Relegation at the end of last season was a bitter pill to swallow; this season, by contrast, seems to be going quite well so far. So why does that feel like such a controversial statement to make?
A situation which has played on my mind for some time was crystallised by a conversation I overheard at the gym a few weeks back. The day before, Norwich has gone to Goodison Park to play an away fixture against Everton in the League Cup; we won – and won fairly comfortably – but the manner of the win was also very encouraging. It was our first victory at Goodison for more than twenty years, in a cup competition (which we traditionally don’t perform well in). At that point Everton were sitting in second place in the Premier League. The much maligned Steven Naismith got himself back on the scoresheet, and one of our brightest young talents, who has come up through the club’s youth academy, Josh Murphy scored a brilliant solo goal as well.
So, I was surprised at the conversation I heard. A conversation in which two people clutched at ant straw they could find to diminish and undermine this result. A conversation in which everything good about the game was explained away and loftily dismissed, while tiny errors were magnified and fixated upon.
“Oh, but Everton didn’t put out their strongest side…” “Oh, but Naismith was fortune to get his goal…”
guys at the gym saying Norwich only won last night because Everton ‘put out a Reserves side’. It’s all I can do to keep out of it. #NCFC— Kit Marsden (@manek43509) September 21, 2016
that’s not even true. But what annoys me is how some ‘supporters’ seek out any excuse to piss on this club from a great height. #NCFC— Kit Marsden (@manek43509) September 21, 2016
they’d rather look for reasons to say “ahh, but y’see, it doesn’t really count…“ than enjoy a good performance and a damn fine result. #NCFC— Kit Marsden (@manek43509) September 21, 2016
not just yesterday, in fact — but that past few games have been excellent for us. And you’d still rather look for reasons to complain? #NCFC— Kit Marsden (@manek43509) September 21, 2016
I’m not going to say that supporters have no right to complain when they see disappointing results, sub-par performances, or feel let down by the club. But this was a performance worthy of praise, and a result which saw us progress to the next round of the cup. Is it so hard just to enjoy that? There will be plenty of legitimate reasons to be unhappy in the future – there always are – without seeking them out now.
The Everton game is not an isolated incident. After every victory (yes, victory) I will read comments about how we were “lucky”, we “scraped by”, we “didn’t deserve it”… When players make mistakes, or when the manager doesn’t get his tactics spot-on, fans are on their backs for it no time – sometimes for good reason. And yet when we win games, it is dismissed as “luck”, or treated as though it’s some sort of anomaly (even when we have – at the time of writing – an 83% unbeaten record in the league this season, having failed to score points only twice so far since the beginning of August).
Why are we – as a club, as supporters – so keen to minimise success, and to find a reason – any reason at all – to downplay good results and act as thought they somehow don’t count? While at the same time amplifying and parading our failures around as vindications of our own malcontented narcissism?
Why do some fans feel they can only celebrate winning with a caveat attached? We are we so keen to seek out the negatives in any situation?
In Alex Neil, we have a promising young manager who has won a Play-Off final, who has just been awarded Championship Manager Of The Month for September, and who has (at the time of writing) an overall 86% undefeated record at the Championship level. And yet, a non-trivial number of fans frequently describe him as 'clueless', 'out-of-his-depth', and so on… He 'gets lucky'; he's not 'proven'; 'the jury's still out'. He'll always be blamed for losing a game, yet it seems people will go to extraordinary lengths not to give him credit for the good results which, statistically, are actually the norm.
That’s not say that there aren’t negatives in games, that the manager never makes mistakes, or that we can’t improve as a team. Several times this season, we seem to have ‘switched off’ towards the end of the game when we’re in the lead, and let in goals late on – we got away with it against Cardiff and against Wolves, but not against Newcastle. We’ve been awarded penalties which we haven’t converted into goals – whether that’s down to poor penalty-taking, or good goalkeeping on the part of the opposition ‘keeper (the latter of which we have no control over) is maybe up for debate, but we can’t afford to let it become a pattern of missed opportunities.
Fans have every right to be concerned about these issues – particularly if they happen more than once. I have flagged up both of these things on social media. I know we’re not perfect. Besides, part of sport is that no matter how well you’re doing, you’re always trying to improve.
But when you dominate a game, score good goals and win comfortable, and supporters’ comments after the match appear to fixate only on the minor details which could have been better – seeming to ignore completely the huge bulk of positives in the game – that strikes me as a little odd. Having high standards is one thing; being determined to look for the bad points, while chalking up anything good to luck or opposition errors is just bizarre. Sure, it's completely understandable to point out what needs improving – but how is it so difficult also to acknowledge that, generally, we're doing pretty well right now?
Even if we were to register a ‘perfect’ performance in the league – playing well, dominating possession, scoring four or five goals, keeping a clean sheet, not even allowing the other side to register a shot on target – I would expect to see negative comments… We were lucky; the opposition were weak; that level of performance won’t be good enough if we get promoted…
This season is far from over; there is still an awfully long way to go. Our early results have put us in a very strong position, but we haven’t been promoted yet – and yet already I have seen people predicting another relegation from the Premier League next season… For me, this speaks to mindset of far too many supporters; even acknowledging a fairly self-evident fact – that we are clearly one of the early promotion contenders this season – is couched in negative terms, seeing it simply as a gateway to future disappointment rather than anything to be excited about in itself.
Trying to predict football results two years into the future is a fool’s errand, and yet for some there seems to be something cathartic about looking for any excuse to do the club down, make the worst of every situation, and seek out reasons to be unhappy where there ought not be any. They cannot, and will not, ever be satisfied; the idea of giving the team, or the manager, any credit for their success is so alien to them that they simply cannot bring themselves to do it. They’re only happy when it rains.
To me, that doesn’t sound like ‘support’ at all.