Paddy Davitt verdict: Time for Alex Neil to put his stamp on Norwich City
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
There was a moment midway through the first half at Goodison Park during an impromptu drinks break that the mind wandered back to a similar scene on the opening day of the Premier League season.
Crystal Palace arrived at Carrow Road on a sun-kissed August afternoon to encounter a vibrant Norwich City on the pitch and in the stands, still radiating that post-Wembley glow.
The sweltering temperatures were matched by the ferocity of the Canaries' ambition. Palace may have exploited City's naivety to claim the points that day but it did little to puncture the palpable mood of optimism for what lay ahead.
Norwich's players huddled around Alex Neil again on the Goodison Park touchline, in a lull sparked by treatment to young Toffees' full-back Matthew Pennington for a hamstring injury, but there was none of the verve or belief they had exuded ten months earlier.
The fairytale became an unyielding grind that finally reached a conclusion with Sunderland's midweek cruise, in what also doubled as Roberto Martinez's swansong.
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The tempo and the intensity shown by Norwich bore little relation to those heady days of summer. Matt Jarvis' hooked first-time shot high into the home terracing, from Cameron Jerome's set-up on the edge of the Everton penalty area in the first period, sparked an ironic chant of 'that's why we're going down' from the away end. It was hard to argue.
Jerome had earlier headed at Tim Howard from close range in another finish that lacked conviction. Everton took the lead seconds later when youngster Kieran Dowell cut inside and James McCarthy crashed an unstoppable rising shot past John Ruddy.
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That in essence is why Norwich will begin next season in the Championship and why Neil was right in his brutal post-relegation analysis.
City lacked the richness in resources and the quality to mix it as equals over consistent periods. There is no doubt Norwich will come back swinging after a summer of reflection. That show of unity and the strong connection between those loyalists and their team will not be broken by a second relegation in three seasons. The reception afforded Neil on a purely personal, human level during the lap of appreciation, after demotion was confirmed against Watford, was genuine and heartfelt.
The Scot, for the vast majority of supporters, is the right man to guide the Canaries back to the top table, but this campaign should underline he can not do alone.
The 34-year-old's sheer force of personality appeared to sweep up a hesitant squad of players to guide them on that memorable journey which gathered pace at frightening speed and culminated in Wembley glory. That was the high point of his brief Carrow Road tenure. The events of the last few days and hours mark the nadir, but Neil will feel a sense of duty and responsibility to put this right. It is the days and weeks ahead that matter now. Norwich must swiftly fill the vacancy left by David McNally and embark on surgery to a squad that demonstrated again at Goodison Park it has limitations at the highest level.
Neil's shock treatment when he first arrived from Hamilton produced an immediate reaction. Now he has the opportunity, perhaps for the first time in his rapid ascent to the Carrow Road dugout, to really take stock and place his mark firmly on the football club once he has sat down and thrashed out a clear way forward with the owners.
The Norwich manager has spoken in the past about wanting to mould a club in his own image, to construct something lasting that contradicts perhaps the thirst for short-term fixes in his precarious profession. The goodwill is there on the terraces and in the boardroom but he needs to be backed in the market to refresh a squad that looked stale when it really mattered over the Premier League run-in. This is not simply about targeting an immediate return to the top flight but putting the pillars in place for longer term sustainability.
Everton's line-up featured two teenage tearaways in Dowell and Tom Davies who brought a freshness and youthful energy to a game in all honesty that was ripe for experimentation.
Neil will have discovered little about his group of players as they toiled at Goodison Park; it simply reaffirmed what he already knew. What we all already knew.
Norwich have their own collection of raw talent waiting in the wings but the Championship is testing terrain. City will reasonably be expected to lead from the front when August and those sweltering temperatures come round again. They have to turn the page quickly and embrace the expectation.