Season review: Campaign of missed chances

CHRIS LAKEY There's a famous and oft-repeated story about George Best, Miss World and pots of money strewn on a bed, which ends with the line, “so where did it all go wrong, George?” Perhaps it's not too contrived to suggest that Norwich City fans might be asking the very same question.


There's a famous and oft-repeated story about George Best, Miss World and pots of money strewn on a bed, which ends with the line, “so where did it all go wrong, George?”

Perhaps it's not too contrived to suggest that Norwich City fans might be asking the very same question.

Just three years ago, we were all celebrating a new dawn: the First Division trophy was safely under lock and key, the Premiership beckoned, the money was banked and all was rosy in the Carrow Road garden.

But then it all went wrong. A dreadful Premiership campaign was accepted by many with a shrug of the shoulders - on the proviso that it wasn't repeated in the first season back in what was now called the Championship.

It did. And the patience that had disguised the disappointment of the year before began to run out.

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Season 2006-07 would be pivotal, crucial to the future of the club. Those at the end of their tether were ready to unfurl the banners and wave the Worthy Out stickers. The trapdoor was ready and waiting for the drop.

Something had to give: it was either a back-down by fans, or the noose for Worthington.

But, as they say, the fans are with the club for ever - and, unless you're Dario Gradi, managers move on.

For many, Worthington should have been moved on already, either during the Premiership season, at the end of it, or at any time during the first season back in the second tier. The opportunities had been there, but the board had waited, giving Worthington every chance to turn it around.

Five games into the season and it looked like their patience was being rewarded. Okay, it started off with a defeat, at Leeds, but the performance was encouraging. Wins over Preston and Luton, a draw with Derby and then a 5-1 home hammering of Barnsley saw City climb into second in the table. Three home games had yielded 10 goals, Robert Earnshaw was firing, the fans were delirious.

An international break followed, giving Worthington time to try his luck in the transfer market before the August 31 deadline - and quite possibly have a few private thoughts along the lines of “I told you so”.

But things didn't quite go as planned: David Cotterill's £2m move from Bristol City was hijacked by Wigan, Leon McKenzie went to Coventry for £1m and suddenly the ship looked a little rocky.

Nine days later it sprung a leak with a 3-0 defeat at, ironically, Coventry. A blip, we said. A 3-1 lead just after half-time at Southend would prove us right, we said - until City capitulated and allowed Mark Gower to score a 90th-minute equaliser (a goal time we would hear far too often over the course of the season).

Another blip, we said.

But then came Palace at home and another 90th-minute winner.

How many blips can one manager take? The answer would soon become apparent - and it came from the top.

The long haul to Plymouth was completely and utterly fruitless. City were appalling. The leak had become a gaping hole.

And then, for the first time since Worthington had taken charge more than five years earlier, Delia Smith and hubby Michael Wynn Jones stepped on to centre stage. City's first lady had had fire in her eyes as she boarded a minibus at Home Park bound for the local airport. Two days later a joint statement - which, unlike so many statements was not “carefully worded” at all - spelt out what her great friend and ally Worthington had to do to win her back.

In a nutshell, the manager was given two games to turn it around, or he'd be out. As it transpired, one game was enough. If Plymouth had been bad, then we'd seen nothing yet. Burnley, whose form had been patchy to say the least, came to Carrow Road and ransacked the place.

Worthington struggled to come up with answers after a 4-1 defeat which even Steve Cotterill looked embarrassed by.

His answers to the media cut little ice. The newsmen waited around, knowing something was in the air. Delia's chauffer-driven car was outside a deserted stadium, one of Worthington's sons was spotted in a corridor crying. And then came the statement we had all expected: Worthington had been sacked.

It was a momentous decision, given the close relationship between board and manager - but it had to be made.

A look at Worthington's recent record showed City had reached the Premiership on the back of 28 wins, 10 draws and just eight defeats. But they won just seven and lost 19 in the top flight and the following season won 18 and lost 20. In two seasons they'd won fewer than they had in the whole of the title-winning campaign.

It wasn't quite a case of the King is dead, long live the King - but the hunt for manager number 37 was on. The speculation is, now, irrelevant - a few thousand words later the job went to former Canaries midfielder Peter Grant, who was assistant manager to Alan Pardew at West Ham.

Grant watched from the stands as Martin Hunter took charge for the draw at QPR, and then engineered wins at Birmingham and at home to Cardiff in his first two games in charge. It was the start to a new career which he could only have dreamed of.

But don't forget the timing: it was mid-October and Grant had to wait until January 1 before he could get any players in on a permanent basis. But instead of waiting two months, he brought in loan signings Luke Chadwick and Chris Brown - both with a view to permanent singings in January.

It didn't work out - both were injured soon after arriving and little has been seen of them since. It was to be a recurring theme.

Grant would have to rely on the players already here - and hope they didn't let him down as they had Worthington. Grant's regular public criticism of his playing staff came as a shock, especially when it involved Darren Huckerby.

Celtic were one of many clubs who sniffed around hoping for Huckerby to bolt, but, despite the trauma of a shocking result at Portman Road, the home defeat to Sheffield Wednesday and the failure to put poor old Southend away at Carrow Road, Huckerby was still around in time for the FA Cup.

Promotion talk hung around like a bad smell, but Grant's hopes weren't help by an injury crisis that was as bad as most could remember in recent years. And it wasn't just a player here and a player there - it came in bunches, and usually infected the same department at the same time.

But the biggest loss of all was Earnshaw. The striker had 18 in 28 starts and was on course to become the first City player to break the 30-goal mark in half a century.

Earnshaw's absence plus January losses to Palace, Plymouth and Wolves convinced the majority of those outside the dressing room that promotion talk was all rather too optimistic. There was a frisson of excitement thanks to the FA Cup - and while victory over Conference side Tamworth had no right to set the pulses racing, it did highlight the contribution Huckerby and Dion Dublin would make in Earnshaw's absence. Two goals apiece and City were past the third round for only the second time in 10 seasons.

Blackpool were despatched, partly due to a goal by new kid on the block Chris Martin, but the excitement ended with a 4-0 defeat at Chelsea that didn't reflect City's performance. But that was the Cup, not the league, where fortunes still fluctuated. Birmingham and Stoke were beaten - then City collapsed at Colchester.

Once again, Grant was reduced to putting square pegs in round holes - and some very young pegs began appearing on the scene too. Kris Renton became the youngest player in the club's history when he came on at Leicester - where Worthington had surfaced as temporary boss - while Bally Smart appeared at Burnley.

A home draw with Ipswich, defeat by Southampton in the final home game of the season and an unfortunate final day loss at Sheffield Wednesday all followed.

The final five games were a microcosm of City's season: up and down form, up and down results - and bags of injuries. But they will not be accepted as excuses next season. Because there can be no excuses.

Grant starts the season as manager for the first time and the team he puts out will be one in his own image. He doesn't have pots of money, but if the team reflect his undoubted passion for the game, then they have a chance.