Holtamania Tearing the romance out of football Tue, 04 Sep 2012 23:31:26 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.4.1 I Hate You All /2012/09/05/i-hate-you-all/ /2012/09/05/i-hate-you-all/#comments Tue, 04 Sep 2012 23:31:26 +0000 Holtamania /?p=1914

Hey Mona! Ooo Mona!

Ever since I first came to FCR and stood on the River End with my Dad I’ve noticed the existence of a particular kind of Norwich fan, that fan is the moaner.  It’s quite possible that other clubs have them as well, I wouldn’t know, but if they do I doubt they’re as whingey as our version. Or as ill informed.

When I got a bit older and started going to games with my mates one of the old paper Norwich fanzines, either LAOTTA or probably actually FCTW, had a cartoon strip called ‘River End Mona’ which was in my mind so accurate I couldn’t believe that someone else felt exactly the same as me when I read it, brilliant.

The problem went away when I graduated to stand in the Barclay, we were all more concerned with:

  • Singing.
  • Not getting crushed against a barrier.
  • Avoiding getting hit by coins.
  • Avoiding getting hit by phlegm.
  • Keeping down our half-time water burgers.
  • Knocking policemen’s helmets off (not a euphemism).

than moaning.

When the ground became all seater and quieter the moaner started to proliferate and with the influx of the post Premier League/Sky type fan, and the bizarre sense of entitlement they seem to have, has increased in such numbers as to be almost unavoidable.  The moaner wants it and wants it now.

At least then you only encountered it at the ground. You were with like minded friends during the week and in the pub beforehand and you were only exposed to the moaning masses when you got to the ground. Now if you follow the fortunes of City online in any way you can’t get away from ill-informed and one eyed moaning.

I’ve stopped looking (as much) on ncfc messageboards due to the amount of unreasonable, ill-considered moaning there is to read on there, twitter was OK for my Norwich news but I now have to avoid the #ncfc  hashtag because of all the moaning, I can’t look at Myfootballwriter because they have the #ncfc feed down the side of the page, and as for the Pink Un moanageboard… it’s like descending into the innermost part of the innermost circle of hell. Or The Queen of Iceni as it’s known. For the same reason I can’t listen to Canary Call anymore due to the loudmouthed drivel I hear spouted on it (some of the callers are awful too).

I have nothing against people having a different opinion than mine, I’m not right all the time and have been wrong so many times in my life it’s not even funny anymore, as long as that opinion is formed with a little thought.

For example our club leadership has clearly stated on many occasions that they won’t risk the financial well being of the club in a massive gamble to stay in the Premier League so we never get into the situation we were in previously with the banks snapping at our heels and us staring at the very real possibility of going under.  Surely a sensible approach? We therefore won’t be signing players for £10m, or on massive wages. We can’t afford it at the moment. But the moaner doesn’t  seem to understand this. Some of the potential transfer targets I’ve seen put forward are so unrealistic as to be laughable, furthermore, the level of dissatisfaction expressed about the ones we have signed or been linked to also beggars belief. None of us knows what budget Chris Hughton has been given, or how his tenure will pan out, but some were calling for his head after one game for crying out loud. ONE GAME. I’d love us to stay up, but I don’t want us to risk the future of the club in doing so. I’d still rather have a healthy and financially self-sufficient club to support for me and my kids into the future and if that’s in the Championship then that’s fine by me.

None of the above would be that bad except for the fact that this negativity translates to the team. It’s great that you all come, it honestly is, we are much better supported in terms of numbers now than for many years, just when you’re in the ground support the team, we’re supporters, not detractors. How inspiring must it be for one of our players to be announced as an oncoming substitute only to be met by an audible buzz around the ground from a sizeable minority of people saying “ohnohe’sfuckernuselessandlazyandshitandi’dofgonetwoupfront”? Not very.

There, I’ve said it.

Thanks for reading, feel much better for that moan. What? Oh shit.

Richard Jeffery, who is entirely right. 

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Story of a Match: 12/13 Spurs (A) /2012/09/03/story-of-a-match-1213-spurs-a/ /2012/09/03/story-of-a-match-1213-spurs-a/#comments Mon, 03 Sep 2012 20:40:55 +0000 Holtamania /?p=1898

Daniel Swift Gibbs

The visit to White Heart Lane in April was undoubtedly one of the highlights of last year’s amazing season – and it was always going to be difficult to replicate that performance – but yesterday we went and competed again, and looked like we’re another step on the way to forging a good side under Chris Hughton. Spurs have had a managerial change of their own in the summer of course, bringing in the initialism that is Andre Villas-Boas, and they certainly play a different way to the side we gloriously defeated in April, but were also totally outclassed by in December at Carrow Road. Like us, they are a team in transition, but on the strength of yesterday’s game we seem to finding our feet a little quicker than they do. Boos rang out at the end of the game from the White Heart Lane crowd yesterday – but how much was this a case of a poor Spurs side or a good Norwich one?

Unchanged

What was immediately clear was that Hughton seems to have quickly realised that the tactic of going away to bigger clubs to play defensively and close down games isn’t really in our playbook yet. After the poor showing on the other side of London a couple of weeks ago, Hughton instead decided to stick with the same lineup that showed improvement at home to QPR last week, with Jackson keeping his place in a front two. We weren’t shy of taking the game to Spurs, but we also showed discipline at the back, and we seem to be developing a good balance.

We were never going to go and dominate possession, but we kept Spurs at bay, and played our own game when we got the chance. Once again, Bradley Johnson and Jonny Howson put in good performances in the centre of midfield. Both were prepared to come deep to collect the ball from the defense, and were comfortable in possesion as we tried to let them dictate the play.

The maps above show where each player received a pass – both show a significant proportion were in our own half, in front of the back four. This is exactly what we have come to expect from Howson who is clearly developing into a very good playmaker. Johnson however has not always been so adept. Last season his game primarily consisted of a lot of running around and working hard, chasing back and closing down, but he did not generally look so good with the ball. He looked better against QPR though, and markedly so yesterday. One would assume that the signing of Tettey, another strong central midfielder, puts Johnson’s selection in the team the most at risk – perhaps this has been enough to motivate him. With the transfer window now closed, it does look like creating genuine competition for places has been the focus of the dealings over the summer – McNally tweeted that they wanted to have at least two players for every position, and this has been achieved. They clearly believe that having this competition is a way to get the best out of everyone in the squad, and Johnson certainly stepped his game up yesterday. Both he and Howson worked hard on and off the ball, keeping possesion, keeping the play ticking over, and doing their best to make tackles (marked by Xs in the map below), challenge for balls in the air (cicrumflexes), make clearances, (circles) and intercept passes (diamonds). Having both central midfielders able to perform both offensive and defensive duties is key – last year we tended to rely on one player to do all the passing (Fox) and one to do all the running/defending (Crofts/Johnson). Having options puts us in a much stronger position, both on the pitch in terms of the play, and in the wider squad, with Fox, Tettey and Surman all able to come in and play in these positions.

Making good use of the ball when we did have it meant that over the course of the game we created better chances on goal than Tottenham. Snodgrass was excellent again; deserved his goal, and was unlucky not to have another but for Friedel’s great save. Russell Martin headed on to the bar for the second week running, and even two out of three of Bradley Johnson’s characteristic wayward pile-drivers were close to going in. Spurs, on the other hand, despite dominating possesion, largely failed to create any meaningful attempts on Ruddy’s goal. This diagram below illustrating the proportion of shots from different areas shows how Spurs were largely reduced to long range efforts.

A lack of penetration was a regular criticism of Villas-Boas’ Chelsea side last season, and for the time being he seems not to have been able to solve this problem at Tottenham either. A look at the passing maps from the first half highlights the difference in direction of the majority of passes from Spurs on the left, and City on the right. The vastly predominate pattern of Spurs passing play is of side to side, horizontal passes across the pitch (i.e. up and down on these images); whereas Norwich is predominately forward, vertical passes up the pitch. Note that this does not mean we were playing ‘long ball’, just that we were passing forwards rather than horizontally (in fact, if you discount Friedel and Ruddy, Tottenham statistically played 57 long balls to our 36 (or 65 to 55 incl goalkeepers))

Their failure to do little more than pass it around their back four was in part their own doing, but also down to City’s defensive discipline. We pressed well, and intelligently. Holt and Jackson tended to let their centre-backs have some time on the ball, but made sure to close down Sandro or Livermore if they came deep, while Pilkington and Snodgrass did a great job of pressing the Spurs full-backs, who they were trying to use as the main outlet. Consequently, the ball was being kept by Tottenham, but not being moved forward. The most frequent pass combination between any two players was one centreback, Gallas, passing to the other, Vertonghen. The next four most successful combinations all also involved Tottenham defenders. Diagrams of these passes show the back four, passing the ball between themselves with little very little variation in terms of position or direction. To be honest, they made it pretty easy for us, though we had to continually work hard to keep it that way.

Just by way of contrast – our own most frequent pass combinations were between Russell Martin and Jonny Howson, and Howson and Robert Snodgrass. As well as being further up the pitch, mostly in Spurs’ half, the passes come less from the same positions and directions. It would suggest that we were both more attacking and less predictable.

Interestingly, Villas-Boas actually described in some depth his philosophies on ‘horiztonal’ and ‘vertical’ passing in an interview for the Telegraph before his first game in charge of Chelsea last season – which didn’t end well obviously, under suggestions that his players didn’t really ‘get’ his system – and for the time being it looks to be the same way at Tottenham (ironically he actually seems to be a big advocate for ‘vertical penetration’). He is of course, like Hughton, only a couple of game in to the season, and in his defense, he was yesterday without three of the players who gave us a serious footballing lesson at Carrow Road in December last year – Parker, Modric and van der Vaart.

Above are the passing maps for those three players in that game, and if you compare them with the three central midfielders from yesterday as shown below (albeit in a different system) you can see the drastic variation in the way they played against us and the resulting success it brought. That 2-0 defeat was an absolute domination, but we’ve since taken 4 points away from White Heart Lane in two games, which is a good return by anyone’s standards.

For all Tottenham’s ineffectiveness, they did of course have a joker left to play – in the form of a Demebele who we had already faced once this season to devastating effect. Disappointingly though, it was another momentary lapse in concentration that led to his goal. When Martin drops a header into Howson 10 yards outside the box, he’s apparently unaware, not given a shout of man-on, or just dithers too long instead of laying an easy pass into any one of three open black shirts, and loses possesion to the impending Dembele, who then plays a one-two with Defoe, sells Howson one way with a little shimmy, and slots it into the corner. It’s the frustrating sort of half-mistake, half good play by the opposition that the cliché about “getting punished at this level” applies to. Once again, another otherwise solid defensive performance was undone in one preventable moment. And it is worth saying that the defense built on their first performance as a back four last weekend with another good showing. Barnett and Bassong seem to be developing a partnership; Russell Martin has so far transferred his good form at centre-back last season back to the right-back position – largely nullifying Gareth Bale – and Garrido in particular looked to have some real class about him.

Encouragingly after going behind, we showed a good resolve and spirit to fight back – the sort that was typical of the Lambert era but seemingly lacking in that first game at Fulham. Morison was brought on and looked a lot sharper than he sometimes has recently – getting in good areas, pulling defenders out of position and using his strength well, he looked more like the player that was so important for us at the start of the last campaign. He nearly won a penalty, and moments later did cause Livermore enough grief that he felt he had to haul Morison down on the edge of the area for a free-kick, from which the build up developed for Snodgrass’ equaliser.

So, three games in and we’re getting better. Hughton now has the squad finalised, and a two week break before a home game against West Ham should give us time to settle the new signings in. If indeed the likes of Harry Kane and Alex Tettey can push players like Morison and Johnson on, as well as what they bring to the side themselves, then that can only be good.

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Story of a Match: 12/13 QPR (H) /2012/08/26/story-of-a-match-1213-qpr-h/ /2012/08/26/story-of-a-match-1213-qpr-h/#comments Sun, 26 Aug 2012 14:47:54 +0000 Holtamania /?p=1881

After last week’s horror show, it was important that Norwich responded well in the first home game of the season; if not with a result, then at the very least a performance of note – and against the cash-splashers of QPR we certainly saw a lot to be encouraged by.

Clattenburgled

Just to get it out of the way – it probably wasn’t a penalty. Cisse and Bassong are battling for the ball and there is a coming together. Neither really ‘won’ the ball, and neither really seemed to be denied any opportunity one way or the other. But soft penalties do sometimes get given. Bassong joins a less-than-esteemed list of what seems like almost all our other defenders as we repeat last season’s opening run of conceding penalties every game. Add to the softness that Zamora is clearly guilty of encroachment as Ruddy’s excellent save fell to his feet to dispatch the rebound, and City fans are rightfully frustrated. This, admittedly, is something that happens more often than not on penalties, and rarely gets called out, but if the guilty party has clearly gained an advantage, as Zamora had, made evident by his scoring of the goal, you would hope that the referee would notice.

With that out the way (except for a quick mention of Rob Green’s handball) it’s on to more positive stuff. After being isolated last week, Holt was joined by Simeon Jackson in attack in more of a 4-4-2 formation. Holt and Jackson have been at the club for a few years now and have developed a good understanding of each other’s game – when to drop off, drift wide, or try and get behind the back four. New signings Garrido and Bassong, along with a returning Leon Barnett, replaced Tierney, Turner and Bennett in a complete overhaul of the defence, with only Russell Martin surviving. Bringing in a partner for Holt was a move everyone expected Hughton to make in a home game, but swapping three quarters of the back line is a slightly risky move – it could be seen as a knee-jerk reaction to one bad game, causing crises of confidence in already wounded players – but it could also be a bold statement of intent. You would assume that the signing of Bassong was one that had been in motion for some time given the non-assignment of the number 5 shirt, and Garrido was only just signed too late to play last week. These are Hughton’s own signings, and could be his preferred starters. In some ways, the sooner they get bedded in, the more settled the back four become as a unit and the more solid they should look. The return of Barnett is a bit more of a surprise, but many think he deserves as much chance as anyone else. He was dropped last year after making a couple of bad errors, but to be honest, every other one of our centre backs were equally culpable of similar, if not worse offences. Single errors, while often catastrophic, should get fewer and further between when a consistent back line are communicating well and know exactly what everyone else is doing.

YES YES YES YES LEON FUCKING BARNETT
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Bassong and Barnett were in constant dialogue throughout the match, congratulating and applauding successful tackles and offside catches, and letting each other know when they were poorly positioned. It worked – QPR were caught offside 5 times compared to 2 last week at Fulham – and there were no similar failures in holding the line that led to chances on goal.

The defence generally looked a lot more steady (it couldn’t really have looked any less), with both Barnett and Bassong looking good in the air and on the ground. Bassong in particular was dominant in the air, winning almost everything, as shown in the diagram below. There is room for improvement, of course, and especially early on some of his clearances left a little to be desired, but so far he looks like a promising acquisition. Barnett was impressive; winning important balls, keeping his passing simple, and he was credited with 4 of the 5 offside decisions.

With a steadier defence in place, we were then in a much better position to be able to build attacks. We attempted to pass out from the back whenever possible, with Johnson and Howson alternately trying to come deep to collect the ball. Howson was particularly impressive, continually finding space and demanding the ball, and always looking composed when in possession. Johnson too, had a better game than he sometimes does on the ball, and the two of them together helped each others game – QPR could not always track both Howson and Johnson, and so more often than not one was creating space for the other, the diagram below showing where both midfielders received passes.

Able to build in this way, City’s transition between defence and attack was much improved. Howson seemed to be at the centre of almost all our good play, not just picking the ball up deep, but continually offering options all the way up the pitch. The table below shows the number of pass combinations – passes from one particular player to another for the whole game, and what’s notable is that Howson dominates the top of the table, showing his link-up with Martin, Johnson and Snodgrass, in both directions was continually successful, and highlights a clear progression between the defence, midfield and attack.

The two central midfielders did not shirk their defensive responsibilities either – both were willing to close players down and get tackles in. Howson had a couple of particularly memorable occasions where he chased back to win the ball. The ‘x’s below show where these two made tackles. They generally held their defensive shape well, and this meant decent protection for the back 4, and a restriction of good opportunities for QPR. Aside from the penalty incident, QPR created only 1 attempt on our goal from inside our area all game. It might ‘only’ have been QPR – but this is a drastic improvement from last week.

Even Junior Hoilett, who tormented us in both games against Blackburn last season, was kept quiet. Continually able to cut inside and beat Russel Martin, Hoilett was a constant threat for Blackburn, but yesterday he was completely unable to successfully take on any of our players in dangerous positions, as the purple hexagons in the diagram below show.

In the final third, City looked threatening, thanks to the wide play of Pilkington, and particularly Snodgrass, who had a great game and a much improved performance from last week. Our passing in the final third was focused primarily on the right hand side – with Howson on that side of the central midfield, and Snodgrass playing well wide, that is no surprise. These are two players that know each other well from Leeds of course, and it shows the importance of the players knowing each other’s games. Snodgrass was able to both go down the outside and cut inside, which is a nightmare for fullbacks who don’t then know which way to show the winger (unlike Hoilett and Russel Martin). His ‘dashboard’ below which diagrams many aspects of Snodgrass shows how he was able to take on and beat the full back (yellow hexagons) on a number of occasions, as well as drawing fouls and winning free-kicks (white triangles). He was also able to cut back inside, where he had good shot which was well saved by Green, and the blue passing arrows show how he was able to spread the play across to the other wing. With our attacks largely focussed down this right hand side, it of course means space is generated on the left, where a promising-looking Javier Garrido was getting forward and put a couple of good crosses in, and an also effective Pilkington was operating – most notably for the goal.

A slick passing move spread the play from the right hand side over to the left where Pilkington chipped up a perfect ball for Jackson to nod home. Worth noting here I think is a great run by Grant Holt to the near post, while Jackson checks his run back square. Holt, clearly the dangerman in Anton Ferdinand and Clint Hill’s eyes, pulls both centre-backs with him, leaving Jackson in plenty of space, with only a despairing Traore at left back trying to get back to cover him. Holt actually ends up past the goal-line by the time the ball is in the net, with Hill and Ferdinand helpless.

Holt was able to have a decent game all round, with an effective partner in Jackson and good support from the wide men meaning he wasn’t just left fending off scraps. He played intelligently, drawing a lot of fouls around the box. He caused Clint Hill in particular all kinds of problems all first half, so much so that Mark Hughes opted to replace him during the interval, after he was penalised for four fouls, one of which he was booked for, and a couple of other incidents which he could be considered lucky to have got away with. It certainly says something that QPR’s three substitutions were a centre-back, a fullback and a defensive midfielder.

But for all the pressure and possession, unfortunately we weren’t able to find a breakthrough, despite a number of decent opportunities, notably headers from Snodgrass and Russel Martin. So there is still a way to go. It does seem though that this is starting to look like Hughton’s team, that we’re starting to develop a formation that might work, and that the players are starting to gel within that system. It looks like we’re on the way, and we’ll know by the time of the game against Tottenham need week exactly what squad we’ll have to work with.

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Adel Gafaiti /2012/08/20/adel-gafaiti/ /2012/08/20/adel-gafaiti/#comments Mon, 20 Aug 2012 19:00:16 +0000 Holtamania /?p=1874

Yes, it is true. But you might be disappointed if it was a veteran, experienced leader of men you were hoping had signed for the green and yellow. In fact, Norwich have signed teenager Adel Gafaiti to terms after he impressed during a couple of friendlies over the summer. No, I’ve never heard of him either, but here’s what I’ve been able to find out.

Adel is an 18 year old (or 17. or 19) centre-back of Algerian heritage who began his footballing career at AS Nancy in France. It was here that he was spotted by Rangers scouts and keen to follow in the footsteps of Madjid Bougherra, he made the trip to Scotland and became part of the Rangers Under 19 setup. He played plenty of games for the youth and reserve teams up in Glasgow, scoring a couple of goals in the process, but obvious off-field issues surrounding the club make things particularly difficult for young, developing talent.

As such, Adel joined Norwich in a trial period and he took part in a couple of friendlies. Evidently he impressed enough to be offered some sort of deal, as ‘confirmed’ here.

Gafaiti can be followed on twitter here, and confirms his status with the club in his bio and his updates of todays U21 victory over Blackburn, which he seems to have missed out on due to a lack of fitness.

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Story of a Match: 12/13 Fulham (A) /2012/08/19/story-of-a-match-1213-fulham-a/ /2012/08/19/story-of-a-match-1213-fulham-a/#comments Sun, 19 Aug 2012 17:16:13 +0000 Holtamania /?p=1863

Daniel Swift Gibbs

7 years ago, on a scorching hot day in West London, Norwich’s Premier League dream unfolded around them with a dismal 6-0 defeat to Fulham on the last day of the season. Chris Hughton’s first game in charge, on the first day of this season had an unfortunate parallel. Coming in with a mandate to strengthen our leaky defense of last year, we clearly didn’t get off to the best of starts. Unlike that game, of course, we have another 37 chances to set things right.

Calamity

Any 5-0 defeat first demands a look at the defense. New signing Michael Turner came in to partner Ryan Bennett in the centre, with Martin and Tierney returning at full-back. Unfortunately, just like last season, City were consistently guilty of making things too easy for the other team.

For the first goal, Tierney is culpable of letting Duff get in behind to latch on to a long ball – most disappointingly, they’d already had warning of this move a few minutes earlier, but failed to address it. Tierney lets his man get past him too easily, but it’s also worth noting that the space between him and Turner is also part of the problem – these two should be closer together, restricting what is an acre of inviting space for Duff.

The second came for a corner won by a Ruiz chance moments after this image (some credit to R Bennett for a great saving tackle to delay the inevitable). The problem again is that we gave too much space to Fulham’s attackers. Ruiz, just inside the centre circle, should have plenty of attention from our defenders, but unfortunately, Turner (in the left CB position) is drawn towards the ball – a job which should be left to Bradley Johnson. This leaves a massive space in the middle for Ruiz to breeze through, while R Bennett is occupied with another man on the far side. The midfield too, ought to do a better job of tracking Ruiz’s run. But we failed on all accounts.

The third had a slice of misfortune about it – a speculative Petric effort takes a big deflection off Turner to wrongfoot Ruddy. Turner though must take some responsibility – as you can see in this image he doesn’t do enough to close down Petric in the first instance, and then performs a completely lucklustre shoulder turn in an attempt at blocking the shot. You can’t legislate for the flight of a deflection, but there are good and bad ways to block. With six Norwich players in the vicinity of two Fulham players, one of whom is on the floor, there is no excuse not to be putting more pressure on the ball. Turner’s lazy attempt is atrocious, to be honest. A complete lack of effort.

Turner, again was partly responsible for Fulham’s fourth – R Bennett, the right CB, is tight to Petric on the edge of the area, But Turner has given Kacaniklic, right in the middle on the edge of the area, too much room again. Petric receives the pass and makes a deft flick through to Kacaniklic who gets clear of Turner and finishes. Russell Martin, at Right Back, doesn’t help by not keeping the line either. Once again, we are not overrun, but Fulham were sharper and more switched on every time.

The final nail in the coffin was Sidwell’s emphatic penalty, which came about from Turner’s clumsy challenge – it was a desparate attempt to make up for a fluffed clearance a second earlier. But just as in De Laet’s debut last season, Turner has had a mare. I think it’s worth bearing in mind that this back four is actually markedly different to the one we played for large periods of last season – Turner is completely new, obviously, Bennett only came in towards the tail end of last season, Martin was often moved into centre-back and Tierney didn’t play after Christmas. Unfortunately for us, I think this unfamiliarity was telling. They don’t yet seem to have developed a good understanding as a defensive unit and are still prone to individual mistakes. Both fullbacks look vulnerable (even last year, it quickly became clear Russell Martin was better suited to playing centre back), and Turner still has a lot to prove. For the time being we don’t look any steadier than we did last year.

Aside from the goals, our performance generally was underwhelming. The first 10 minutes or so showed promise; some neat passing moves between the midfielders and good link up with Holt. However, as the game went on, our grip on the game loosened completely.

We continually resorted to long balls up to Holt, which was disappointing for two reasons – a) because it’s not especially exciting or pleasing football, and b) because it wasn’t even working. The image above shows the passes both teams attempted in the final attacking third of the pitch (Fulham on the left, Norwich on the right). The two clear differences between us and Fulham are that Fulham completed more passes in number, and with better accuracy and completion rate than Norwich, and that a much greater majority of our passes came from deep. We seldom even got the ball into the attacking third, and when we did, we couldn’t keep it. Grant Holt, while a physical presence, is not actually that suited to playing a lone target man role.

This image above shows Aerial Dules – i.e. balls won or lost in the air (again Fulham is left, Norwich on the right). The proliferance of purple triangles around Fulham’s area in Norwich’s diagram shows that Holt (and later Morison as well) was not winning many of the long balls played into him. Then, even when he did win the ball, he was isolated and often had no-one to pass it on to. He was our most dispossessed player – a sign that he was having to wait too long for support. Holt causes defenders trouble, but often it’s by getting in the way, winning free-kicks and being a general nuisance – not necessarily by continually winning long balls.

This problem was confounded by the ineffectiveness of our midfielders. Snodgrass has been played just off the striker in pre-season, but here it was a flatter midfield 5, with Snodgrass playing further right, and Surman, Howson, Johnson in the middle and Pilkington left. It’s a conservative formation, but one we did have success with last season, with early season wins against Bolton, Sunderland and Swansea. But those wins actually came with Morison playing as the lone striker, not Holt, and our midfield contained a David Fox who continually came deep to collect the ball, and a Hoolahan who got forward and linked with the striker. Yesterday we didn’t quite have either. Bradley Johnson was the deepest of the three, but he does not continually demand the ball and keep things moving like David Fox, or, more relevantly Fulham’s Mahamadou Diarra who dominated the passing in the midfield yesterday. Diarra provided the perfect pivot for Fulham’s attacks by picking the ball from their back four and starting moves. The images below show where Johnson and Diarra received passes – Diarra got on the ball twice as much, and generally in deeper positions.

The inability to provide this link means, inevitably, that the defense play more direct. Yesterday, this didn’t work because Holt didn’t win enough balls, and when he did, he didn’t have enough support. The flat midfield 5 was maybe too rigid, neither coming deep enough nor getting forward enough. This probably was a result of the new manager wanting a moderate approach with the team keeping things tight in the first away game of a season. Unfortunately when you set out that way and then concede a couple of sloppy goals, you are left in a difficult situation. To Hughton’s credit, he changed things immediately at half time, bringing on a second forward in Morison, but it felt like the game was already lost.

Conclusion

It was an immensely disappointing start to a campaign. With the off season managerial change around, it felt more important than ever to get off to a good start. The initial anguish of losing Lambert was replaced with a cautious optimism of Hughton’s appointment. But the truth is it will inevitably take a bit of time for the new manager, players and style to bed in. Chris Hughton hasn’t had long to work with these boys - which doesn’t excuse the performance of course – but, cliches notwithstanding, it is only the first game of a long season. Hughton has got some learning to do about our squad, as do the squad about his philosophy, about who exactly is suited to particular roles and whether those roles are suited to our team. With Whittaker and Garrido potentially to come in our back-line could yet be steadier, but I think all Norwich fans would be pleased with more reinforcement.

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Why the Olympian/Footballer debate is a Red Herring /2012/08/16/why-the-olympianfootballer-debate-is-a-red-herring/ /2012/08/16/why-the-olympianfootballer-debate-is-a-red-herring/#comments Thu, 16 Aug 2012 18:41:37 +0000 Holtamania /?p=1859

There’s a certain amount of navel gazing going on in football right now, a bit of introspection brought on by the stunning success of the British athletes at the Olympics as well as the success of the games themselves. It would have been hard not to get completely carried away with it all, success after success for humble athletes a world away from the overpaid, diving prima donnas we see on a weekly basis. But it went beyond that. The success of the games came in its celebration of athletes of all nations, of all colours and religions, and not just those who picked up medals at the end. Incredible feats of achievement, people pushing themselves to the limit, breaking personal bests, breaking barriers, breaking taboos. And the crowds that watched them in sold out stadiums and arenas (even if not all bodies were present at the time) were kind, sporting, exited to be there.

It throws into contrast the feast of football we get served for 9 months of the year, but to be honest, the main criticism of football at the expense of these noble Olympians doesn’t really hold. The charge at the beautiful game is that its players are the dishonest, greedy, money-loving crybabies who cheat, swear, are bad role models and more. Compare this to the modestly paid athletes of the Olympics (admittedly there are some incredibly wealthy stars, but also plenty who have standard day jobs and average (and in parts of the world far below average) wages).

For me, this is a disingenuous comparison that does disserve to plenty of decent professionals as well as misses the point about why the Olympics were different. You don’t have to look far to find examples of footballers who are outstanding role models and part of their community. Just a couple of weeks ago Russell Martin was part of an anti-racist event in Norwich, while every year you see clips and pictures of footballers doing the rounds of local hospitals. All clubs have charities they work with or are linked to, charities that do so much in local communities that helps keep kids active or provides education. Football players are the magnets in these charities, providing the pull to get kids and schools involved. On top of this there are examples of outstanding sportsmanship on the field, such as teams allowing a goal to be scored against them after a freak occurrence.

This is unfortunately drowned out by the self-serving idiocy of a lot of celebrity footballers; players like Terry and Bowyer who end up in courts, Suarez who has a rap sheet that spans countries and divers like Ashley Young. These players deserve a public kicking, a very clear demonstration that there are athletes and fans who will not put up with their nonsense. But it isn’t just footballers who fall into habits like this.

Third place in the Olympics blue ribbon event went to Justin Gatlin, a man who served a doping ban and refuses to admit guilt. You had ‘former’ drug cheats win prizes elsewhere too. You had badminton players trying to throw game, fencers refusing to accept defeat, and lets not even get started on the boxing judges, the only adjudicators in any Olympic sport who have to be breathalysed before starting work. If footballers suffered from any comparison it was to Team GB athletes, those names and faces we know much better and who, overwhelmingly, do not have the multi-million pound contracts and egos to go with them. The endearing quality about most of these athletes was their earnest hard work and utter dedication to their sport. There was no chance to accuse them of not earning their wage – it wasn’t about a wage.

But even still, this is not the comparison that really matters.

The difference between the Olympic games we have just witnessed and football we are used to is the experience of watching it and taking part. Here are a few things that you won’t have heard coming from the stands of the Olympic Stadium and other parts of London:

Oi! Dai Greene! Fuck off back to Wales you sheepshagger twat.

Gemili, what a FUCKING DONKEY, messing up that changeover. The overpaid twat doesn’t give a shit does he.

Oi Zac Purchase, why don’t you row a bit fucking faster mate? Don’t be such a lazy shit. I could row faster than that.

Michael Owen ruffled some feathers yesterday morning by pointing out it’s not just football players who need to change their behaviour and he’s right. Roy Hodgson said more or less the same thing. Footballers are in the spotlight and need to act the part, but it’s only part of the bargain. If you surround them with thirty thousand people who scream obscenities, there is only so far you can blame them for being detatched.

I detailed in this post, about why I was giving up my season ticket, some of the elements of fan culture that were becoming too much for me to carry on enjoying live games week in, week out. What we saw at the Olympics was a sport watching population removed from cynicism, negativity and abuse. Fans who adored British athletes whether they won or lost, but especially if they won. Who got behind ‘their team’ and applauded the full throttled effort of defeat. The experience of watching and being involved in the games was one of enjoyment and togetherness, not “I pay their wages so I’m entitled to say what I want.”

Fan culture is not what it was in the eighties, but it’s a different kind of problem these days. Celebrity footballers living remote lives become targets for people blowing off steam in a way they wouldn’t do at other sporting events, let alone the ‘real world’. Football fan culture exists in a bubble where abuse is dressed up as banter and it’s acceptable to shout swearwords at people playing a game.

Many people have asked how we’d keep the spirit of the Olympics going after it finishes. Here’s an idea to start; stop being abusive. Drop the cynicism about highly paid athletes and recognise it for what it is; a choice we each make to put money into a club with zero guarantee of getting anything out of it. A choice. It’s always a choice.

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11/12 Review: 14. Wes Hoolahan /2012/06/20/1112-review-14-wes-hoolahan/ /2012/06/20/1112-review-14-wes-hoolahan/#comments Wed, 20 Jun 2012 07:30:16 +0000 Holtamania /?p=1850

Many a girl, or boy, has wondered what does the Norwich City dressing room look like after a match? I’d imagine it would be hot and humid; tight, black pants would be liberally discarded over moist benches; so that ripped torsos at the height of physical perfection could clamber in and out of warm, soapy plunge baths; every so often the crisp shot of fluffy white towel on chiselled buttock would crack through the steamy fug; skilled hands providing urgent, oily rub downs on aching but toned flesh; and the throaty laughter that only comes with a job well done as players chat and compare one another’s mighty bonuses.

But even within such a glittering gathering of buff, Premier League athletes there is one that is greater though more slight; one that has the potential to be even more powerful yet subtle; and one whose artistry is superior to that of Picasso or Monet even after a particularly good day’s painting. That player is Wesley Hoolahan.

When I wrote this Hooly article a year ago I was certain that he would step up to the Prem plate, literally step up as we all know he’s a bit of a shorter, and make an even bigger name for himself. And so it has proved. Indeed to mark his arrival at the pinnacle of English football it was beautiful Wessi that scored Norwich’s first Premier League ghoul as he pounced to slot home Morison’s spilled cross. In fact over the season Wigan probably aren’t Wesleys biggest fans as he also scored a beauty against them in the home fixture; deftly volleying in Jackson’s cross and causing Carrow Road to fall to its knees and hail him the messiah and a very naughty boy.

Of course Wes wasn’t picked for every game, but that’s fair enough as he’s a merciful being and realises that for the sake of team morale he has to let the others have a go too.  When Hooly was a sub he usually came on and created at least one piece of fertile magic when previously all was barren. The game against QPR being a case in point. He and our former respected captain came off the bench and turned the game around. The fact is no current Norwich player has his special abilities: indeed there aren’t many footballers playing regularly for any club that do. Wessi sees passes, space and movement in a way that others do not, cannot, and never will because he’s unique. If we were able to hotwire a device into our heads that could see what Hooly sees during a game, I imagine if would be a bit like how the Terminator sees the world: Wessi’s brain evaluating others’ movement utilising complex algorithms; laser guided targeting of team mates runs; accessing how and where space can be used to maximise advantage; identifying the weaknesses of his opponents so he can perform a ‘power–up’ to devastating effect. He may be small but he is most definitely mighty.

Unbelievably there are an impotent minority that whine he doesn’t track back, or that he never puts the tackles in. Utter nonsense. The Wesmeister is usually to be found harrying crab-like all over the pitch. He regularly snaps away at the ankles of his opponents and not just because that’s his working height, but because he’s a team player and because that is an area of his game he was clearly worked on.

Another moan is that he loses the ball in theNorwichhalf too much which puts pressure on our back four. No offence but our back four, whichever pairing it has been, have been guilty of more errors and mental slips than all the management team of News International put together. The point is that players do make mistakes – even a God like Hoolywooly – just not as many as is perceived to commit.  I’d argue it’s a backhanded complement that these deviants notice his mistakes more because he is the player they look to for a dose of playmaking porn;  the creator of Norwich City’s sexual football. At any given moment he’ll turn, jink to the left, wiggle his hips to the right, possible do the timewarp, and from nothing it’s suddenly game on: this is what he does. In 99 cases out of 100 it’ll work out for the best, but on the odd occasion it doesn’t. That’s football folks – deal with it.

But he’s more than just a football centrefold and you can now add leader to his achievements. Wes was made club captain v Bolton when Norwich won not only our first Prem game, but our first away game too. With this, plus the mesmerising ability and all the assists and goals, you would think he’d be a shoo-in for the Eire team but it appears that Crapattoni, the dullard in charge of the Republic of Ireland, thinks otherwise.  I appreciate they have a system, let’s face it a really boring system, but all teams need a plan B and as QPR found, if you have a pocket rocket like Wessi on the bench you always have some magic to pull out of the hat. To put this sad situation in cliché terms if ever a coach was to be tried for wasting the best years of a players then Crapattoni is well and truly guilty.

So from a stupid manager to a new manager and the obvious question: how will Wes fair under Hughton? If memory serves me well Newcastle played some nice stuff under Chris and his win to lose ratio for both Newcastle and Birmingham is impressive. And unusually for such a successful manager he’s a man that’s been popular with both fans and players alike and I think that’ll be right up Wessi’s street. Will we see the end of the diamond; a system that allowed Hooly to flourish? It’s possible, but then under our previous manager we adjusted formations with greater frequency than a British downpour so I can’t see that being a problem for Wes.  After all he adjusted to the Premier League, which was probably his biggest career challenge to date, so this will be just another obstacle for the diminutive Dubliner to straddle.

When all is said and done, Wesslington doesn’t need to let his towel slip in the changing room to display his enormous talent. No, he’ll do what he always does and quietly and assuredly go out and produce his special kind of beguiling sorcery on the pitch. If this new season is anything like the last then we’ll all be in for a treat.

Adam Orton is the business manager of Debra Orton Illustration, and you can see all of their prints, including a glorious Norwich City one, right here

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11/12 Review: 12. Anthony Pilkington /2012/06/19/1112-review-12-anthony-pilkington/ /2012/06/19/1112-review-12-anthony-pilkington/#comments Tue, 19 Jun 2012 07:30:13 +0000 Holtamania /?p=1843

I didn’t know much about Anthony Pilkington when we signed him from Huddersfield. All right, I’d never heard of him. So I did what any self-respecting football fan does these days, and had a look on YouTube.

Among other things, I found this. And I became aroused.

Then, a little later, I found this. And I had to sit on my hands.

Of course, You Tube clips can be misleading (the Fotheringham effect), but so cleanly struck were those goals, both left and right foot, and most arrowing straight into the top corner, that this looked far from a “Fozzy flick” moment.

Even our habit of buying injured players couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm, as we were soon told that Pilks had made a good recovery from his dislocated ankle and broken leg. In fact, Pilks was ready to make a substitute appearance at Wigan on the opening day of the season, and started his first game in the home draw with Stoke a week later.

He fully arrived in the Premier League with the first in a 2-1 win at Bolton, but it was at the 2-0 defeat at Old Trafford where we really first saw Pilks’ potential, despite missing a glorious chance to give City the lead, he caused havoc on the biggest stage of all, showing pace, poise and the knack of getting in goalscoring positions that makes his omission from the Republic of Ireland squad as mystifying as Wessi’s.

It took Pilkington just seven days to bury the memory of that miss in the north west, smartly tucking away two poacher’s goals in the 3-1 win over Swansea, and he followed that up with a wonderful free kick at Villa Park having played a major role in an opening 20 minutes that saw Norwich temporarily dominate the team we all wish had got relegated.

Pilks spent much of December on the bench as Paul Lambert gave the winger one of his trademark “rests”, something almost every Norwich player had to get used to over the course of the season, but Pilks came back with a bang with another sweet strike at QPR before tearing Ashley Cole apart in the goalless draw with Chelsea. I’m not sure if there was something wrong with Cole that day, but Pilks made the future Champions League winner and “best left back in the world” look pedestrian as he ran him ragged time after time.

The goals kept coming, and then it was Patrice Evra’s turn to discover that the man from Blackburn held no truck with reputations as he again destroyed one of the world’s best defenders in an all-round display that did not deserve to go unrewarded. A hamstring strained at Newcastle kept Pilkington out for a few weeks but he returned with another neat finish in the win at Spurs, before playing a reduced role in the run-in as Elliott Bennett and Wessi returned from their own respective breaks.

It’s fair to say that eight goals from midfield in 30 Premier League appearances jumping straight from League One and with an interrupted pre season, Pilks was perhaps slightly unfortunate not to have grabbed third place in the Player of the Season award.

Stand out performances against Cole and Evra prove that there are few more effective goal-scoring wingers around in the Premier League, and it’s vital that we keep hold of him this summer. After that, given another productive season, I’ve no doubt that Pilks is destined for somewhere like Liverpool, or even Old Trafford, for somewhere in the region of £8-£10m.

There are few more promising hard-working, two-footed, goal-scoring, pacy wingers out there. He seems a genuinely nice bloke too, the bastard.

Matt Ware

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The Paul Lambert Years: Complete /2012/06/08/the-paul-lambert-years-complete/ /2012/06/08/the-paul-lambert-years-complete/#comments Fri, 08 Jun 2012 06:29:19 +0000 Holtamania /?p=1837

ay 20th 2008; three days after Wycombe fell in the League Two Playoffs to a Stockport team featuring Anthony Pilkington and, on the bench, John Ruddy. Paul Lambert walks into the Chairboys’ training ground on Marlow Road early in the morning, gathers his things, says some goodbyes and leaves. In two years he had taken Wycombe to the Semi-Final of the League Cup before reaching the playoffs, but feeling he has done all he can at a club with limited resources and room for growth, he walks.

Two weeks earlier another exit was made, but this was less amicable. After a blindingly successful time, Darren Huckerby is released at 31. The time is ripe, according to then Norwich manager Glenn Roeder, for ‘new heroes’. It comes at the end of a long hard season for City who escaped relegation by a mere three points, continuing a rot that had set in long before. Other clubs weren’t so lucky, including local neighbours Colchester. Five months later, and with no sign of a turnaround in their fortunes, in comes a born winner looking for somewhere new. In comes Paul Lambert.

The prospect of relegation to the third tier was traditionally remote for Norwich fans – it hadn’t happened for decades. Over time they began to flirt with it more and more often, but usually finding themselves safe with a few games to go. Frequent seasons in the late 90s saw them conform to this standard, a dark age between the liquid-football success under Mike Walker and the organised dominance of Nigel Worthington. As the following season started Norwich were no different to any club in the Championship – cautiously optimistic of things to come. As time went on, it became clear just how far the rot had spread.

A distant dictator of a manager in Glenn Roeder saw the destruction of any scent of team spirit, only to be replaced by the well-meaning but out of his depth legend, Bryan Gunn. Above them sat a board presiding over a financial time-bomb, a group of people dedicated to the club making the mistake of backing the wrong man. Interest was piling up on loans that were soon due. The Chief Executive of the time, Neil Doncaster, ran the shop in a way that was best described as pedestrian, while morale was low inside and outside the building. Inertia crept, and Norwich were doomed.

The summer of 2009 saw evolution at Carrow Road when revolution was needed. Despite his poor record as Caretaker while Norwich got relegated, Bryan Gunn was absolved of responsibility and handed the manager’s job on a permanent basis on May 13th, a decision that may not have been made had David McNally, appointed as new CEO a month later, was already on the board. The removal of certain members of the board following relegation seemed only natural, and Doncaster in particular left without complaint. His replacement was an unknown quantity, credited with the smart appointment of Roy Hodgson and the not-so-smart appointment of Lawrie Sanchez at Fulham during his time there, but if there was any sign of a change in direction from the Norwich board, the fans were yet to see it. With Gunn in place and new players coming in, preparations for the new season were underway.

When it arrived, expectations were high and the atmosphere was optimistic. Within half an hour it was toxic. By the end of the afternoon Norwich had suffered their worst ever home defeat and two fans had jumped the barriers to throw season tickets at Gunn. Their futile protest symbolised a lot. New signings like Holt and Nelson, as well as McNally, must have wondered what they were letting themselves in for. It was the bottom. The architect of that afternoon was Paul Lambert.

Bryan Gunn lasted one more game as Norwich manager, a morale boosting away win in the League Cup over Yeovil which gave Norwich fans their first taste of Grant Holt in full flow. The noises coming out of Norwich City management all summer had been troubling, talk of one year’s consolidation in League One before a promotion push, while his assistant made the prophetic claim that as Norwich “weren’t Arsenal”, they shouldn’t play like them. He was true to his word as his two games as Caretaker were turgid and offensive.

With Norwich managerless, rumours began spreading like wildfire, but McNally retained a laser focus on one man; Paul Lambert. And eventually, controversially, and illegally, he was ours. This was a sea change for Norwich, a radically new way of running the club – ballsy, single minded and without remorse. The sacking of Gunn after two games was brutal but necessary, the bullying antics in coaxing Lambert from Colchester were those of a club tired of being ‘little’. Little Norwich, the friendly club who didn’t make waves; this was the feeling among fans. It was devoid of ambition; but no more.

Compensation was a long far from being agreed between Norwich and Colchester as Lambert took the reins for the first time against a certain Wycombe Wanderers. They were swiftly despatched 5-2 in a performance that lifted the crowd and gave cause for real optimism. Lambert began experimenting with shape, trying to figure a way to get the best out of the squad he inherited. Players who came in expecting to play, like Tudur Jones and Gill, were suddenly sidelined, while those who had floundered under old managers, like Simon Lappin and Chris Martin, were given chances. Korey Smith rose from the youth team to become a key part of the midfield while Darrell Russell emerged as a tough tackling protector of the back four.

The biggest emergence came in the shape of a short, one footed Irishman. Wes Hoolahan had been a Roeder signing, but had failed to live up to the billing. Never at home wide on the left, and frequently short of fitness, he was in and out of the team as rumours of a move to Swansea built. Initially left out of the side as Lambert got to grips with things, he emerged as the mercurial presence at the tip of a newly fashioned diamond. Lambert had found his formula. It had taken a few games to figure out, including a spell of 1 win in 5 during September, but this newly inspired side went on to win a massive 17 of their next 20 in the league. This was the same side, the same players who were smashed on opening day, looking devoid of confidence and out of ideas. Now they were putting teams aside with assured ease. Leeds and Charlton had occupied the top two all season, and held an impressive gap over Norwich in late 2009. As time wore on, Norwich chipped away and chipped away until there was nothing left to see.

Off the field, things were tougher. Gunn’s stated aim of consolidating one year before building for promotion the next was a road to disaster as the club grappled with drastically reduced income. Redundancies were made across the board as McNally and his associates battled to turn Norwich into a properly functioning business. Out went many concession prices, up went prices in bars and verification was suddenly required for underage season ticket holders – all in the name of saving money. The task was on to equip Norwich as a top outfit, the sort of properly run club that would attract names, sponsors and increased revenue, all of which would be piled back into the football club.

That seemed a long way off as Norwich settled down to extensive talks with their creditors. With examples of cost cutting and commercial growth, and a lot of wining and dining, they came to agreements to push back repayment of their loans. The alternative was administration, and despite the well-reported story in the News of the World for which Norwich got compensation, the prospect of administration was closer than many fans realised. The details in the press were sketchy and late, but early in the season, with cashflow poor and income down, the club was closer than at any time to going out of business. David McNally’s greatest achievement was preventing it.

Back on the pitch, Norwich had a chance for revenge; Colchester. Tensions had built as Colchester chairman, Robbie Cowling, repeatedly mouthed off to the press about the conduct of Norwich in attaining the services of Lambert while maintaining that in Aidy Boothroyd they in fact had a better manager. On a field sodden by rain they were outclassed, thrashed 5-0 at home in a performance that exercised the demons of that opening day defeat. Hero that day, as many others, was Grant Holt. It hadn’t taken long for Holt to be accepted by the Carrow Road faithful, desperate for someone new to worship in the absence of Huckerby, and Holt was the man who stepped forward and for clear reason. He ran into the ground for the cause, grasping his chance like a man who may never get one again. And he scored goals. Lots of goals.

During this time Lambert began to show his eye for talent, for finding the right player at the right price for the right need. Norwich had a big squad at this point but he clearly felt a need to bring in reinforcements. From Stockport came Oli Johnson, a tricky striker with good technique. From Swindon came Anthony MacNamee, a pacey and direct winger to provide width when our narrow diamond failed to break teams down. A transfer policy that would bear so much fruit over the next three seasons was beginning to be clear. Character counted, as did versatility and a willingness to run through walls. He wanted players to fight for the shirt, to take their chances and do their part. And they did. MacNamee set up a number of crucial goals as the season wore on, while Oli Johnson will be fondly remembered, if only for his stunning late double in the home win vs Southend.

By the time of Leeds’ visit in late March, Norwich were at a tipping point. A season of being challengers, of clawing their way back was about to be rewarded. A tight, tense game was settled by a late Chris Martin goal, a local boy putting Norwich on top in a moment that brough relief and unbridled joy to the 26,000 who crammed into Carrow Road. It was the moment that would convince many that Norwich were to bounce back after just one season in the third tier. Something that Leeds, among others, had struggled to do. This was confirmed a month later away at fellow promotion chasers Charlton, with Michael Nelson getting the goal to write his name in Norwich City history.

The turnaround was massive. Norwich had started the season battered and bruised, and finished with a dominant swagger. A season that could have ended in disaster on and off the field had been saved at the first time of asking. It took a little longer than expected, but Norwich did find new heroes. And this was merely the first step.

Over the summer of 2010 the word on everyone’s lips was safety. There was a palpable sense of managing expectations around Carrow Road after the roaring success of the League One campaign, but as the weeks rolled on it was hard to contain. Season ticket numbers grew yet again leading to the introduction of new seats to the stadium, raising the capacity by around a thousand. The board promised to back Lambert in the transfer market and over time the team began to resemble something belonging to him, rather than his predecessors. But it was all about safety.

After the near destruction of the club, everyone was relieved to be back in the second tier. It wasn’t a place of untold riches and security, but it would stave off the creditors for longer. The calibre of player they could attract was higher, the number of televised games was higher, it was the least that a club like Norwich could expect. Given the problems experienced by every single Norwich manager over the last 15 years, with the exception of Worthington, getting out of the second tier was always going to be a struggle. Safety was demanded – after that we could build.

With this in mind, the squad began to change. Long serving names, staples of our struggling years were let go. Gary Doherty, a rock at the heart of our title winning defence, was released and moved on to Charlton, while Darel Russell, eager for a longer contract than that on the table from Norwich, cast his eyes elsewhere and found that contract withdrawn by the time he was ready to sign. Lambert clearly had confidence in players that he was able to attract; younger, hungrier, not tarnished by years of trench warfare at the bottom of the Championship. With Zak Whitbread forever in the treatment room following his January switch from Millwall, Elliott Ward came in to plug the gaps at the back. At left back, to provide some younger competition to Adam Drury, Steven Smith was brought in from Rangers, while up front Simeon Jackson came in for about £600,000 to provide some pace to go alongside the force of Holt. Goalkeeper John Ruddy was brought in to fill the shoes of Fraser Forster, a popular player following his excellent performances the previous season.

In midfield, Lambert began looking at players who would slot into the diamond formation, but with the signing of David Fox from his old club Colchester displayed a change of tactical emphasis that wasn’t initially clear. Fox’s responsibility was the base of the diamond, but he was no tough tackling enforcer like Russell – he was a metronome, a sort of second-rate Paul Scholes used to control the tempo, retain possession and build play from deep. With the added inclusions of Andrew Crofts and Andrew Surman, the emphasis was clearly on playing football the right way. Competition for places was high with Lappin and Smith no longer nailed on first choices.

Already the first team squad was large and the board had been true to their word – Lambert was backed in the transfer market to bring in his own players and a team was taking shape, and as the opening day rolled in, optimism was high. It all proved to be too much too soon, however, as Norwich crashed on TV to a home defeat at the hands of Watford. Expectations again came crashing down; this was not to be an easy season and the players had no right to an easy game. The standard was much higher and, for most of the players, this was their first time playing regular football at this level. It was a steep learning curve and with so many changes, it would take the squad some time to adapt. Lambert, seemingly aware of bedding in too many new faces at once, tried to make it more gradual. Nelson retained his place at the back until injury stepped in, while Drury was still preferred at left back. Following the opening day defeat both Smith and Lappin had spells of games as Fox and Surman struggled to make an early impact, while Simeon Jackson was hot and cold up front and Chris Martin had plenty of chances to shine.

The story of the season, though, became clear in the opening weeks. Late wins against both Scunthorpe and Swansea showed a team that didn’t know when it was beaten and who played until the final whistle. Russell Martin became a leader at the back while Andrew Crofts looked like he’d played at this level his whole career. Ahead of them Wes Hoolahan was again displaying the sort of touch and class that put him head and shoulders above most players in the division while up front, after a slow start, the goals began to flow for Grant Holt. After 5 losses in their first 14 games, they lost just 3 further times all season – 32 games all in all.

Once the team had found their feet, they looked difficult to stop. As 2010 ebbed towards it’s end Norwich were faced with a run of fixtures that would really show how far the team had come as they faced Cardiff, Burnley, Reading, Leeds and Ipswich in the space of a month. The results were inconclusive – one defeat and a bunch of draws seemed to suggest a team that was good, but maybe not quite good enough to really impact the division. Then came Ipswich.

It had been tough for Norwich fans who watched their club hit the bottom while Ipswich, a division above, seemed to be rolling in the cash. That’s what they proudly sang about while Norwich crashed out of the Championship, but a chance to redress the balance was there for the taking. Ipswich, pottering around the lower end of the division despite their alleged wealth, rolled up to a snow-covered Carrow Road for a fixture live on the BBC. What followed turned Grant Holt from popular to legendary, and Norwich from potential contenders to actual contenders. The 4-1 rout was the result that gave the team, and fans, renewed confidence and they never looked back.

Things were looking healthy as 2010 came to a close and Norwich sat in the playoff places. Publically, everything was still about survival. After every result, after every mention of their place in the table, Lambert would reply with a well worth catchphrase – we just want to survive. Managing expectations was key for the boss who was keen to get the crowd on the right side, not expecting too much or getting complacent, even arrogant. Along with the board he realised the value of having everyone pulling in the same direction, those inside and outside the club, and to start making noises about promotion, about being on the up, would only invite problems. It was an underdog mentality, even if Norwich were no longer underdogs.

Off the pitch signs were there that the club was at last being run with some sort of structure and long term plan. Under the stewardship of David McNally the club went public with its Seven Year Plan, a document that laid out in stages exactly how they would attain top flight football, allowing for a period of consolidation in the Championship, some yo-yoing between divisions before, finally, being settled as a Premier League club. This was welcomed as being both realistic and ambitious and tallied with the supporters’ wishes of getting back to the top but without risking everything to get there.

As time wore on, however, it became clear this plan may be too conservative. With Norwich continuing their good form on the pitch, the January transfer window rolled around and left the club facing a choice – to go all out for promotion this season or remain more cautious, sticking to the plan. There were plenty of fans who fell on both sides of the argument, with good reason. On one hand, you didn’t want to risk the future of the club by investing money in players who didn’t work out, or got injured, or if form fell away. On the other, you never knew if this sort of form would come again – there was no guarantee that they’d be as good next season, if we’d retain players or even if we’d still have Lambert.

The latter prospect reared its head over the New Year period, giving Norwich fans their first real scare of losing the talented manager, as well as their first insight into how he operates in public. Ever since their controversial appointment they had been reminded by Colchester fans of Lambert’s supposed lack of loyalty, how he will walk out on one club if he feels he has better prospects elsewhere. He was fiercely ambitious but the thought in all Norwich fans was that he would meet these ambitions at Carrow Road and nowhere else. When Burnley went public with their approach, most Norwich fans would have struggled to imagine him leaving – it was nothing more than a sidestep, surely? Then stories began to swirl, rumours mounted online; Lambert was unhappy down south, his marriage on the rocks over his prolonged absences, he believed he wasn’t being totally backed by the board in his efforts to move the club forward. Any and every rumour was latched upon by paranoid fans scared of losing the manager who had delivered them good times after years of bad ones. And Lambert said nothing.

The agony for Norwich fans was in Lambert’s refusal, for days on end, to distance himself from talks. It wasn’t until the end of the week that he finally ruled himself out claiming that speculation was wide of the mark and he never had any intention of leaving. This was despite being given numerous chances to settle it, without taking them, even engaging in late night discussions with the board. When he did commit his future, the relief among fans was clear, and they could carry on building for the future. The general feeling was that Lambert had leveraged this interest into getting stronger backing from the board, into getting commitments to bring in reinforcements.

They came in the shape of Marc Tierney and Aaron Wilbraham who came in January to provide new options and depth, especially in the case of Tierney who stepped in for Drury and never looked back. The left back, who stated during his time at Colchester that he would never play for Norwich, turned out to be a revelation at left back and quickly became a favourite of the fans. There was, however, something missing. Goals.

By this stage Grant Holt had acquired legendary status but so much of the scoring burden was being placed on his shoulders. Chris Martin was inconsistent up front, netting the occasional goal but often going missing in games, not making the most of his undoubted natural talent. Simeon Jackson, a big hope following his move from Gillingham, had a purple patch during November but failed to follow it up and was mainly being used as a substitute. While Holt was admirably supported by Crofts and Hoolahan in midfield, he was still the main goalscoring threat and it was felt that fixing this problem was key to pushing for promotion. Too many games were finishing in draws, including obvious missed chances at home to Doncaster and Preston, and while City retained a strong position in the league, it appeared that they may be pipped to automatic promotion by one of Cardiff or Swansea. With one final push awaiting, Lambert turned to the loan market and brought in Dani Pacheco and Sam Vokes. The impact of these signings can be measured in more than just goals.

The run-in began at home to Scunthorpe on a glorious spring afternoon. Pacheco partnered Holt up front, set up his first two goals and left after 70 minutes to a standing ovation, replaced by one Simeon Jackson. Simeon saw his chance against a depleted and demoralised Irons side, and netted his own hat-trick as Norwich won 6-0. He got another two games later in a 2-2 draw with Watford, in which Vokes got his own key City goal, and from then on he was back in the starting eleven. Some might point to the introduction of new strikers as motivating Simeon, forcing him to play for his spot, but the truth is he had been playing well for some time, just without rewards. His appearances from the bench were bright, full of running and hard-work, and once he added a goalscoring finish he was undroppable. This was even more important with the news that Holt had a small hamstring tear and was playing the rest of the season injured.

By now Norwich had momentum. While other promotion rivals faltered, struggling to grasp the opportunity, Norwich kicked on, first despatching Forest on TV before destroying Ipswich on their own turf in the most satisfying derby win for years. A togetherness was evident in the side ever since their win away at Leicester, and as games went on different players stood up to be counted. Whether it was Crofts’ goalscoring efforts from midfield, Simeon’s continued goalscoring form or Russell Martin’s leadership by example, the team was bigger than the sum of its parts. Each game they went into looking stronger and confidence was high as Derby rolled into town.

Over the course of 90 minutes the nerves of Norwich fans went through the ringer. Going ahead, being pulled back, going ahead again, being pulled back again. As injury time approached, Norwich knew that failing to win would near-enough hand promotion to Cardiff but, pushed on by a man of the match performance from Russell Martin, they refused to quit. When Simeon Jackson knocked the ball in deep into injury time, the roof could have come off, an emotional release of tension that had built up for years. It might not have been the goal that mathematically did it, but it was the goal that sent Norwich up.

A week later and it was in Norwich’s hands. Cardiff had capitulated to Middlesboro, and Norwich knew that a win at Pompey would send them up. A tense game that Norwich dominated finally turned their way in the 2nd half as Jackson nodded in a beautiful pass from David Fox and Norwich closed the game out with a 1-0 win.

That was it. Six years after being dumped out of the Premier League, Norwich were back. Safety was the target, promotion was the result. It was dreamland. Norwich fans spilled onto the Fratton Park pitch, Marc Tierney cartwheeled and sang On The Ball City with John Ruddy, Pacheco danced around with a Spanish flag. So much for a 7 year plan – back to back promotions had been achieved for the first time in a decade, and the architect was Lambert. He rebuilt the side, attracting the right players, the right characters, to lead the club to glory. After two seasons, he was already one of the most successful managers in Norwich City history. And now he had the biggest challenge so far on his hands; Premier League survival.

To David McNally, things were a bit simpler. “We are back in the Premier League,” he said. “And we are never leaving.”

The champagne was still fizzy, the players still hungover from their Vegas celebration and the summer barely begun before a familiar fight approached; the battle to keep Paul Lambert. The man who led the club to back-to-back promotions was in familiar territory, holding a straight bat to speculation linking him elsewhere. And it wasn’t without merit. West Ham, recently relegated, were reported interested, to the bafflement of Norwich fans everywhere. Yet the speculation persisted, and while the thought of leaving for West Ham may never have been at the front of Lambert’s mind, his future was, and the early period of the close season was dominated by talk of unhappy contract negotiations. It wasn’t a case of money, though he naturally got a pay rise – the sticking point was in clauses. Specifically, clauses that protected Lambert and his ambitions for his future, that guided the club in case other suitors came along. Eventually a contract was drawn up that satisfied both sides, but it was a period of tougher negotiations than many fans realised when Lambert, bolstered by his success, had the power to push for the sort of contract few others would have got.

With that housekeeping out of the way, preparations began in earnest for the upcoming Premier League season. It became clear early on what Lambert’s approach was going to be; to give chances to players from the lower leagues, those who were young with something to prove. Character was key, a willingness to run through walls for the team, to play wherever they were needed to get on the pitch, to put in the miles to keep Norwich up. Seven was the number frequently quoted to bring in, but as the transfer window came to a close Norwich had eight new faces; Vaughan, Morison, Bennett, De Laet, Johnson, Pilkington, Naughton and Ayala. While Vaughan predictably struggled through injury and De Laet didn’t last the season, the others proved their worth over the course of the season and justified all the faith that was placed in them.

While their promotion to the Championship brought excitement tempered by realism, promotion to the Premiership was a whole new ball game. With evidence of the clubs living on different planets emerged with the huge sums of money being paid out by others for otherwise average players, Norwich continued to go about their preparations quietly, dealing with their business early and preparing for opening day, an unglamorous trip to Wigan that resulted in a draw. It was a bright start from Norwich who continued to play well without reward in early games vs Stoke and Chelsea, but it wasn’t until the trip to Bolton that they finally picked up a win. As well as a vital three points, they also did in just five games what Nigel Worthington’s team failed to do all season; win away.

With that monkey off their back, Norwich grew in confidence and strength, and assumed a position in the table, as high as 8th and as low as about 14th, that they never looked like leaving. While they took little time to get to grips with the Premier League, for Grant Holt things were tougher. An indifferent start to the season saw him drop to the bench as Lambert shelved his trusty diamond and began to experiment. While Norwich fans had gotten used to this formation over the previous two seasons, they saw it a lot less in the third as Lambert showed a tactical eye that ranked among the best.

Morison was the initial beneficiary, the new front-man playing superbly as a lone striker in a new 4-5-1 formation, and began to get in the habit of scoring key goals. Anthony Pikington was another to take to his new club well, scoring goals from midfield and giving nightmares to some of the best fullbacks in the country, while Bradley Johnson impressed so much he made the provisional England team before his form dipped slightly. With each game some new thinking emerged, different players stepping up and putting in performances and most spending large periods of time on the bench. It became increasingly rare that the same eleven would start consecutive matches, with formation switches, tactical tinkering and injuries taking their toll.

Injuries increasingly played their part at the back as knocks for Ayala, Ward and Whitbread left Russell Martin playing out of position for a large part of the season, and never looking a beat out of place. A calm, mature presence at the best of times, the presence of Martin often got the best out of Leon Barnett, and the two put in repeated excellent showings that saw off teams like Sunderland and QPR, while claiming a draw at Liverpool with a remarkable defensive showing.

Players that had certain first team spots the previous year became droppable. Holt had already spent time on the bench before he got back to form, while Hoolahan became another who was frequently in and out of the side depending on the task of the day, but he was always a contributor when picked. This was unfortunately not the same for Andrew Crofts, an unsung hero in the promotion season but frequently out of his depth at a higher level, and he found his opportunities limited as the season went on. David Fox maintained his form in the middle and was often in the centre of things when Norwich put in their best performances, a calming presence in the middle and able to retain possession seemingly at will.

As 2011 drew to a close, Norwich had exceeded expectations with a series of results that saw them comfortably midtable, while Holt began to find his scoring boots. Satisfying results at home to Swansea and QPR were followed with good draws away at Wolves, that saw Surman dominate his old team on their turf, and Everton, where Holt scored a goal of huge technical class. This team of lower league players, underrated, unappreciated, always told they weren’t good enough, were in fact proving the opposite; that with a little faith and some good management, they could take on the best in the league and come out shining. In fact, with Holt doing so well, there were some tongue in cheek demands for an England spot. They didn’t stay tongue in cheek for long.

Norwich’s good form continued into 2012, including going the whole of January unbeaten with some promising displays at the back from a new partnership of Whitbread and Ayala. While the latter was often late in the tackle and sometimes clumsy, they both possessed assuredness on the ball and were developing a good partnership until injuries again intervened. During this period Norwich kept their first clean sheet of the season, an itch which had been growing the longer it went on, and it came at home to Chelsea of all teams, Whitbread putting in a superb game to stifle Torres.

Confidence was high as Norwich dipped into the transfer market again, and with the same tactics; young, lower league and full of hunger and ability. In came Jonny Howson and Ryan Bennett and both would go on to make good impressions before the season was out. Lambert, aided by Culverhouse, continued to baffle with unpredictable selections that always seemed to work out, even when they didn’t, and before long it became clear that Norwich were comfortably clear of relegation with a large gap separating the bottom clubs from everyone else.

With safety all but assured and eyes turning to the future, City began to suffer a dip in form that left some fans with questions; had the team gotten complacent? Were they mentally on their holidays? Had Lambert been found out? Was he getting too clever for his own good with his constant chopping and changing? While Norwich fans had tolerated defeats before, they usually came with some sort of style, a going-down-swinging approach that would give credit to the approach and effort even if not the result. This began to change with insipid, dour results away at Sunderland, Stoke and Blackburn in the back end of the season, results that only half told the story of a team devoid of ideas and hoofing it around to no-one in particular. It may seem the height of arrogance for a smaller team such as Norwich to suggest, but the fans liked a particular style of football, to be entertained and be attacking, and games away at Stoke and Sunderland in particular had nothing of this style. This is not to say Norwich hasn’t been a direct, physical outfit at times during the season, but it’s a lot easier to forgive when you’re winning, and under Lambert they did everything they could to win. They would play nice, play ugly, play long, play short, play narrow, play wide, play 1 up top, 2 up top, 3 up top, 3 at the back, 4 at the back, 5 at the back… whatever the task of the day was, the players on the pitch followed instructions. If Lambert was the mastermind when Norwich won, he was surely the culprit when they lost.

This dip in form was easy to telegraph, however, as it mostly coincided with a horrid run of fixtures towards the end of the season, facing most of the big clubs one after another, yet it was to the ‘smaller’ clubs that the worse results came. Defeats against Manchester City and Liverpool, while embarrassing for their comprehensiveness, were expected. Being so bad against relegation battling Blackburn wasn’t. In between these dodgy performances came the Norwich everyone knew and loved, however, with trips to North London in particular being memorable. A 2-1 away win at Tottenham was incredible for those in attendance, just as a 3-3 draw in a pulsating match with Arsenal was for the travelling fans who saw Steve Morison silence his doubters with the late equaliser.

Morison had endured an up-and-down season with his new club, initially outperforming Grant Holt before a serious dip in form saw him fail to score for about four months. A talented striker, his downfall seemed to be his supposed lack of movement – especially in comparison to the constantly active Holt – and sour demeanour. His body language and mannerisms had the look of an unhappy player, his head looked down and his finishing was wayward. When he did get a chance, such as away at Fulham, he failed to take it, looking a shadow of the player who started so well. By the end of the season he had many fans both passionately for and against him; many praising his contribution and defending his performances and many claiming him not up for the task, too lazy for the job. No other player endured quite the mixed reception, but the goal late on at the Emirates gave him a chance to quieten any doubters.

Morison seemed to suffer in comparison to Grant Holt who, after starting the season slowly, had again made himself practically undroppable with a series of performances and stunning goals to rival anyone. As the season wore on he found himself in double figures, and the second highest England goalscorer, backing up his claims to an England spot. While few outside Norwich and selected media gave it serious consideration, it was a fair reflection of the superb season Holt had, scoring goals against the very best and putting in performances to blow the myth of a big burly battering ram out of the water. You only have to look at his efforts against Everton or Man Utd, or the performance against Arsenal, to see the sort of player he was – and he was finally beginning to get recognition.

Not enough, though, as England failed to call despite his quite public appeals for a place. While he was unsuccessful, one player who had a bit more luck was John Ruddy who capped off an excellent season in goal with a callup for the European Championships before injury ended his dream. It was just reward for the man who finished second in the Player of the Season awards, and won the Players’ Player trophy.

With the season winding to a close, Norwich’s final home game of the season was at home to a Villa side on the brink of booting out their manager, and all talk was pointing to an approach for Lambert. The great fear of Norwich fans, of being too successful to keep the man who made them that way, was on the horizon, and that day Lambert got a first hand account of just how appalling Aston Villa had become. Norwich finished the season with a comfortable 2-0 win, and while Lambert never said he wanted to leave, he dodged all questions about wanting to stay. His tightrope walking immediately made fans nervous, and with reason. After he had joined Norwich in such controversial circumstances, the worry was always that he would do the same to us as he did to Colchester.

This worry grew and receded as the season finished. Villa seemed to want someone else, perhaps Solksjaer or Martinez, but the rumours about Lambert were always there. Norwich City supporting journalists like Charlie Wyett and James Nursey were adamant that he was interested despite the sometimes hostile reception these reports got, but Lambert continued to remain quiet and act as if nothing out of the ordinary was going on. When one journalist too far asked him about his future, he seemed to get hostile (more hostile), claim he’d never said anything about moving and it was just fans and the media making up stories where he hadn’t said anything. He then went on record with his wishes for next season, claiming that constant progress was key for him.

In a sign that all was not as rosy behind the scenes as it was on the pitch, Grant Holt shocked the club with a transfer request on May 18th following a breakdown in communication and fallout with the club over a new contract. Holt, upset at what he believed to be broken promises, was left furious as the club seemed to renege on a previous agreement to both considerably up his salary and extend his contract, and felt poorly treated as David McNally preferred the crowd of Lords to dealing with it. On the advice of his agent, the transfer request came in.

It was a shock to Norwich fans who had loved Holt like no other over the last three seasons. Holt was the first to win the Player of the Season award three times, had been top scorer in all three seasons, he was Norwich. He symbolised this new era and was adored by the Carrow Road fans, and the feeling was mutual; Holt had never had a spell in his career like at Norwich. What stung for a lot of fans was the timing, coming just days before the deserved testimonial of Adam Drury, but Holt nevertheless got a good reception. The feeling was clear; he was still wanted.

What the fans want, though, they often do not get. And so it was a couple of weeks following this request as, late one night, news filtered through of the apparent resignation of Paul Lambert following the clubs refusal to let him talk to Aston Villa. The club was insistent; their manager was not available. Lambert, ambitious and eager to hear what they had to offer, was furious, and backed by the clauses inserted into his contract at the start of the season, forced his resignation and engineered a move.

Within the space of a fortnight the club captain had asked for a transfer, and the most successful manager in the history of the club had resigned.

The Paul Lambert Era was over.

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The Paul Lambert Years: Part Three /2012/06/07/the-paul-lambert-years-part-three/ /2012/06/07/the-paul-lambert-years-part-three/#comments Thu, 07 Jun 2012 20:01:45 +0000 Holtamania /?p=1832

he champagne was still fizzy, the players still hungover from their Vegas celebration and the summer barely begun before a familiar fight approached; the battle to keep Paul Lambert. The man who led the club to back-to-back promotions was in familiar territory, holding a straight bat to speculation linking him elsewhere. And it wasn’t without merit. West Ham, recently relegated, were reported interested, to the bafflement of Norwich fans everywhere. Yet the speculation persisted, and while the thought of leaving for West Ham may never have been at the front of Lambert’s mind, his future was, and the early period of the close season was dominated by talk of unhappy contract negotiations. It wasn’t a case of money, though he naturally got a pay rise – the sticking point was in clauses. Specifically, clauses that protected Lambert and his ambitions for his future, that guided the club in case other suitors came along. Eventually a contract was drawn up that satisfied both sides, but it was a period of tougher negotiations than many fans realised when Lambert, bolstered by his success, had the power to push for the sort of contract few others would have got.

With that housekeeping out of the way, preparations began in earnest for the upcoming Premier League season. It became clear early on what Lambert’s approach was going to be; to give chances to players from the lower leagues, those who were young with something to prove. Character was key, a willingness to run through walls for the team, to play wherever they were needed to get on the pitch, to put in the miles to keep Norwich up. Seven was the number frequently quoted to bring in, but as the transfer window came to a close Norwich had eight new faces; Vaughan, Morison, Bennett, De Laet, Johnson, Pilkington, Naughton and Ayala. While Vaughan predictably struggled through injury and De Laet didn’t last the season, the others proved their worth over the course of the season and justified all the faith that was placed in them.

While their promotion to the Championship brought excitement tempered by realism, promotion to the Premiership was a whole new ball game. With evidence of the clubs living on different planets emerged with the huge sums of money being paid out by others for otherwise average players, Norwich continued to go about their preparations quietly, dealing with their business early and preparing for opening day, an unglamorous trip to Wigan that resulted in a draw. It was a bright start from Norwich who continued to play well without reward in early games vs Stoke and Chelsea, but it wasn’t until the trip to Bolton that they finally picked up a win. As well as a vital three points, they also did in just five games what Nigel Worthington’s team failed to do all season; win away.

With that monkey off their back, Norwich grew in confidence and strength, and assumed a position in the table, as high as 8th and as low as about 14th, that they never looked like leaving. While they took little time to get to grips with the Premier League, for Grant Holt things were tougher. An indifferent start to the season saw him drop to the bench as Lambert shelved his trusty diamond and began to experiment. While Norwich fans had gotten used to this formation over the previous two seasons, they saw it a lot less in the third as Lambert showed a tactical eye that ranked among the best.

Morison was the initial beneficiary, the new front-man playing superbly as a lone striker in a new 4-5-1 formation, and began to get in the habit of scoring key goals. Anthony Pikington was another to take to his new club well, scoring goals from midfield and giving nightmares to some of the best fullbacks in the country, while Bradley Johnson impressed so much he made the provisional England team before his form dipped slightly. With each game some new thinking emerged, different players stepping up and putting in performances and most spending large periods of time on the bench. It became increasingly rare that the same eleven would start consecutive matches, with formation switches, tactical tinkering and injuries taking their toll.

Injuries increasingly played their part at the back as knocks for Ayala, Ward and Whitbread left Russell Martin playing out of position for a large part of the season, and never looking a beat out of place. A calm, mature presence at the best of times, the presence of Martin often got the best out of Leon Barnett, and the two put in repeated excellent showings that saw off teams like Sunderland and QPR, while claiming a draw at Liverpool with a remarkable defensive showing.

Players that had certain first team spots the previous year became droppable. Holt had already spent time on the bench before he got back to form, while Hoolahan became another who was frequently in and out of the side depending on the task of the day, but he was always a contributor when picked. This was unfortunately not the same for Andrew Crofts, an unsung hero in the promotion season but frequently out of his depth at a higher level, and he found his opportunities limited as the season went on. David Fox maintained his form in the middle and was often in the centre of things when Norwich put in their best performances, a calming presence in the middle and able to retain possession seemingly at will.

As 2011 drew to a close, Norwich had exceeded expectations with a series of results that saw them comfortably midtable, while Holt began to find his scoring boots. Satisfying results at home to Swansea and QPR were followed with good draws away at Wolves, that saw Surman dominate his old team on their turf, and Everton, where Holt scored a goal of huge technical class. This team of lower league players, underrated, unappreciated, always told they weren’t good enough, were in fact proving the opposite; that with a little faith and some good management, they could take on the best in the league and come out shining. In fact, with Holt doing so well, there were some tongue in cheek demands for an England spot. They didn’t stay tongue in cheek for long.

Norwich’s good form continued into 2012, including going the whole of January unbeaten with some promising displays at the back from a new partnership of Whitbread and Ayala. While the latter was often late in the tackle and sometimes clumsy, they both possessed assuredness on the ball and were developing a good partnership until injuries again intervened. During this period Norwich kept their first clean sheet of the season, an itch which had been growing the longer it went on, and it came at home to Chelsea of all teams, Whitbread putting in a superb game to stifle Torres.

Confidence was high as Norwich dipped into the transfer market again, and with the same tactics; young, lower league and full of hunger and ability. In came Jonny Howson and Ryan Bennett and both would go on to make good impressions before the season was out. Lambert, aided by Culverhouse, continued to baffle with unpredictable selections that always seemed to work out, even when they didn’t, and before long it became clear that Norwich were comfortably clear of relegation with a large gap separating the bottom clubs from everyone else.

With safety all but assured and eyes turning to the future, City began to suffer a dip in form that left some fans with questions; had the team gotten complacent? Were they mentally on their holidays? Had Lambert been found out? Was he getting too clever for his own good with his constant chopping and changing? While Norwich fans had tolerated defeats before, they usually came with some sort of style, a going-down-swinging approach that would give credit to the approach and effort even if not the result. This began to change with insipid, dour results away at Sunderland, Stoke and Blackburn in the back end of the season, results that only half told the story of a team devoid of ideas and hoofing it around to no-one in particular. It may seem the height of arrogance for a smaller team such as Norwich to suggest, but the fans liked a particular style of football, to be entertained and be attacking, and games away at Stoke and Sunderland in particular had nothing of this style. This is not to say Norwich hasn’t been a direct, physical outfit at times during the season, but it’s a lot easier to forgive when you’re winning, and under Lambert they did everything they could to win. They would play nice, play ugly, play long, play short, play narrow, play wide, play 1 up top, 2 up top, 3 up top, 3 at the back, 4 at the back, 5 at the back… whatever the task of the day was, the players on the pitch followed instructions. If Lambert was the mastermind when Norwich won, he was surely the culprit when they lost.

This dip in form was easy to telegraph, however, as it mostly coincided with a horrid run of fixtures towards the end of the season, facing most of the big clubs one after another, yet it was to the ‘smaller’ clubs that the worse results came. Defeats against Manchester City and Liverpool, while embarrassing for their comprehensiveness, were expected. Being so bad against relegation battling Blackburn wasn’t. In between these dodgy performances came the Norwich everyone knew and loved, however, with trips to North London in particular being memorable. A 2-1 away win at Tottenham was incredible for those in attendance, just as a 3-3 draw in a pulsating match with Arsenal was for the travelling fans who saw Steve Morison silence his doubters with the late equaliser.

Morison had endured an up-and-down season with his new club, initially outperforming Grant Holt before a serious dip in form saw him fail to score for about four months. A talented striker, his downfall seemed to be his supposed lack of movement – especially in comparison to the constantly active Holt – and sour demeanour. His body language and mannerisms had the look of an unhappy player, his head looked down and his finishing was wayward. When he did get a chance, such as away at Fulham, he failed to take it, looking a shadow of the player who started so well. By the end of the season he had many fans both passionately for and against him; many praising his contribution and defending his performances and many claiming him not up for the task, too lazy for the job. No other player endured quite the mixed reception, but the goal late on at the Emirates gave him a chance to quieten any doubters.

Morison seemed to suffer in comparison to Grant Holt who, after starting the season slowly, had again made himself practically undroppable with a series of performances and stunning goals to rival anyone. As the season wore on he found himself in double figures, and the second highest England goalscorer, backing up his claims to an England spot. While few outside Norwich and selected media gave it serious consideration, it was a fair reflection of the superb season Holt had, scoring goals against the very best and putting in performances to blow the myth of a big burly battering ram out of the water. You only have to look at his efforts against Everton or Man Utd, or the performance against Arsenal, to see the sort of player he was – and he was finally beginning to get recognition.

Not enough, though, as England failed to call despite his quite public appeals for a place. While he was unsuccessful, one player who had a bit more luck was John Ruddy who capped off an excellent season in goal with a callup for the European Championships before injury ended his dream. It was just reward for the man who finished second in the Player of the Season awards, and won the Players’ Player trophy.

With the season winding to a close, Norwich’s final home game of the season was at home to a Villa side on the brink of booting out their manager, and all talk was pointing to an approach for Lambert. The great fear of Norwich fans, of being too successful to keep the man who made them that way, was on the horizon, and that day Lambert got a first hand account of just how appalling Aston Villa had become. Norwich finished the season with a comfortable 2-0 win, and while Lambert never said he wanted to leave, he dodged all questions about wanting to stay. His tightrope walking immediately made fans nervous, and with reason. After he had joined Norwich in such controversial circumstances, the worry was always that he would do the same to us as he did to Colchester.

This worry grew and receded as the season finished. Villa seemed to want someone else, perhaps Solksjaer or Martinez, but the rumours about Lambert were always there. Norwich City supporting journalists like Charlie Wyett and James Nursey were adamant that he was interested despite the sometimes hostile reception these reports got, but Lambert continued to remain quiet and act as if nothing out of the ordinary was going on. When one journalist too far asked him about his future, he seemed to get hostile (more hostile), claim he’d never said anything about moving and it was just fans and the media making up stories where he hadn’t said anything. He then went on record with his wishes for next season, claiming that constant progress was key for him.

In a sign that all was not as rosy behind the scenes as it was on the pitch, Grant Holt shocked the club with a transfer request on May 18th following a breakdown in communication and fallout with the club over a new contract. Holt, upset at what he believed to be broken promises, was left furious as the club seemed to renege on a previous agreement to both considerably up his salary and extend his contract, and felt poorly treated as David McNally preferred the crowd of Lords to dealing with it. On the advice of his agent, the transfer request came in.

It was a shock to Norwich fans who had loved Holt like no other over the last three seasons. Holt was the first to win the Player of the Season award three times, had been top scorer in all three seasons, he was Norwich. He symbolised this new era and was adored by the Carrow Road fans, and the feeling was mutual; Holt had never had a spell in his career like at Norwich. What stung for a lot of fans was the timing, coming just days before the deserved testimonial of Adam Drury, but Holt nevertheless got a good reception. The feeling was clear; he was still wanted.

What the fans want, though, they often do not get. And so it was a couple of weeks following this request as, late one night, news filtered through of the apparent resignation of Paul Lambert following the clubs refusal to let him talk to Aston Villa. The club was insistent; their manager was not available. Lambert, ambitious and eager to hear what they had to offer, was furious, and backed by the clauses inserted into his contract at the start of the season, forced his resignation and engineered a move.

Within the space of a fortnight the club captain had asked for a transfer, and the most successful manager in the history of the club had resigned.

The Paul Lambert Era was over.

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