City return to their yellow and green living room on the back of 7 wins, leaving them 7 points clear, with 7 games to go. With the finishing line starting to appear in the distance, the Canaries having nothing to fear from managerless QPR do we? Andrew Lawn asked LoftForWords...
Andy – The obvious place to start is Steve McClaren. He started awfully, suddenly sparked into life and then returned to being awful. It's been quite the season at Loftus Road no?
LoftforWords - Yeah it’s been a season of extremes. The idea behind McClaren’s appointment in the first place was his fabled ability as a coach, which the club hoped could be harnessed to develop a promising crop of youngsters who were coming into the first team towards the end of last season. With our parachute payments about to end, an old stadium and low attendances bringing players through from lower leagues and academies is seen as the only way we can exist in an FFP age. Ian Holloway’s wild outbursts, mad team selections and muddled thinking wasn’t seen as conducive to that – though he was at least getting some good game time into the kids.
The record breaking run of four defeats (including a 7-1) to start the season sparked a bit of a panic and McClaren was allowed to bring in four senior players (Hemed, Wells, Cameron, Rangel) to arrest the slide. That’s fine to an extent, the team did need some experience and quality, particularly at the base of midfield and up front, but four players was overkill and, again, it wasn’t the remit he was brought here with. Having abandoned that, he needed it to go well, because if you’re neither developing players for us to sell on nor winning games then really what is the point in you being here?
Things went very well initially, we were two points shy of the play offs at the turn of the year and playing really well. We had a uniquely difficult February where we played six of the top eight and a Premier League team in the space of three and a half weeks. Circumstances conspired against him really. We had injuries at that point – though you could say his insistence on picking exactly the same team in every single game through the first half of the season (including every game over Christmas) rather set him up for that fall. We had some horrendous bad luck – denied a blatant injury time penalty at Wigan, awarded one against Birmingham to complete a comeback from 4-0 down and missed it, conceded with the last kick against West Brom to a player that should have been sent off earlier after we’d gone down to ten men ourselves through an injury after we’d made all our subs.
There was some terrible refereeing – an injury time penalty at Bristol City which was a joke and cost us that game. But those excuses had all gone in March – the players were fit, the games were easier and more spread out, he had his precious “time on the training ground” and we still lost, including home games against Rotherham and Bolton which had the writing on the wall.
It was fascinating to hear Holloway's outburst after McClaren's sacking that he felt Steve had "stolen his job", but it doesn't sound like it was the most unpopular of decisions, given the situation you have described?
Holloway had a lot of faults, but he was fulfilling the remit he was given of moving out senior players, cutting costs, and bringing through younger players. He’s annoyed because the club were lining up Steve McClaren long before the end of last season. There was a televised match at Fulham last March where McClaren was the studio guest and basically treated the whole thing like his job interview. By the last game everybody knew Holloway was gone and McClaren was coming.
Our club has operated like that before, when Warnock was replaced by Hughes, where somebody gets in the owners’ ears and talks themselves into a job. It’s not the right way to behave and it’s not conducive to good appointments. Then, like I say, within four games of the start of the season McClaren abandoned the brief he was meant to be working to – he was allowed Tomer Hemed and Nahki Wells whereas Holloway had had to work with Idrissa Sylla, Matt Smith and Connor Washington as his strikers.
So what's next, revert back to trying to bring through youngsters and finding a coach who will do that? You're not having ours by the way... *unnecessary smug gloaty face*
We’re not going to have a lot of choice but to shed more senior players this summer because the parachute payments end. That’s one of the reasons they lost patience with McClaren in the end, right to the last he was persisting with players we’re not going to have here next season. The whole back four we picked at the weekend is out of contract and unlikely to be here come August. Several players who will be are out on loan in the lower leagues, and in a couple of cases they’re tearing it up, but they should be here playing for us.
I don’t know who would want the job. There’s no money to spend, you have to get rid of senior players, you have to cut costs – Holloway knew all of that and was embracing it and we got rid of him. It’s a tough job anyway but especially for next season. Another problem is the DOF and CEO who run the club day to day don’t (or at least haven’t in the last two cases) appoint the manager, so the managerial appointment is often at cross purposes with what they’re trying to do. You dream of us making the sort of transformative appointment that Huddersfield did with Wagner, but I just can’t see it. It’ll be another name, another old soak of the managerial merry-go-round, and the only ones of those that would actually want the job don’t really bear thinking about.
It sounded like Holloway was keen to come back, would that be popular?
No I don't think so. I wouldn’t have sacked Holloway but fans were very divided on him, and even those that were with him recognised that he was infuriating and making mistakes. Sacking a guy in May and bringing him back in April would be mental, even for us.
On to Saturday, your form hasn't been great since the turn of the year, but you did of course delight everyone in Norfolk by beating Leeds. Is it a case of turning up against the big boys, or was that very much a one-off?
Leeds was a one off.
Luke Freeman, our best player, had the night to end all nights against them and just dragged the team kicking and screaming over the line. I’ve rarely seen an individual performance like it at this level. It’s our only win in 15 league games. As I said earlier there was some bad luck earlier in that run, Bristol City away and West Brom at home in particular, but of late the performances have been nowhere near. Home defeats to Bolton and Rotherham takes some doing and we barely troubled Stoke despite them having ten men for almost the whole game. We suddenly sparked into life in the last half an hour at Hull and came back from two down which I thought might be a turning point, but then we come out and play like that against Bolton.
My fear is the fabled (and mythical) new manager bounce. What sort of team are you expecting to be put out on Saturday, same old faces or an XI that sets the tone for the change that is required?
Let me reassure you by running you through our “new manager bounce”. Steve McClaren – lost his first four games, including a 7-1 at West Brom. Ian Holloway - lost seven of his first eight games. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink – no wins in his first eight games in charge. Chris Ramsey – lost five of his first six games, won only three of his first 14 games. Harry Redknapp – no wins in his first five, one win in his first nine. Mark Hughes – one win in his first eight. We’ve been sixteenth in the Championship, give or take, for four years now under four very different managers. We never get significantly better or worse for changing the manager, which should probably tell you the problems run far deeper than simply who the manager is, and we certainly don’t do new manager bounce.
I know you’ve got to do that British football fan thing of “ooooh no, new manager, you watch them come out all guns blazing now, worst possible timing, just our luck” because we all do it, but if Norwich playing the way Norwich are playing can’t beat this QPR team playing the way we’re playing then you need to be having a word with yourselves.
As it stands John Eustace is in charge Saturday who was brought in by McClaren. Assuming he wasn’t sitting on the bench each week with vastly different ideas to his boss I’d assume the team will be along the lines of Lumley; Rangel, Leistner, Hall/Lynch, Bidwell; Cameron, Luongo; Wszolek, Eze, Freeman; Wells.
If only football was so simple.
Talking of Norwich, what have you made of our sprint up the league? It was unexpected here, so I am assuming we weren't your favourites pre-season?
Yeah unexpected. I didn't think much to you at the start of the season and wondered whether you'd fallen into the trap of just trying to copy everything Huddersfield did and expecting the same results when it doesn't often work like that. Except, this time it did.
Your run started around the time of the win at Loftus Road which was a drab game between what I thought looked like two very ordinary sides. Seen quite a bit of you recently and you're obviously playing some superb stuff and thoroughly deserve to be where you are.
Well we took Huddersfield's Sporting Director, a guy called Stuart Webber from them just before they were promoted, so we have in effect copied exactly what they did, because we appointed the guy responsible.
Let's finish on a specific prediction. I am hopeful you're right and this is a comfortable home win, but that also terrifies me. That said, I am going with 3-0 to City, with two early goals, first from Pukki, who is on bit of a drought and then a towering Ben Godfrey header, to put us in control, before a late cherry from Emi Buendia.
I think it'll be a lot. Don't make me say it.