In their 1983 book “The Encyclopaedia Of British Football”, writers Phil Soar and Martin Tyler use a photograph of a match between Norwich City and Southampton as an example of the changing face of football. They compare the rise of smaller club from affluent cities in the south of England with the decline of traditional clubs from their Northern equivalents. It’s a somewhat disingenuous comparison – although the likes of Watford, Southampton, Oxford United and Ipswich Town were enjoying different yet unprecedented levels of success in the early 1980s, trophy winning was dominated as much by the big cities in the north of England then as it ever has been before or since and nothing much has changed in that respect – but the proposition of there being a new generation of smaller, slimmed down clubs that would be the way of the future is an interesting one, in so far as that it signalled the extent to which even those within the game seemed to believe that scaling down was the only way forward for football.
Skip forward twenty-six years, and Norwich vs Southampton will be a fixture in League One rather than Division One. Times have changed, but few would have anticipated in the early 1980s the extent of the modernisation that would take place in English football. There hasn’t been a death of provincial clubs per se, but what it may be fair to say is that there have been some middle ranking clubs whose supporters have been a little bit lucky over the last few decades or so in that their clubs have over-performed for decades on end. Norwich City, arguably, is one of them. Norwich is a city of just 120,000 people, yet this season is the first in fifty years that the Norwich City has started the season outside of the top two divisions of English football. Plenty of “bigger” clubs – Aston Villa, Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United, Leeds United, Manchester City and more – have had time in the Third or Fourth Divisions since Norwich City last did.
Norwich City’s record came to an end on the last day of last season but, as challenging as their new environment may or may not be, no-one, really, was expecting what happened at Carrow Road last Saturday. Almost everybody had picked Norwich City out as being amongst the favourites for promotion from League One this season, but their capitulation against Colchester United last week was so feeble and so disorganised that it overstepped the mark into being chaotic on more than occasion. For the couple of Norwich supporters that managed to get onto the pitch and into the vicinity of manager Bryan Gunn, it was all a little bit too much. The season ticket that was scrunched up and thrown at Gunn may yetturn out to be the most expensive of the season, but in an almost unprecedented move, the owner of said ticket received his wish this week in a very literal sense when Gunn was sacked.
Between these two events Gunn felt that he may have saved his reputation with a 4-0 League Cup win at Yeovil Town on Tuesday night which was more in line with pre-season expectations of what they would achieve. What is curious is the matter of why the directors of the club seemed to hesitate before sacking Gunn. It may have made more sense, if things at Carrow Road are really that bad, to have removed him last Sunday or Monday and allowed his caretaker replacement a little time to bed in – as it turned out, his removal on Thursday (the first of the season, of course) looked like it was a decision made by directors suddenly panicked by an appalling result last week. Ian Crook is the caretaker manager, with Paul Ince – two winless matches into his return to Milton Keynes – the favourite to replace him in the long term.
The Norwich directors put themselves in a tricky situation through their own actions. Giving Gunn – a Norwich legend as a player – his first managerial position always gave the impression of being a populist stunt, when Gunn had no experience above some coaching and scouting work for Norwich. He was appointed as their caretaker-manager in January but was unable to keep them in The Championship and probably should have been replaced during the summer as the club began a clean sweep in preparation for a season in – for them – uncharted territories. Gunn’s appointment and hasty removal hasn’t really done anyone any favours. Gunn’s legendary status at Carrow Road has been tarnished, Norwich’s start to the season has been massively disrupted and, even if he may have been in the pub since lunchtime last Saturday and the supporter that threw his season ticket at Gunn is risking a lifetime ban from Carrow Road as the result of his actions. The club needs to stabilise quickly if it is to get into the frame for promotion this season and, with League One proving to be a difficult division to get out of, Norwich’s next managerial appointment may just turn out to be one of the most important in the club’s history.