At the end of last season, it rather felt as if one of the more significant success stories of the previous ten months had been overlooked. As the nation salivated over Barcelona in the Champions League and cheered Wimbledon back into the Football League, Norwich City supporters could have been forgiven for feeling a little bit forgotten for having achieved something a little bit special – back to back promotions which ended with the club back in the Premier League. As the team takes the pitch at Wigan Athletic for their opening match of the new season, their opening match in League One from two years prior – a 7-1 home thrashing at the hands of Colchester United – may well feel like a million years ago. Norwich, they may well sing on that day, are back.
The financial benefits of promotion are evident, even if the team can only manage one season in the Premier League. They will earn a minimum of £40m from television money, their commercial revenues will increase and match-day income should also increase. Even considering the dread possibility of next season being a one season only stay in the Premier League, they will continue to benefit from the plumpened parachute payments that now greet clubs relegated from the Premier League, which will be worth a further £48m over the four years following any relegation and will only end should the club subsequently be promoted back into the Premier League again. The club does have financial issues – its debt exceeded its annual turnover at the end of last season – but even the briefest stay would, if treated prudently, set it very much back on the right track.
Why, though, should next season be a one-off for Norwich City? There are, of course, plenty of examples of clubs that reached the Premier League and found it all too much to handle, but there are also plenty of examples of clubs that haven’t and that have managed to consolidate their position in the top flight. Times may have changed, but historical precedent doesn’t have to take a pessimistic tone: between 1972 and 1995, for example, Norwich City spent just three seasons outside of the top division of English football, and each of those three seasons were spent getting promotion back from whence they came. Recent years have, of course, been more problematic for the club (the 2004/05 season being its sole season in the Premier League since 1995), but Norwich City have been here before, and there will be many of their supporters that still vividly remember their run in the 1993/94 UEFA Cup, when they beat Bayern Munich on the way to elimination at the hands of Internazionale. This is a club whose pedigree is some way from the stereotypes that will doubtlessly be thrown their way over the next ten months.
Top division football has changed much in the eighteen years since that run, though, and Norwich’s first aim for next season will be to give it all in order to stay up. To this end, the aforementioned defeat at the hands of Colchester a couple of years ago was significant in more than one way. The architect of Norwich’s collapse that day was Paul Lambert, and Lambert was soon transported to Norwich as a replacement for Norwich’s manager that day, Bryan Gunn. To say that Lambert’s career path has been idiosyncratic would be something of an understatement. His background may have been typical enough – he is from the same part of Glasgow that gave the world Alex Ferguson and Kenny Dalglish, to name but two – but his playing career never took in a spell in England, instead being spent in Scotland (with St Mirren, Motherwell and Celtic) and, most notably, for a season in Germany with Borussia Dortmund, where he won the Champions League in 1997.
Perhaps it was this non-engagement with the sometimes baser elements of the English game that brought this thoughtful, meticulous manager through. If Lambert may have learned the value of hard work in Scotland, it may have been his spell in Germany (where he sat his coaching licences) that have him that extra, dare we say it thoughtful, edge. Lambert’s team plays attractive, passing football – something of a tradition at Norwich over the years – and managing to have kept hold of him for the duration of the summer may prove to be the most significant achievement of the summer. With little to lose – in the cold light of modern football, there are few that would anticipate much more than a relegation struggle or sitting just above it for Norwich City next summer – the environment could be just right for Paul Lambert to try and prove what he can do with his club, next season.
On the playing front, the promotion team has been held together. The three most-prized assets – Grant Holt, Chris Martin and Wes Hoolahan – were all, smartly, tied to contracts which would guarantee the club their services for this season or a hefty transfer fee in return, whilst Lambert’s manoeuvring in the transfer market has been canny, to say the least. Two years ago, Steve Morison was still celebrating having won the Blue Square Premier title with Stevenage Borough, but thirty-five goals in eighty-three games since then for Millwall have earned him international caps for Wales and now the chance to chance his arm in the Premier League, while James Vaughan, who has had horrifically bad luck with injuries during a lengthy spell with Everton that saw him spend much of his time there on the treatment bench or on loan, might yet prove the potential that he has never quite managed to reach yet. Finally, Richie de Laet has joined on a season-long loan from Manchester United. De Laet is also something of a potential unpolished gem – perhaps Lambert will be able to bring the best out of him, as well.
For all that we talk of the technicalities of the game, however, perhaps Norwich City during the coming season will be most watchable as an example of the potential power of positive thinking. Last season’s Premier League was tight enough for several clubs that have not had to contemplate the possibility of relegation for some years to have to think about it a little harder than they might have wanted to, even if only for a matter of a few weeks, and if this summer has had any sort of theme amongst several more established Premier League clubs, it has been a concern, bordering on psychosis, that they will be dragged into a relegation battle this season. To that extent, Norwich City, have comparatively little to lose. They are already second favourites with the bookmakers to be relegated at the end of this season, and the relatively modest expectations of the club and its supporters may even be to their benefit over the coming months.
What we did learn about the Premier League last season, however, was that there is a lot of mediocrity in the bottom half of it. Perhaps where newly-promoted teams occasionally struggle in the Premier League is that, in the Football League, the forty-six match season allows room for mistakes. With eight fewer league matches to play in the Premier League, however, there is less room for error – every single match counts, and there have been plenty of teams that have come to regret sloppy points dropped when it felt as if it might not matter at the end of the season. It is to be expected that Paul Lambert is too smart to have not considered this possibility, and that Norwich City’s first priority for next season may be to keep the individual mistakes from needlessly throwing points away. Above that, if they keep playing to the principles that Lambert has instilled in them over the last couple of seasons, they have every chance of surviving the trapdoor come next May.
Even taking into consideration the worst case scenario of relegation, Norwich City will benefit significantly from a return to the Premier League in the financial sense. Having turned a corner on the pitch and heading in the right direction away from it, the manager seems like the right man for the job, and a clearly talented squad has been augmented with a handful of signings that are from the pile marked “interesting” rather than that marked “startling”. Moreover, two years of consistent success will have bred a culture of confidence amongst the club’s players that may be very much to their benefit once the ball gets rolling at Wigan in a couple of weeks’ time. It’s one of football’s biggest ironies of the last few years or so, but that 7-1 League One home defeat by Colchester in August 2009 might just have turned out to be the best thing to happen to the club in a very long time.
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