The ACN Season Review – 2020/21

10/06/21

It was one of Norwich City's greatest ever seasons on the pitch yet none of us were there to see it. Here's Nick Hayhoe, Adam Brandon, Ffion Thomas, Maddie Mackenzie, Jon Punt and Terri Westgate to pick the bones out of it...

Biggest surprise?

Nick: We were so abject after the restart in the Premier League the previous year that I was seriously concerned that we were in a hole we wouldn’t be able to get out of. After the first few games of the new season, when things looked a little tricky, the hangover could have accumulated to something very serious – especially when injuries started happening in the autumn. And yet, it was almost like this gave us a fresh impetus that rattled us on through Christmas and, barring the smallest of wobbles, a complete romp to the title. While a certain amount of optimism never left me, I definitely wouldn’t have put my house on it at the start of October.

Adam: I suppose it is a good time to say that I was surprised we got to keep Emi Buendía for another full season, when the Premier League campaign ended I was fairly sure he’d be snapped up by a smart club with the creative numbers he put up in the Premier League. He consistently proved too good for the league. I know many are upset he’s off to Villa, but the fact only Arsenal and Villa were in for him baffles me, he remains the most underrated player in the world.

Ffion: Maybe surprise isn’t the right word but, Luton away aside, the way we played our way through the injury pile-up before Christmas was impressive. The four 2-1s in a row against Wednesday, Forest, Blackburn and Reading were properly resilient, ground-out wins and a nice contrast to some of the more dominant, free-flowing performances we saw later in the season.

Jon: That we got through this season with injuries ravaging us, and for large portions of it, no recognised number 10 or left back. It is testament to the squad the club assembled that they could continue to just grind out results, even when (Buendia aside) some of our most important players went down either through illness or injury. Looking at it with crystal clear hindsight, it’s the reason we were champions.

Maddie: I’m going to resort to type and say Lungi. At the start of the season I didn’t foresee him getting much of a look in – Skipp seemed to have the defensive midfield position locked down. Then we did a bit of an Along Come Norwich and ended up telling a midfielder he’d be playing at left back five minutes before he makes his debut in English football, and it actually went okay. He ended up playing at left back more often than any other Norwich player, producing a goal and an assist from the position. As the weeks went on it became such an accepted sight that it hardly warranted comment, but that first game against Brentford was a real ‘oh Christ, what happens now?’ moment.

Terri: I know it’s obvious, but this time last year I didn’t know who Oliver Skipp was. Our record with loanees hasn’t always been brilliant, so for this youngster from Spurs to be such a crucial ever-present part of our season of success was a very pleasant surprise. The biggest challenge next season is how we replace him in that role.

Funniest thing to happen?

Nick: This was, as it was two years ago, the farcical sitcom that is Ipswich Town Football Club. Every week seemed to bring another goalless, shots on targetless performance against Fleetwood or Wimbledon; with video clips popping up online of the sort of horrendous defensive howlers that made you think Danny Baker should be narrating them. Even the mild panic that came with the potentially boosting news of an American lead takeover didn’t stop them from continuously falling flat on their face through the run in, as they limped over the line like a pisshead falling out of a Wetherspoons at closing time. Paul Cook transfer listing every player at the end of the season added the sweetest cherry on top of a schadenfreude flavoured cake I was already gorging on.

Adam: The season went so well that any little chance people got to get angry with the club, they took it. My personal highlight was the outrage from actual adult humans when Captain Canary was modernised.

Ffion: Nahki Wells ballooning his Panenka penalty over the bar at Ashton Gate was very funny, mostly because of Tim Krul’s reaction of striding straight towards him laughing. That game felt like one that it would have been brilliant to be in the away end for – the three superb first-half goals and that penalty all happened in front of where the Norwich fans should have been, and perhaps it was the day a lot of us we started to believe we were real contenders.

Jon: I hate to revel in other teams’ misfortunes. So I definitely won’t say when Plucky Little Bournemouth went out of the play offs. Definitely not. They’re just so plucky.

Maddie: Wayne Rooney scoring his last ever goal against us in a turgid match against Derby County is perhaps peak Norwich. It’s not often a direct freekick beats Tim Krul but at least Norwich fans should hopefully be able to trot out that piece of trivia at future pub quizzes.

Terri: Unfortunately Derby beat relegation on the final day, otherwise that would have been my pick. It’s difficult to think of anything personal, as there wasn’t much joy to be had sat at home watching matches on my own. Possibly Jordan Hugill infiltrating Athletic Mince (kind of) was a highlight, but it really wasn’t a season of chuckles. Alex Tettey’s appearances on City View were often amusing, but even they are now tinged with sadness.

Wildest celebration?

Nick: Would be easy to say the day we won promotion here, considering I ended up drinking the entire bottle of MD 20/20 I had purchased for the occasion and can’t remember anything past 9pm that evening, but the answer will always, and only ever can be, the goal that won us the game against Sheffield Wednesday at home. Why? Because I was actually in the stadium. And that’s it.

Adam: Rotherham away. The last time I was on an ACN pod was just days before this game and I was saying I felt we were on the right path and form would turn. The defeat to Derby was just a freak. It was also the first time my son (5 at the time) watched a whole game with me on TV (streamed).  We were 1-0 down at HT and I did have my doubts. There was an “interesting” piece of analysis on Radio Norfolk at HT speculating why Farke was still in a job which fired me up even more. So when the last minute penalty went in the neighbours certainly knew about it.

Ffion: I can’t do wild celebrations when watching at home, but Todd Cantwell’s goal at Sheffield Wednesday probably had the neighbours most concerned at the shouting coming through the walls – both our best goal of the season and one of the most important.

Jon: Sheffield Wednesday at home got me really believing things were starting to go our way. Everyone loves a comeback win, but to do it via goals from two academy products, a delicious Mario backheel and some actual crowd noise, lovely, lovely stuff. It was also the first in an occasional list of bollockings from my other half, for walking children and/or puppies up.

Maddie: Max Aarons’ winner against Sheffield Wednesday. It had all the right ingredients: an academy player; a late winner; my first game at Carrow Road in over 11 months. The energy in the ground was brilliant and I was still buzzing for hours after getting home.

Terri: All very lame this season, I’m afraid. A downside of being stuck indoors on my own. Even when we got to those three games in December it was all socially distanced and sober. Such a contrast to two years ago, when after securing the title I drunk enough alcohol to sedate a large herd of elephants, and turned up to the trophy presentation and open top bus parade the next day looking like an extra from Shaun Of The Dead. I don’t how I lived to tell the tale, yet here I am. No this season it was just so lame.

Where does this season rank among other successful campaigns?

Nick: Unfortunately this year will only ever rank last for my in terms of other successful campaigns for me, for the single reason of that I wasn’t there to see any of it. I have been at every game that we have won promotion in my life (or the closest game afterwards if we didn’t do it ourselves), and the thought of not being at that Bournemouth game will never not return a pang of sadness in my diaphragm. The football on the pitch was possibly the best we’ve ever played, the performances exciting and slick; but it is Schrodinger’s league title. If we weren’t there to see it, does it really happen at all?

Adam: Even though my experience of it was very similar to our previous promotions in the last decade (I moved abroad in 2010), the lack of crowd celebrations and noise of the games did make all the dramatic and big wins feel slightly less euphoric even from this distance. However, the football at times was the best I’ve seen from a Norwich side at that level so it was hard not to just sit back and enjoy. I get why it was bittersweet for some, but ultimately imagine how bad it would have felt if we were mid-table.

Ffion: Less of a surprise than our last two Championship titles, but the style of play went up another level and the defending has been far more solid. Really, though, I think this is probably something that can only be judged after next season when we know if this squad (after the inevitable departures) is adaptable enough to be able to be rebuilt into something that can stick in the Premier League.

Jon: For me, it just doesn’t rank alongside any other season, and it never will. Yeah, the football was special. Yeah, there were some ridiculous goals, Yeah, it was a record points tally.

But. Football is nothing without the fans. It’s a cliché, but this season has emphasised it more than ever. This season will forever have an asterisk against it and deservedly so.

Even when watching the play-offs and hearing the normal audio background of crowd hubbub, chanting, groans and piss-taking, it just makes you pine to be back. Not long now.

Maddie: That’s a tough one. We’ve played some really solid football and looked like a cohesive team, having improved our defence since our last title winning season. There were fewer goals conceded than our last five promotion winning seasons but also the lowest number of goals scored among the same campaigns, so you can see how the style of this team differs from its predecessors. It’ll be interesting to see how we judge this season in five or ten years down the line: I always felt a bit disconnected from it, and all the hours spent watching behind closed doors football were fairly bittersweet, but for some fans it helped make the last year bearable. Okay – final judgement is that Farke’s 2018-19 title win will probably always be my favourite campaign for a number of reasons, although this one was pretty decent too.

Terri: Well it’s difficult to compare because of the once in a century extenuating circumstances thing. However to bounce straight back in true HMSPTL style was pretty impressive. Some great football was played, and we proved we were the most talented side. But would we have got all those away wins if the stadiums hadn’t been empty? Difficult to say.

The biggest reason you’ll remember this season so fondly is…..

Nick: In ten, twenty and thirty years time, when chatting on the Barclay concourse or in the car on the way to an away day, this season will only ever be known as “The Covid Season”. While the memories connected with that sobrequint will fall further into the fog of history as time goes on, I will never forget the way that this particular Norwich side bought the brightest shaft of light to a time otherwise dominated by the darkness of confusion, anger, anxiety and fear. It’s only football but, as we’ve all relearned this year, it will forever matter so much because it doesn’t matter at all.

Adam: During a pretty strict lockdown in a country (Chile) that has been badly hit by a number of issues in the last couple of years all of which contributed to me being made redundant from a dream job in football, this past season really lifted my spirits while I was mostly unemployed and struggling for positivity in my life. So for that I’ll always be grateful to the staff and players for this season. Cheers lads and lasses.

Ffion: I don’t think I will remember it very fondly. I enjoyed it while it was happening, because the football itself was brilliant to watch and through a horrible lockdown winter our games really helped break up the tediousness of each week and were something to look forward to, but I’ve had enough of watching matches being played in echoing empty stadiums on a laptop now. Get me back to Carrow Road.

Jon: 2020/21 was the season of Emiliano Buendia Stati. Because of the pandemic, I watched all 46 league games live for probably the first ever time, and I can say with some confidence it is the best season an individual player has had for Norwich City Football Club in my lifetime.

And there the fondness ends, because I didn’t see it, I didn’t feel it. I wasn’t there when we watched the ball right over his shoulder, smashed it into the Barnsley goal and wheeled away toward the stands at the Carra. We were robbed of that joy, and we’ll never see him play in the yellow and green again. I am sad about this.

Maddie: I hadn’t realised how important the social media experience had been this season until the blackout. When you’re at the ground you’re so focused on the game that social media is the last thing on your mind, you’re caught up in the moment and the people. You simply don’t need to look at your phone. At home, shut up in your room with just your laptop for company, social media suddenly becomes a lifeline. For ninety minutes your entire timeline is focused on the same goal, as if we’d created our own Carrow Road on each of our phone screens (complete with the customary “will they just get rid of it?”). It wasn’t perfect but as a substitute for the real thing you’d be hard pressed to beat it. It’s those memories of memes of throw ins, HMSPTL, and dissecting the local comms of teams around the country that helped keep football special.

Terri: I’m not sure I will. It’s been a year none of us will forget, but not for good reasons. Yes, there’s been some great camaraderie online, and the fan community has mostly been there for each other. Getting to wave the big flags before kick off for the three matches we were allowed to attend was nice. Briefly seeing friends at the ground and swapping NCFC stickers. But never in my life have I missed so much, for so long. It’s been a grim old stretch. Norwich City were a bright spot, a guiding light to get us through the darkest days, but I don’t ever want to relive these times again.

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