Monday, 1 June 2015

Wembley: One week on

This time last week, I was taking my place in the stands at Wembley Stadium (Block 121, Row 19, Seat 274 – if you're interested), preparing to watch Norwich City play Middlesborough for the honour of promotion to the Premier League in what's been dubbed the 'richest match in football', the Championship Play-Off Final.  As I did so, I thought back to a piece I wrote in this Blog a few months before, called What If Norwich Don't Go Up? – and I wondered whether I'd need it in a few hours time.

A photo posted by Kit Marsden (@manek43509) on

Thankfully, Norwich dominated the game, and ran out 2-0 winners to secure a return to the top flight at the first time of asking.  The jubilation of Norwich supporters at the final whistle was a far cry from the despair we'd all felt almost exactly a year before, as we were relegated from the Premier League.

A video posted by Kit Marsden (@manek43509) on

But even in the midst of these joyous scenes, I was conscious that we were now in for a long summer of speculation, transfer rumours, and arguing on fan forum websites and social media.  So, having deliberately waited a week for the dust to settle and the euphoria to die down slightly, here are my thoughts on Norwich City going forward into the Premier League in 2015…

Shortly after our relegation last season, I wrote a long piece about our attitude as a club, and about setting long-term aims.  I spoke about wanting to become an established Premier League club – not a 'yo-yo club' which bounces up and down between the top of the Championship and the bottom of the Premier League.

In my view, our approach should be the same as I outlined when I wrote about What If Norwich Don't Go Up? – evolution, not revolution.  The way to get the stability we need is to stick with what we know works; as I said before, we have a good thing going with Alex Neil, and with a squad of players who are hungry for success and working hard, and we shouldn't jeopardise that with big changes.

I was pleased to see that the club wasted very little time in making Graham Dorrans' loan contract into a permanent move.  I like what Dorrans brings to the team, and he has good Premier League experience with West Brom.  For me, keeping hold of the players – and the coaching team – that we currently have has to be our first priority.

After that, we can look at strengthening in a few key areas.  Not replacing the players we have, for the most part, but adding to the squad in subtle, but clever ways.  In my opinion, there are two main positions to look at: centre-back, and centre-forward.  Let's talk about each individually.

Defensively, Norwich City have been a case-study in how important it is to get the right manager.  At the start of the season which has just ended, we were shaky at the back, and unsure of ourselves; Alex Neil, however, has taken the same players and toughened up our defence no end.  Sebastien Bassong – a proven Premier League defender, and a former Player Of The Season for Norwich – was out in the wilderness until Neil took charge, but in the Play-Offs we saw Bassong back to his best.  Steven Whittaker has long been thought of as something of a weak point by Norwich fans, but when I saw him at Wembley he looked Premier League quality.

Unfortunately – and it pains me to say this – the same cannot be said for Russell Martin.  To be fair to Martin, centre-back isn't actually his favoured position – but although he has been a great servant to the club and a fantastic Captain all season, he has been culpable for some of the mistakes which have cost us.  Think back to the Play-Off Semi-Finals against Ipswich, and ask yourself whose poor clearances led to Ipswich's equalising goal at Portman Road.  We can't afford these sorts of slips against Premier League opposition.  This is why I feel another dedicated, quality centre-back to partner Bassong would be a worthwhile investment.

Who should be we get?  This is where, whatever you suggest, you get a load of stick from other football fans for being either unrealistic or unambitious (or sometimes, even, both), or just for not knowing what you're talking about.  Personally, however, I quite like the idea of Steven Caulker from recently relegated QPR.

The striker position is a more contentious one.  My opinion is that we already have some good forward players in Cameron Jerome, Gary Hooper and Lewis Grabban.  I think most people would agree with this.  But after that, it gets a bit tricky.  What is to be done, for example, about club record signing Ricky Van Wolfswinkel – currently on loan at Saint-Étienne in France?

Van Wolfswinkel is unfortunate in that he has come to symbolise everything that was bad about the disastrous 2013-14 Premier League campaign, which ultimately ended with Norwich being relegated to the Championship.  He arrived at the club with a lot of hype, and an enormous price tag, but ended up scoring only one goal on the opening day of what was otherwise an injury-blighted, disappointing season.  The case against Van Wolfswinkel rests entirely on this statistic – one goal in a whole season is poor for a player supposed to be an élite striker.  The obsession with this statistic is, however, wilfully short-sighted and – I think – slightly unfair.

I think it is worth giving Van Wolfswinkel a second chance in the Premier League.  It is true that his scoring record in what is so far his only season in the division is pitiful, but this doesn't tell the whole story.  I don't think it is simply the case – as some Norwich supporters have suggested – that Van Wolfswinkel simply "isn't good enough" for the Premier League; his 2013-14 season was compromised from the start by the pressure of stepping into the shoes of club legend and former talismanic striker Grant Holt – and he was further hampered injuries, and then by being rushed back into first team action too soon after injury, and then by ongoing confidence issues caused by being an obvious focal point for fan's frustrations during the season as he struggled to live up to the almost unreal levels of hype which accompanied his arrival at the club, and as the rest of the team floundered around him.

We have already seen that players such as Whittaker and Bassong have been revitalised under Alex Neil – I think Neil is a tactically astute manager, but also a manager who can handle people, and who has shown himself to be capable of getting the best out of players, and he would be able to work this magic on Van Wolfswinkel too.  With his confidence back, and in a somewhat less high-profile a rôle as an impact substitute or as a second striker playing off (say) Cameron Jerome, the dutchman may yet have a part to play in the Norwich City story.  It's worth a shot.

We should also, however, buy another striker.  There are clamours to discover "the next Michu" – a previously unknown player from outside the usual hunting grounds who turns out to be a revelation in the Premier League.  Unfortunately, the example of Michu shows what a gamble this can also be, considering his fall from grace after his first dazzling season with Swansea – an obscure player might turn out to be a twenty-goal-a-season bargain of the century, but could just as easily be another big flop.

My opinion is that it's better to buy a proven striker with a good track record at the highest level – but someone who is possibly coming towards the end of their career.  In the much the same way that, for example, Samuel Eto'o ended up at Everton after an illustrious career at Champions' League clubs.  Of course, we might be getting a little ahead of ourselves if we start comparing Norwich even with clubs like Everton, in terms of what we can afford when it comes to buying a striker – but there must be someone around who was previously a top-class player, who's getting on a little and wouldn't get a look in at the big clubs now, but who's looking to play one or two more seasons of football and could still do a decent job?

One name that's been mentioned a couple of times is Luca Toni.  He's thirty-eight now, but after a career playing for some of the biggest names in club football, the Italian has shown he can still score goals for mid-table Verona in Serie A.  Would they perhaps be willing to sell – or loan – him?  Would he be willing to come?  Who knows!  But it's got to be worth a try.

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