By Jon Punt
On a cold winter night of December 2015 Alex Neil, along with the rest of the first team’s management, spoke at an excellent and well run event laid on by the Norwich City Fans’ Social Club. For those that didn’t attend last year I’d thoroughly recommend it this time around, their latest evening is this Friday - 22 July, where Interim CEO Steve Stone will be speaking. In a world where the disconnect between fans and football clubs is ever increasing, NCFSC are doing a fantastic job at bridging the divide.
Back in December most came away thoroughly impressed by our young manager, who spoke eloquently and in an honest manner, happy to field questions about any range of topics. At the time the takeaway comedy highlights were a young teenage man asking the gaffer if it was ok to text his mother to come pick him up (the club had asked for any mobile devices to be switched off) and Dean Kiely (whose roll of the eyes is a joy to behold) almost having to be physically restrained when John Ruddy’s kicking was called into question.
However, upon further reflection there was salient point made by Neil which has resonated with me since.
Neil was quizzed about the club’s failure to bring talent from our youth team through the ranks and into the first team picture.
He thoughtfully articulated his views that academy setups, now in place across the length and breadth of English football, had sanitised the game and left young players without the ability to think for themselves, or provide proper leadership on the pitch.
His point was a significant one. For all the investment in the playing squad over the last few seasons it’s been apparent we haven’t really signed any natural leaders. Paul Lambert’s squads were chock full of them, be it a vocal Grant Holt, a tough tackling Tierney, a non-stop Andrew Crofts, a lead by example Adam Drury or even an enigmatic Elliot Ward.
Now these weren’t the most gifted bunch of players we’ve ever assembled, but it was striking that a large proportion of Lambert’s signings had worn the armband at another club prior to their Norwich career.
Organisation, communication and a sense of responsibility will take you a long way, even with limited resources. In our case, to a 12th placed Premier League finish, at the time the best the club had achieved since the early 1990s.
Now it should also be said that I have a lot of affection for Russell Martin, so what I’m about to suggest shouldn’t be taken lightly. The man has achieved almost god-like status in the Punt household. Whether that’s because he’s my daughter’s favourite player, my wife sees him as aesthetically pleasing or just because he’s a bloody nice bloke is up for debate. He also has an excellent handshake for those interested, silky smooth but reassuringly firm.
Martin clearly acts ably as a conduit between the playing staff and management and you’ll struggle to find another from the class of 2016/17 who has as much love for the club as Russ does. His talents as a footballer are limited, but he brings more than the sum of his parts and he goes about his business with an understated authority.
Martin, like much of the current squad, did well last time out in the Championship once Alex Neil had moulded the team in his image. In fact following the manager’s arrival from Hamilton we boasted the best defensive record in the division. With Russell Martin, Seb Bassong and Steven Whittaker all part of the back four. Just let that sink in for a minute.
The problem is, with the emergence of Ivo Pinto as a first choice full back and presumably only one central defensive berth available next to 6 foot 4’s worth of Swiss goodness, can Russ really continue as club captain?
The easy answer would be yes. Retain Martin as skipper, with him taking the armband when selected. But this then leaves you with the dilemma of who leads the troops out in his absence, and in my view its slim pickings.
Timm Klose immediately springs to mind. He’s now the darling of social media and seemingly has character in abundance. Snapchat antics aside, the January signing has been a breath of fresh air since his arrival at the club. Calm, assured in possession, defensively solid, an absolute rock in the air – pretty much everything that was alarmingly absent during much of last season. Again though, his appointment could prove problematic, are we really that confident he’ll be playing in yellow and green for the remainder of the campaign? Should he continue in the same vein of form he enjoyed prior to his injury its likely clubs both from the Premier League and Europe will come knocking. Clubs who can offer the kind of wages and esteem Norfolk never will.
Jonny Howson leaps off the page as an obvious candidate. Leeds’ youngest captain since Billy Bremner, his credentials are watertight. That is until you hear him speak, a voice over career recording sleeping aid CDs surely beckons after his footballing days are done. The counter argument of course is Howson does his talking on the pitch, his commitment and talent can’t be faulted, but is he really the natural leader we crave?
The last time this debate emerged Alex Tettey was thrown the armband, ultimately it proved successful with a 1-0 home victory against Swansea, but you sense he’s too much of a joker in the pack to take on the role long term. So this leaves us at somewhat of a crossroads. Continue with Russ and hope for the best, or take a bold decision which may well be something of a gamble. Tough choices may lie ahead for Alex Neil, good job that’s what he’s paid to do.
Follow Jon on Twitter @puntino