Norwich City perfectly placed to go for it
When City run out against Sheffield United at Carrow Road tomorrow afternoon it will mark the halfway point of their season – the 23rd match of a 46-game Championship campaign which has well and truly got the smell of the back straight in its nostrils and is preparing for the run home.
The cold weather which forced the postponement of yesterday's match at Selhurst Park – where a lack of undersoil heating meant a wasted early morning alarm call for thousands of Canaries fans – means the halfway point has fallen perfectly.
City have already played Palace once this season, so had the game gone head as planned it would have been a curious way to get to mid-point. As it is, Sheffield United remain the only team City have yet to face, so for those who like their football perfectly compartmentalised, it's neat and tidy.
So where do we stand in the grand scheme of things? Halfway to paradise? Halfway to the biggest prize in football? Halfway to the resurrection of Norwich City Football Club? Halfway to the banishing of bitter memories that only a complete overhaul and rethink of all things yellow and green has made at all possible?
It's not that clear cut, not a yes or no, but the evidence of the first half of the season, which has left City on the rails in a handy position, suggests that the change of fortunes that Paul Lambert has engineered on the pitch could well be moving on to a stage that was well beyond anyone's wildest dreams 18 months ago.
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But having got the first half just about out of the way, what do we have to suggest that the remainder of the campaign will follow a similar path? And if it does, will it take City into one of the coveted top two places, or will they have to battle it out with an ever-growing list of clubs challenging for a places in the lottery otherwise known as the play-offs?
Much, of course, will depend on who does what in the January transfer window –- as well as whether everyone continues this ploy of being able to beat each other and thereby refusing to allow any breakaways.
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Lambert has made it clear he has three players he wants to bring in to the club, players who will, he says, be massive for the club: we have to assume they're not young lads who he intends moulding and shaping into players of the future. The future has an expiry date of Sunday, May 8, when the two newest members of the Premier League will be officially confirmed, with a third pending.
There isn't time to develop a burgeoning talent: a player has, as is popular in football-speak nowadays, to hit the ground running. As soon as he is introduced into the Norwich City team he has to be a first team player. Time waits for no man, even if he is a League Two hotshot who may have a big future in front of him.
The assumption is that Paul Lambert will go for players he knows can do a job straight away.
They are identified, their names are in a sealed envelope: now it's up to chief executive David McNally and the board to ensure they are revealed to the world. Lambert supplies the names, the others go get. As at all football clubs, it's a trust thing: the board that doesn't trust its manager's judgment ends up sacking its manager.
Quite aside from what City have done results-wise, Lambert's track record on recruitment is impressive. Take the most recent signing, centre-half Leon Barnett. When Michael Nelson limped out of the Swansea game right at the death with an ankle injury, Lambert had to act quickly. He had to find someone who would walk into Nelson's place. So he went for Barnett: a player who couldn't quite crack West Brom's Premier League first team squad but who everyone knew could do a job in the Championship. His name was in Lambert's book at the top of the section headed: 'Centre-halves.' Result? Ready-made player.
Whenever Lambert has signed a player, on loan or permanently, he often 'refers' to his book of names: often he has known the player from his time as manager at Wycombe, or Colchester United. The player has been watched, Lambert, his trusted assistant Ian Culverhouse, and head of football operations Gary Karsa, have kept progress reports. Ewan Chester was appointed as chief scout to do the very same thing: to have a list of players that could fill every position and every demand so that when Lambert needed someone, he had a name.
'You've always got players in mind, you've got an ongoing list,' said Chester on his arrival last summer. 'You could have a list with mainly midfielders and strikers, but Paul could say he wants a defender, so it's down to the specifics.'
Might not sound like rocket science, but how many times in recent years have City been let down because the player recruitment was poor?
We've had players who have said it was their intention to get into their national side, but they've struggled to get into their club first XI.
We've had loan players who can't wait to play in front of full houses at Carrow Road – and then can't wait to get home.
What Lambert has done is what Nigel Worthington always used to say was one of the most difficult jobs in football – sign the right players. It's difficult to look at any of his signings and say they have been a disappointment. Maybe the one player whose name immediately comes to mind is Zak Whitbread, but how can you be critical of a player who is simply unlucky enough to get injured?
Lambert has made good signings, but he has proved adept at getting the best out of his players.
Russell Martin was considered not good enough for the Championship by Peterborough's then manager Darren Ferguson. Lambert signed him, and the full-back has hardly missed a beat since.
John Ruddy found it difficult to live down a pre-season howler and some poor goalkeeping which cost City a goal at home to Leicester. Watch him a little more closely, though, and you will see what a good keeper he is: his performance at Reading was magnificent.
Andrew Crofts was described as 'another Andy Hughes' by one observer. Hughes couldn't tie his bootlaces. David Fox was 'lightweight' – he's now running the passing show.
What Lambert has done when criticism has been aimed in the team's direction is deflect it: he has never once publicly criticised a player. He has never allowed one player's performance to become an excuse. Unlike one or two predecessors, he hasn't pointed at players and said: 'It was their fault.'
In return, there are rarely moments when individuals receive praise. Grant Holt scores two goals at Coventry and the response is: 'That's what he gets paid for.'
Holt and Co have done their jobs well, they've deserved their money, but the biggest prize is in sight and Lambert knows they have to do even better from now on. It's quite clear that of the 24 teams in the Championship, a good two thirds can't be written off.
Okay, the longer it goes on, the more difficult it gets to make a case for teams like Ipswich, Hull and Leicester, but so tight is it that they have a little more breathing space before we can consign them to another season in the second tier.
QPR and Cardiff looked like they might run away with it, but both have been found wanting a little of late, and their reluctance to establish a two-horse race suggests there is room for others.
Leeds have worked their way into a comfortable position while Derby showed their true colours by slipping out of the top six.
City won at Derby and Coventry and made both teams look a little ordinary; QPR didn't scare City at all, while Swansea would have got more than a 2-0 defeat at Carrow Road had they been able to convert good approach play into goals.
The so-called less fashionable teams have been as impressive as anyone: Doncaster, Reading and Malky Mackay's Watford side, who are performing cartwheels at the moment but just might come unstuck when the poachers come looking for new blood and find a manager forced to sell to balance some lopsided-looking books.
Only six teams have beaten City this season: Watford, Doncaster, Hull, Crystal Palace, Cardiff and Portsmouth.
Perhaps the most disappointing was at Doncaster, the only time when you could walk away and say, 'yes, they were well and truly beaten – and deservedly'.
Otherwise, City haven't been mullered, they've not been embarrassed, they've not been hung out to dry by anyone. They have been able to match everyone toe to toe.
The evidence suggests that if Lambert can bring in his three wise men over the next few weeks, he can, as he says, 'go for it'. He has to: the chance to complete a remarkable turnaround of Norwich City Football Club within the space of less than two years doesn't come along very often and when it's within someone's grasp, the arms have to be outstretched.