half at Carrow Road.
Both teams had circled each other in a forgettable first period before Bruno Saltor escaped Martin Olsson's attentions and Jonny Howson dragged City level to quell a rising atmosphere of dissension.
But all that angst, all that restlessness in a home support watching another game of patience from the men in green and yellow dissolved when Martin stepped forward to lash Jake Forster-Caskey's clearing header beyond the defiant Stockdale.
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This was the point, the line in the sand, the pivotal sea change in a season of declining optimism when Norwich would re-assert their promotion credentials. Instead it took an emergency cameo from the predatory Gary Hooper to rescue a point. The audible boos at the final whistle were not borne out of frustration, they were fuelled by anger at City's inability to grasp a genuine lifeline to restore fading belief.
Neil Adams was right to focus on Norwich's failings in front of goal, as much as fresh defensive frailty, in searching for the reasons why Brighton looked poised for a rare away win until Hooper emerged from hibernation.
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There was no mitigation offered by Adams. No feeling Stockdale's shot-stopping prowess or Kazenga Lualua's brilliance at the other end had denied his brittle players a merited victory.
The time for that has long since past. This is now about the residual deficiencies which will consign City to the periphery of a promotion race taking shape around them until they are eradicated.
Jos Hooiveld was painted as a culpable figure in the second half implosion after the experienced defender hung a leg Sam Baldock needed no invitation to go over inside the City box. But this was a collective abdication from a position of strength. Not even the excellent Howson was immune in the manner he seemed momentarily mesmerised deep inside his own area as Lualua stalled and then took off in a blurring motion to crash a low strike past John Ruddy.
Whichever collective Adams has sent into battle during these last two months there appears some inescapable and painful truths. Bolton may have provided brief respite but even that was a match City almost contrived to lose in the closing stages.
Norwich's game management is non-existent; the ability to dictate the flow, to slow the pace or increase the intensity to suit their own ends rather than those of the opposition.
In the midst of Stockdale's resistance after Martin's stunner, City's play needed to be smart and streetwise when the third and fourth goals failed to materialise. The hosts should have been able to erect enough obstacles in front of Ruddy to deny the likes of Lualua space in which to profit. Instead they surged forward, emptying midfield and leaving the backline exposed to a growing threat.
Adams has enough experience at his disposal within this squad to assess such real-time problems, but the questions over a lack of leadership will persist until they arrest the decline. Too often in recent times City find themselves the wrong side of the dividing line when their hard work and quality puts them into winning positions.
There is another truism which Adams himself highlighted in his post-match briefing. Norwich may have finally accepted they are not good enough or patient enough to suffocate sides in the Championship with their passing ideology. City went to Teesside last month and had 55% of the ball but were battered into submission. It is not and never will be about how much of the ball they have but what they do with it. If they must temper their natural instincts then that is no admission of failure on the part of Adams or his players.
Norwich have to be pragmatic, not romantic, in their pursuit of rivals who will be out of sight come the New Year if there is no change in current trends.
That Norwich remain a single victory away from the play-off positions is just as remarkable as pondering how this squad can muster only one league win from the last nine; but that provides cold comfort in the current predicament.
Adams will be able to call on the likes of Ryan Bennett, Wes Hoolahan and Vadis Ofoe before the festive spell, while Hooper underlined his value after Cameron Jerome and Lewis Grabban had produced another shift dripping in effort but with no tangible end product.
Mike Phelan's pending arrival offers that experienced bulwark many felt was missing in the darker moments of a season that is listing badly. There are no excuses now. Adams knows it is time to deliver.