Premier League survival is still the only goal for Norwich City
In the last of a three-part series previewing the Canaries' Premier League season, which starts at Fulham this weekend, EDP Norwich City writer Paddy Davitt gauges the scale of the challenge facing the club again in the top flight.
Norwich City's first Premier League season in years was spent proving people wrong. This time around they have to prove people right.
The Canaries comfortably avoided becoming embroiled in a lengthy relegation fight. A superbly consistent spell of results around the turn of this calendar year ensured the only imponderable over the run-in was how far they would finish clear of those in greatest peril.
Such success raises expectations. City's squad has remained largely intact, save the summer departures of players who, with the possible exception of Zak Whitbread, had a peripheral part in the latest chapter of the story. Chris Hughton has drafted in fresh blood. More may still follow before the end of this month. The club's continued membership of the richest league in the world guarantees financial stability over the short term. City as a collective entity should be stronger, more self-confident, emboldened by the forged experience of adapting and then flourishing amongst the big boys.
Norwich, and Swansea for that matter, may have lost the element of surprise. In its place one hopes is a new sense of belonging; no longer a fear of the unknown. The doubting voices will remain – the turf accountants of the land have delivered their verdicts and are warning Norwich must brace themselves for an uphill survival battle.
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Hughton's men should not lack motivation. Norwich's squad is almost exclusively populated by characters who have emerged from the wrong side of the tracks. Players who started at the very bottom or were released from clubs at the very top and had to plot their way back to footballing Nirvana. One delicious taste of Premier League football is unlikely to sate their appetite.
City must again play on the edge; to show that collective desire of a challenger rather than a feature of the Establishment.
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Reading, Southampton and even West Ham embark on the same journey this weekend. Norwich's fans and players will remember that sense of anticipation before the opening day trip to Wigan; that imperceptible feeling the Premier League really is the be all and end all.
Survival remains the reference point. Go any part of the way to emulating last season's mid-table finish and the Canaries will again have exceeded even the most optimistic expectations. Reading and Saints have looked to adopt the same transfer methodology that has served Norwich so well by securing some of the Football League's more cost-effective talent. Perhaps with the caveat of Pavel Pogrebnyak's expensive arrival for the Royals after his brief loan stint at Fulham and Jay Rodriguez's ridiculously over-priced south coast switch. Nevertheless, Southampton and Reading have shown their hand. West Ham's pursuit of Andy Carroll merely underlines the Hammers also have the financial clout to compete.
The question mark against all three before a ball is kicked this weekend is the same one Norwich and Swansea had to answer. Can they build on Championship success to bridge that divide? Last season's survival for all three promoted clubs was the exception to the general Premier League rule. You can feasibly predict the prevailing trend is unlikely to be bucked a second time.
The Swans face a critical end to this transfer window. Like Norwich, they lost one of the brightest managerial prospects in the domestic game over the summer – but differed markedly in their approach to succession planning. While the Canaries opted for the experience of Hughton, Michael Laudrup was enticed to south Wales; an unproven managerial commodity which surely injects a potential destabilising factor into the mix allied to the recent departure of key midfielder Joe Allen.
And then there is Wigan. The modern-day escapologists. Roberto Martinez's ability to reverse seemingly lost causes deserves enduring respect, but the Latics' summer business hardly suggests a dramatic strengthening of the Spaniard's squad. Hugo Rodallega and Mohamed Diame were solid citizens who have swapped the north-west for London, while Victor Moses' imminent exit would be a serious blow as Norwich's defence can readily testify on the evidence of last season.
Ultimately, City's fate will again rest on their shoulders. To take solace in identifying three rivals they can finish above is essentially misguided. Norwich will succeed or fail by their own efforts. By that measure there is genuine grounds for optimism. The Canaries' squad was good enough last season; they are good enough this season. They just have to prove it.