Paddy Davitt: Time for Norwich City to get down to business in a Championship minefield

Norwich City midfielder Jonny Howson opens the scoring in the Championship play-off semi-final first

Norwich City midfielder Jonny Howson opens the scoring in the Championship play-off semi-final first leg at Portman Road in 2015. Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images - Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd

Take the temperature and gauge the reaction from Norwich City fans to the release of the Championship fixtures and it feels less like excitement and more a sense it is time to get down to business.

The early derby date at Portman Road inevitably triggered a tribal flutter or two but it did nothing to mask the realisation this is a gruelling road ahead.

The Football League Championship may have undergone a re-branding exercise, but the English Football League's (EFL) top tier is now populated by a glut of traditional, provincial powerbases.

East Anglia is just one part of this patchwork quilt. The Second City now has a derby to match the intensity and the passion in these parts, with Aston Villa accompanying Norwich out of the Premier League to renew acquaintances with Birmingham City.

Sheffield Wednesday's run to last season's play-off final suggested the Owls have emerged from a prolonged slumber. Leeds United, under the management of Garry Monk, is an experiment that could just produce the alchemy to sate the demanding Whites' figurehead Massimo Cellino.


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Derby County, similarly, have embarked on a new managerial era with the vastly-experienced Nigel Pearson – a man who knows exactly what it takes to get out of this division and has a wealthy owner to match his ambition. And all this without mentioning the Tyneside cocktail that fuses Newcastle United, Rafa Benitez and Mike Ashley together at St James' Park.

City may only have exited the Championship for one season but the landscape appears to have dramatically shifted again. That in part may explain why the optimism is tempered and the belief Norwich can compete at the top end tinged with a crushing acceptance the path is full of pitfalls.

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But Norwich now have the route map. An opening day trip to Blackburn on August 6 is perhaps a pertinent reminder of what can happen to a former Premier League staple, champions once upon a time no less, who have since slipped back into the pack; mired in poor management from the dugout and a messy ownership episode off it.

City may still be in the market for David McNally's replacement but there is no such instability at Carrow Road. Neil is committed to this fight and has the full backing of the club's board to deliver again as he did in such exhilarating circumstances at Wembley.

One well remembers Alex Tettey's honest verdict on the eve of that Championship play-off final against Middlesbrough last year, when the Norwegian opined he would have been lying on a beach rather than gearing up for the biggest club game of his career had Neil been installed earlier that season. The clear implication was City's Scottish import would have guided the Canaries into one of the automatic promotion spots. Neil and Tettey will get the chance to test that theory from minute one at Ewood Park on August 6. The Owls' Carrow Road visit is followed by upwardly mobile Bristol City and Gary O'Neil's, inset, swift return. Then it's that dash across the border to quell the latest uprising in Suffolk before finishing the first month at a Birmingham City under the astute guidance of Gary Rowett, who were well in the play-off race until fading down the stretch.

City may have avoided Newcastle or Aston Villa, Derby or Chris Hughton's Brighton but that initial burst will test their promotion credentials; particularly set against the backdrop of the final throes of the summer transfer window and all the usual distractions and machinations regarding player turnover.

Neil has already stated they need a positive start. Not just to avoid playing catch-up, like the situation he inherited when he first arrived, but perhaps to bolster the conviction of a support who realise how arduous this journey will be. The release of the league fixtures on Tuesday merely offered confirmation.

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