Paddy Davitt verdict: Norwich City at the point of no return
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Norwich City's passionate support has had enough. Watching your football club is supposed to be entertainment. Watching your football club is supposed to be fun. This season is unrelenting misery.
A downward spiral of hope and expectation since whacking a poor Blackburn side on the opening weekend. The manager speaks of arrogance, of complacency. Russell Martin emerges from an away dressing room at Brighton to question the mentality and fighting spirit of some of his colleagues. Those are not the noises of a club pulling in the same direction; they are distress signals translated into a malaise routinely served up under Alex Neil since he hoisted aloft September's manager-of-the-month award.
The time has come for some brutal reality. Any still harbouring hopes of automatic promotion hover on the delusional side of optimistic. Even if this group of under-performing players, led by a manager who appears increasingly stubborn, inflexible and reactionary, could rouse themselves for any concerted passage of time the likes of Newcastle United and Brighton have disappeared over the horizon. Frankly, the top six looks out of reach. Not based on the points differential to overcome but the prevailing winds.
David Wagner's Huddersfield were the best team seen at Carrow Road this season. Cohesive, young, energetic, fearless. Norwich justifiably could point to Elias Kachunga standing in an offside position to head the opening goal. Or the slim margin between Seb Bassong's late header dropping inside the far-post. But a draw would merely paper over the cracks. Much like those recent home wins against Brentford and Aston Villa, where Bees' boss Dean Smith accused his players of downing tools after the interval, whilst Steve Bruce was equally scathing towards the attitude of his men.
One word the urbane Wagner uttered in his post-match media duties stood out above all others. Identity. The Terriers have it. Norwich had it when Neil arrived in these parts to galvanise a squad listing on the periphery of the promotion pack. Now they have lost it. The Canaries are rudderless; they appear a collection of individuals, not a team unit who defend and attack on the same page. The last four goals conceded have all come down their left flank. The centre backs and keeper raise palpitations whenever they try to play out methodically from the back and, when the crowd voice displeasure, launch it aimlessly long. Neil has a midfield mix without the legs or energy to last the gruelling pace. Timm Klose on the bench, Alex Pritchard not even in the squad, James Maddison parked at Aberdeen. The dots are everywhere and the manager appears incapable of joining them up.
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Think back to Wembley and the play-off final. That was the zenith of Neil's tenure. Arguably the club's biggest-ever game, if you measure it purely on financial metrics, and one City won within the opening 15 minutes when they went 2-0 up through a team goal of immeasurable quality. Started on the left by Martin Olsson, finished on the right by Nathan Redmond. Norwich were composed, controlled and clinical on the biggest stage under the most severe pressure. None of those attributes are evident in this current group; a better set of players but an inferior team. Seven defeats in nine Championship league games is a disgrace. A team full of character, a team willing to fight for each other led by a man with a coherent strategy would have turned some of those losses into hard-fought draws, maybe even nicked a game or two.
Look at this weekend's latest set of league results. Brighton, Reading, Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday all won games beyond the 89th minute, when the belief remained strong and the energy levels high. This Norwich collective have provided Ian Holloway with his only win to date, in his latest QPR sojourn, allowed Barnsley to win their first game in 11 meetings and now compliantly rolled over as Huddersfield prevailed at Carrow Road for the first time since 1969.
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It is embarrassing and that is why ever-increasing numbers of Norwich fans turned on Friday night. Neil is not a scapegoat but he is responsible for this mess. He has assembled a squad unable to match the intensity and relentless workload of clubs who harbour genuine promotion ambitions as we approach the halfway mark.
The Scot may not survive, now the frustration has publicly turned in the direction of the club's owners, but the structural problems in an aging squad run much deeper than managerial change.
This season is at a crossroads. Bouncing back at the first attempt was always going to be the best chance but if the tipping point has been reached it is time to dismantle and re-build; to genuinely develop a strong identity forged on a group of promising young players. That will require honesty, realism and a painful lowering of expectations in the short-term. Yet that might be the only way to salvage a season which started with so much promise and has descended into a pit of despair.