Paddy Davitt verdict: Time of the essence for Norwich City
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
It says everything about the scale of the decline that a fifth Championship defeat in a row for Norwich City was seen as a step forward.
The Canaries, for the most part, looked liked a Championship team for the first time in a long time. That is not meant to sound derogatory, more acknowledgement they appeared to embrace the essential elements required to compete.
There was an appetite for work, a tempo and intensity to their pressing and an aggressive intent not to be bullied defensively. But the end result was depressingly familiar and for Bradley Johnson to deliver the telling blow felt painfully apt.
Few would argue with Alex Neil's sound logic to cash in on a player who arrived at Carrow Road for free and left for many millions at the start of a Premier League odyssey in which the combative midfielder was unlikely to play a leading role.
But that was then. City's own recruitment strategy, bolstered by Johnson's transfer fee, contributed to relegation. This first reunion came on Johnson's turf; the muck and nettles, the grime and the endeavour of a Championship playing field. City's previous promotion push was propelled by the force of Johnson's personality and his goals. A sweeping left-footed finish, which may have brushed Wes Hoolahan on its way past John Ruddy, was a reminder of what Norwich miss.
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A committed performance at Derby can not be treated in isolation because it prolongs a sorry trend. City have fallen a long way short of the standard required in recent times and it will take more than effort and endeavour to placate an increasingly disenchanted support. What Norwich served up in the East Midlands was the bare minimum. What they delivered at Brighton, and to a less graphic extent every stage in between, is unacceptable. That is why there is still a palpable urge for change. City's top brass remain by Neil's side but the Scot is now on notice. Not simply due to a losing run threatening to rival the worst in the club's history, but the public messages from the top table at the recent annual meeting.
The contraction in finances, the outlay in the summer transfer window and the commitment to largely retain a squad earning Premier League salaries last season make it imperative City return swiftly. The chief executive's stated promotion aim was not a pleasing soundbite for shareholders, it was a reminder to Neil and his under-performing players how high the stakes are. Listing in the Championship is simply not an option.
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The owners may have voiced concerns about the negative impact of the huge wealth sucked towards the top end of the game but, at the start of a week marking the 20th anniversary of their arrival on the club's board, even they would accept it is the only place to operate. Loyalty to Neil will not come at the price of ambition, however tough the divorce.
A growing number of fans clearly feel that tipping point has been reached. The Scot's deep reservoir of credit for masterminding a promotion-winning surge that culminated at Wembley has evaporated.
There would be a sour irony if defeat to Brentford this weekend proved his swansong, given the Bees also inflicted his first reverse as Norwich manager. That was a fractious, angry affair notable for the toxic crowd reaction to Steven Whittaker's substitution after a failed experiment as a central midfielder, in a game decided by Alex Pritchard.
But that home loss sparked the real start of Neil's Norwich tenure, when it was his way or the highway for players he inherited and Johnson emerged as his influential talisman. The Derby midfielder's match-winner against his former employers was a reminder of what City had lost. Lose again to Brentford and the thirst for change will reach fever pitch.