The bottom half of the Premier League was a congested place last season, and if it’s reasonable to suggest that last year’s table in this division could reasonable have been split into two divisions, with an invisible dotted line placed below Liverpool in seventh place in the table, then Norwich City had another good season, finishing in a healthy-looking eleventh place in the table, having defied the predictions of those who had stated with confidence that they would: a. Drop straight back into the Football League at the end of their first season in the manner of a piano falling from height onto someone’s head in a Laurel & Hardy film at the first attempt, and/or: b. Drop back into the Football League at the end of their second season in the manner of a piano falling on someone’s head in a Laurel & Hardy film.
Yet neither time did this happen, and Norwich’s mid-table performance last time around now means that they will be widely expected to maintain their division amongst the nation’s top twenty this season. Such is the crippling burden of expectation that any football club carries in an era during which relegation is treated is a CRISIS that is a DISASTER for anyone ill-starred enough to have been involved in it in any way. Never mind that this time four years ago Norwich City were shipping seven goals at home against Colchester United in League One, in a match which has become symbolic as being simultaneously the low point in the recent history of Norwich City Football Club and the beginning of the rebirth that has ended with the club being where it finds itself today.
Last season wasn’t, however, nine months of wine and roses for the club and looked at through a slightly different prism that eleventh placed finish might even be considered a little misleading. Norwich could only manage forty-four points from their thirty-eight matches in the Premier League and their somewhat paltry record of just forty-one league goals was the joint third-worst in the league after the underwhelming Stoke City and the division’s worst team, Queens Park Rangers. There was a certain irony to this in that much of what had vexed the club’s supporters last summer was a transfer request handed in by striker Grant Holt. Holt was eventually persuaded to stay, but he could only manage eight goals all season, half what he’d managed the season before, and this summer there was less of a sense of let-down as Holt, who is now thirty-two years old and probably past his best, left Carrow Road to join the freshly-relegated Wigan Athletic. “So long, and thanks for all the fish” seems to have been the viewpoint of many Norwich supporters with regard to his departure this summer.
The good news for Norwich supporters is that they have a ready-made replacement for Holt in the form of Ricky Van Wolfswinkel, a player who may well be a headline-writer’s dream in certain types of publication, but who will most significantly be charged with the job of getting that blasted goal tally up this season. A goal every other game over the last couple of seasons for Sporting in Portugal bodes well, though, and at just twenty-three years of age he has plenty of time in which to continue to improve, whilst a further attacking option has been added in the form of the former Celtic player Gary Hooper. Elsewhere, goalkeeper John Ruddy’s progress was enough to pique the interest of Chelsea, who have so far been rebuffed, whilst last year’s Player Of The Season performance from Sebastien Bassong might have left Spurs supporters wondering what their club had jettisoned when they off-loaded him.
Off the pitch, Norwich City remains one of the Premier League’s most likeable clubs. Manager Chris Hughton remains an engaging figure in control of pitch-side matters, a man who may have come to management late – it is scarcely believable that he if fifty-four years old, when we consider that his first full managerial appointment came at Newcastle United just five years ago – whilst the solid financial footing that the club now has as a result of its two years back in the Premier League surely now means that its long-term financial future is secure. Prudently run and with a solid man at the helm, only something quite unexpected would likely ruffle the Canaries’ feathers this season. Another season of mid-table solidity most likely beckons.
In the hothouse that is the Premier League these days, though, will that be enough, though? On the one hand, things can always go wrong – indeed, there were points at which last season when it seemed entirely plausible that Norwich could get dragged into the unseemly scramble to avoid relegation. Ricky Van Wolfswinkel might fail to adjust to the peculiarly idiosyncratic nature of the Premier League, a run of injuries could make team selection a headache for the manager, or a bad start could leave them staring up the table with nerves starting to kick in. In this crucible of pressure, to fall from grace from the middle of the table is far from impossible. There is little room for complacency in the congested middle third of the Premier League.
Much of the above, however, is a set unknown variables and it is far more comfortable to suggest that further progress is more likely than sinking into some sort of mire that we cannot predict at present. It may be a stretch to imagine the club being able to challenge the apparently preordained Premier League’s top seven, but being the best of the rest certainly wouldn’t be beyond the team that Chris Hughton has assembled, and to finish in the top half of the table hardly is certainly attainable. And for those who remember how bad things were at the club not so long ago, such stability in the top flight can only be considered a remarkable transformation from the mess that Paul Lambert inherited four years ago. There were points at which the real Norwich City seemed a little elusive on the pitch last season. This time around, though, and with a transfer window that has seen the club made judicious moves towards centreing a squad that was only a little off-kilter at times last season having come to pass, this should be a solid season of manageable improvement in the Premier League for Norwich City Football Club.
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