We’ve waited so long. Like waiting for a sunrise. Like expecting a bus. Like the Take That reunion (what? Just me?). The inevitable moment has arrived; today, Norwich City will play in the Premier League.
What felt like an unusually long pre-season is finally over. Have we attained what we wanted and needed to get us ready for the world’s best?
Was the opposition too weak? Did we train too hard? Did Real Zaragoza come to Carrow Road with hopes of crippling half of our squad before the season has even begun? Who knows? But, today at 3pm, pre-season will simply be a distant dot in our rearview mirrors and, should we come away with three points from Wigan, it will be labeled as an excellent pre-season regime.
Paul Lambert would have us believe that results are irrelevant at this point, but last season we saw important progress in the last three pre-season games that prepared the team to start the season with great strength.
Last year’s Championship warm-up saw Norwich win away at Newcastle 2-1, draw at (then) Chris Sutton’s Lincoln City before an impressive performance, albeit with a 4-2 loss, at home to Everton. Despite an opening day defeat to Watford, Norwich then went on to take maximum points from three of their next four games. The rest, as they say, is history of the most memorable kind.
Compare that with this pre-season; the last three pre-season games included a solid win over Coventry, a more than deserved point against a physical Real Zaragoza and a comprehensive victory in a 3-0 win over Parma last Saturday. Although the results count for nothing, the City staff will have noticed the undeniable progress – fitness levels are high, the entire squad seems to be gelling and fluid football is already looking like second nature.
Let’s be realistic here; nine points from the first 15 this season, as we did last season, would be a very impressive return. So, why not? I am an optimist and I am confident that Norwich will be a Premier League team this time next year, but I also think it pays to be thoughtful about the mammoth challenge ahead.
So what could be the potential stumbling blocks in the next 10 months?
1) Injuries – Crofts, Vaughan, Ward and now Russell Martin are being monitored ahead of Saturday. While the squad is flexible enough at this point to deal with these injuries, there are certain players we cannot afford to lose (Holt, Hoolahan, Ruddy).
2) A bad run of form – our last visit to the Premiership saw us starved of a win until November 20th. We’re not used to losing and chins must stay high if we lose games early in the season.
3) A Cup run – I hate to say it, but if Portsmouth had converted some of their FA Cup wins in 2009 to league wins, their survival might have been possible. Similarly, if you ask a Birmingham City fan, coach or player if they’d like to trade their 2011 League Cup win for Premier league survival, they’d bite your hand off quicker than Alex McLeish dumped the Blues for their Brummie, claret rivals.
There’s a lot to suggest that we are well-equipped for the season and pundits and experts are starting to suggest that we might have a realistic shot at survival. Some are even saying we could avoid the relegation scrap altogether.
Here’s what people are seeing in the Canaries, before they’ve even kicked a competitive ball:
1) Team Spirit – okay, so Paul Lambert’s not the first coach to prioritize a good dressing room atmosphere, but he has put his money where his mouth is. We don’t sign stars, we don’t sign foreign players and we don’t cave to extortionate wage demands. We sign grafters, hard workers and players who want to play and are willing to work for it. New signing Anthony Pilkington summed it up nicely this week saying, “I'm just happy to be given this chance and it's one I'm not going to give up lightly.”
2) We’ve kept some key players – Hoolahan and Holt have already been tipped to be pivotal to our goal scoring this season. I would add Leon Barnett and Russell Martin to that list of key players who’ve been with the club for a while now and provide a firm foundation will be hard to break down. We also know that they’re important to the camaraderie of this squad which has kept them resolute.
3) Fan base – 26,000 fans at home will be one of the smaller attendances in the Premier League, but Norwich fans will make Carrow Road a fortress. With 4,000 travelling fans, we will be among the best represented travelling armies this season. The players stated throughout last season that having the fan base makes all the difference.
I’m convinced at this point that our strengths are enough to outweigh all the bumps that we're bound to hit along the way.
My pre-season prediction - I like the thought of a 14th place finished. That sounds healthy and attainable, but of course I’ll take anything above 18th.
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