2022/23: A fatigued football club sleepwalks its way towards the end of a familiar-feeling season, writes Nathan Hill.
Norwich City need major surgery. It’ll be a similar procedure to one we’ve had done before but it feels that this time, the recovery period might be longer, more painful and ultimately unsuccessful.
The parallels between this season and 2016/17 were all too obvious even from the friendlies in Scotland. It wasn’t a popular take back then but with the transfer inactivity paired with a continued reliance on several of the same key contributors from past promotions (and relegations), it felt like we’d travelled back in time. For some time now, the upcoming summer of 2023 has been shaping up to have a very 2017 feel to it.
The squad back then featured several great servants who’d been through at least one up/down cycle, if not two. To repeat the trick again proved beyond them and that scenario should’ve been foreseen and planned for, but wasn’t. Sport works in cycles and the aging core of that team had reached the end of theirs. While no one would want to rewrite this particular chapter of Norwich City history, the transition to a new playing philosophy and way of operating as a club could’ve been a lot smoother if started sooner.
No matter how resilient you purport to be, the sheer hunger, focus and drive to simply dust yourself down and do something a third time in five years will have inevitably dipped
It’s not necessarily that the players who’ve already been there, done it and got the t-shirt in the Championship for this club have dropped below their usual standards, although they’ll all no doubt be disappointed with their own personal seasons. And the intention of this piece isn’t to identify individual scapegoats or tar certain sections of this unbalanced squad with the same brush, but several players do now look noticeably more weary from the past two, three or four seasons during which Norwich’s fortunes have swung as wildly as cryptocurrency.
It’s human nature. No matter how resilient you purport to be as people and professionals, the sheer hunger, focus and drive to simply dust yourself down and do something a third time in five years will have inevitably dipped slightly, subconsciously or not. I’ve often likened the task of this season to sitting an exam you’ve already passed with flying colours twice (with an A or A* both times) – but this time, your ceiling is probably only a B.
First time around, 2020/21, the fire in the belly to do yourselves justice and put things right, after essentially throwing in the towel during Project Restart, was still burning strong. Norwich were always favourites as long as they could avoid a lengthy hangover and focus the mind of a certain Argentinian. This season had no such narrative from the get-go, and they lacked the star talent of previous promotion-winning sides. Not that you necessarily have to have the latter but this squad desperately needed freshening up to put as much psychological distance from last season as possible. The group that remained, with very few new faces, have looked jaded from it all. Physically and mentally shot. Even during individual or consecutive wins.
Because it’s not like Norwich haven’t had some of those. In the first couple of months of the season, there was a six-game winning run and a brief spell at the top of the table. But each of those victories were pretty unconvincing, with odd decisive moments masking a lot of deficiencies against poor opposition. Even the players, notably Max Aarons, outwardly shared the view that it was only a matter of time before results started catching up with performances (and the lack of tactical direction), and so they did. 2016/17 was the exact same, with early-season results merely staving off a complete collapse in confidence and belief. The fall that year was spectacular. The main difference this time is that the Championship hasn’t been of a good enough standard to punish them so brutally. Despite trending downwards almost all season, the table hasn’t truly reflected it and only now, with two games left, do Norwich finally look out of top six contention.
At no point this season, despite the Championship table repeatedly offering encouragement, have Norwich genuinely felt in the race
For as long as promotion remained possible in theory, David Wagner kept issuing rallying cries for supporters to back the players, with each upcoming game being billed as “massive” – yet the performances that followed from those players suggested anything but. After what should’ve been momentous, watershed victories at The Den and Ewood Park, the home games immediately after against Sunderland, Sheffield United and Rotherham failed to capture a big game vibe and looked like dead rubber contests between mid table sides at the end of a season. The football has lacked the urgency befitting the build up and the circumstances wrapped around each fixture and the volume and mood of Carrow Road has belied the fact that there was actually plenty at stake.
Because at no point this season, despite the Championship table repeatedly offering encouragement, have Norwich genuinely felt in the race. They’ve just been aimlessly meandering through. With just a couple of games left, Norwich are somehow still not mathematically out of it. But the seemingly small gaps in points at various points since January have felt unassailable due to a number of false dawns – an inability or a lack of stamina to string together more than one or two polished performances and/or results.
The Millwall and Blackburn ‘moments’ might have been the only times where the actual goal of the playoffs realistically came into view. One week later, Norwich had played themselves out of that position again. And that’s the point. After these two away wins, most of the division would’ve sat up and taken notice, and resigned themselves to the inevitability of a parachute team crashing the top six party right at the last – much like Sheffield United last season who, for at least three quarters of the season, were not playoff-worthy.
In recent months, you can package Wigan, Huddersfield and Stoke away into this same nondescript box of muddled and mismanaged away performances
This team have, at times, swatted aside the (with all due respect) absolute fodder of this division – such as in the most recent three home wins against Hull, Birmingham and Cardiff. The aforementioned 2016/17 squad also still had no problem at all in this regard. In fact, at home, they were devastating at times. But they’d then follow that with a shambolic, flat and disinterested display on the road – where even the likes of Burton and a historically awful Rotherham managed to humble them. In recent months, you can package Wigan, Huddersfield and Stoke away into this same nondescript box of muddled and mismanaged away performances. And anyone half decent have had their way at Carrow Road too – not just recently as mentioned above either, Dean Smith was infamously relishing the chance to play anywhere but NR1.
If you’re unable to respond to any sort of difficulty or adversity in this division, forget it. If you’re serving up such laboured performances so regularly – where progressive passes, final third entries and shots on target look like a herculean effort to perform – forget it. The football has been slow, lethargic and easy to nullify. The strange decision making, lack of awareness and overall poor ‘intangibles’ (even since Smith’s departure) have hammered home the fact that this squad is just…Knackered. At least since the managerial change, there does seem to be a bit of a plan as to how to construct passages of play, they just need to spend some time (a summer) to become a hell of a lot more effective at carrying them out – and recruit some new players who might actually suit that system .
More often than not, Wagner’s calls for an atmosphere have gone unanswered by a similarly tired Carrow Road crowd. It’s not Wagner’s fault, of course, that there’s a general lack of enthusiasm coursing through the ground at the moment. Either side of the pandemic, match-going supporters have seen nothing but regression. 2019/20, before football was forced to pause, was a bruising experience but had one or two notable highs. Nobody was then able to witness the bounce back season in person, so celebrations were relatively muted. And then as fans returned, Norwich continued to take beatings in the Premier League as if nothing had happened, despite being told it would be different.
There is a sense of “to what end” about it all
Norwich’s uniquely awkward position within the football pyramid is where at least part of the apathy stems from. Two woefully uncompetitive campaigns in the Premier League have spelt it out loud and clear that without significant investment, achieving anything more than second tier success is next to impossible. There is a sense of “to what end” about it all. Norwich could’ve cobbled together another promotion-winning season, but everyone but the most blind optimists would’ve already known the outcome of the subsequent 2023/24 season. It’s not a sense of entitlement when playing in the Championship – Norwich have had many more enjoyable seasons at this level than most, and the majority of fans recognise this and often point to a number of similarly sized clubs who’d love to have some of our so-called problems.
But it is more likely a sense of fatigue. Whether you want Premier League football or Championship football, investment or no investment, this season hasn’t been fun for anyone. Just watching them play (win, lose or draw) has been a misery. Going to Carrow Road hasn’t offered any escapism from the real world and has, arguably, piled on more stress for many. We no longer know what good Norwich City football looks like, or what they’re intending it to look like, so therefore have nothing to buy into besides just…winning. This is another key pillar of the 2017 cultural shakeup which was promised – i.e. that head coaches could come and go but the style of play would be a constant and always recognisable.
Let’s take the time to build the very best version of ourselves that we can – hopefully with the help of the Attanasio family
Norwich aren’t one of those many basket case clubs you’d care to reel off, simply because they are so risk-averse. While the glass ceiling might currently be embarrassing one-season stays in the Premier League, the Championship should always be the floor – we should not be seeing League One football anytime soon. If that is the case and the very worst that can happen next season, and any season, is a Championship ‘non-promotion’, let’s take the time to build the very best version of ourselves that we can – hopefully with the help of the Attanasio family. Therefore, when the next promotion comes around (and it will, whether it takes one, two, five or ten years), it might just count for something.
Wherever Norwich’s future lies, in the here and now it just needs a total reset. If Norwich are to be a Premier League side again soon, or even just a good Championship side in the more immediate future, a reinvention in the same vein as 2017 is necessary. In actual fact, due to increasingly bleak financial forecasts, it will be forced upon the club this summer. This team have no energy left, and fans have no energy left to invest in them. Embrace the rebuild.
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A point, granted - but otherwise an unsatisfying encounter for all concerned parties. Can Ffion Thomas winkle out any positives? She'll do her darndest.
It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Well, for a while anyway. Connor does some proper analysis, McG offers some excellent insight. Rent a gob Tom mouths off and Punt peppers the pod with listener questions.