Playoff Fever: Headache, Lethargy, Nausea

09/05/24

From table dregs to potential promotion… pretty good, no? No, says Nick Hayhoe as he struggles to align his emotions to what comes next.

That’s that then. Norwich City are potentially two Andy Hughes corner routines away from the Premier League Promised Land. The Big Prize. The Greatest League In The Known World. What excitement there is on the streets of Dereham and Holt and Yarmouth and the pedestrianised centre of The Fine City itself…right?

With news of semi-final tickets released – and along with it calculation of the costs, how to overcome weekend engineering works, decoding the floppy nature of the team and David Wagner – I feel unbothered to the point of being angry at myself for it. This isn’t how a fan should feel, is it? What will everyone else think if, when asked how excited I am about going to Wembley, I just shrug my shoulders and say “actually, I’m not really planning on going”?

The thin membrane of illusion that has kept me sane when considering Norwich’s place in modern football is in tatters. Coventry City’s loss due to an absolutely pointless VAR call in the FA Cup semi final, against a team who couldn’t care less, was the small piece of straw that may have finally – subject to veterinary inspection – broken the camel’s back. 

How on earth has my morale fallen to this point? It’s awful, this constant feeling that any enjoyment from watching Norwich’s success (or otherwise) is overshadowed by a looming caveat.

I’ve always had the expectation that football will get me through. What a moment it is during a working Tuesday to remember “ohhhhh, Norwich play tonight” or know that, at the very least there is the football to look forward to at the weekend – even if… you know. It was always there, much like the post-Friday pint I now cannot have because I am on a strict diet. 

This is being destroyed by the Premier League. By modern football. By the cash. By a mid-table Wolverhampton Wanderers with several £20m-plus players looking, quite literally, like a non-league team when playing Manchester City. By the constant rule tweaks that benefit the few. By the knowledge in the back of my mind that journalists in Riyadh or Doha are mysteriously disappearing. 

If Norwich get promoted to the Premier League, the cycle starts all over again. Thrashed by Liverpool in the opening game. Trounced by Chelsea in the second. Sucker-punched as a result of a VAR call against multi-£25m-strikered Bournemouth in the third. Talks of lowest ever points totals. Making a mockery of the league. Jokes on Match of the Day. What do they expect down there-ing? It’s so naive, Gary, that’s all I can say. There’s no relief. No escape except to shout into the darkness that the game might be, just might be, slanted against us.

This is not to say the club itself does not have a free pass with regards to the way it operates against this tide either. The constant bowing. The “Yes, Mr Premier League. Whatever you say.” The lack of any dissenting voice that says “this, football, isn’t right” despite the fact we’re one of the prime victims of exactly what it has become. Despite its very existence owning itself to them, not a single word was said by Norwich City Football Club publicly about the junking of FA Cup replays except for the Head Coach who essentially said “good!”, despite the fact that Norwich are exactly the sort of club for whom getting to an FA Cup final becomes ever harder without the chance to “do it again, back at our place” when along the way.

It’s an obsequiousness that borders on sycophancy. I’m tired of it. The club is constantly holding its hands up. Shrugging its shoulders. Asking “what can we do?”. Not realising the power it actually has just that could come from something as small as its own public statements, in case it might offend someone that could cause a problem with getting the tiniest slice of “the cash”. Indeed, if you had any doubts as to the power the cash hold on our plucky dear Norwich City, then just look at the 36 reasons they’ve given us so we can watch the playoff semi final.

Is there an easy answer? No. Should I, or anyone else, feel guilty about not being able to come up with easy answers? Also no. I am not the writer of a long read on The Athletic. To say “you can’t complain and not come up with solutions” is a redactive response. There are thousands of solutions out there; people have written entire books about it. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to implement any genuine change when the people trusted to do so are making money from it.

There was a time, only a few short years ago, that I thought once something gave, we’d give pause and begin to roll back the damage. Of course, something did give. But match after match of empty stadiums inspired nothing. The outcry against the embarrassing attempt to create a breakaway Super League did nothing to do this (and indeed, caused more acquiescence). So we’re left with no way back. Every avenue out is exhausted.

And this leaves me feeling entirely ambivalent about achieving something that, for our club, would constitute quite the success. Modern Football has completely wrecked the intrinsic pleasure I get from watching my football club winning football matches. It has finally broken my brain.

Perhaps I’m now just now the wrong sort of consumer for top-level football. Like Winston Smith declaring his love for Big Brother at the end of 1984, maybe I should deaden my brain to the realities; play Fantasy Football, watch Saturday Social on Sky Sports and talk about “breaking the lines” and “the low block” in my ACN pieces rather than the destruction of football. Perhaps that’d be better than this eternal mind-tennis. Perhaps I should just submit myself to that.

Or should I get more and more angry? Well. We all know it would be too little, too late.

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