Despite defeating Watford 4-2 in a must-win game at Carrow Road on Wednesday, Norwich City were condemed to relegation back to the Championship, after just one season back in the top flight.
Cautious optimism and unattractive kits
After a euphoric play-off win over Middlesbrough at Wembley many fans were still buzzing through June and were cautiously optimistic about the new kit reveal.
“There’s no place like home”, was the phrase touted by the club, 80 years at Carrow Road and a kit that was intended to celebrate and mirror the classic half and half shirt that lasted for two decades.
What we got was a shirt that was too half and half, made unsalvageable and confusing by the sponsor. 2015/16, the season Norwich City became AVIVA FC. Fans took to social media to criticise the poorly executed kit, mocking up similar half shirts that would encompass the logo in a more aesthetically pleasing way but it was just a kit, hardly an omen for a bad season. Then came the second kit, oh, more green and yellow? Okay. But, for the first time in our history a third kit, but oh, oh dear lord. More yellow and green but orange too, and of course, the giant yellow Aviva logo in the middle, was this a joke?
Ah well, so the kits were better left forgotten about but the Canaries were still back, after boomeranging through the Championship, that small team from Norfolk were back in the Premier League. The manager was inexperienced but astute, the squad was a mix of young, old and older, sure, Norwich weren’t going to win the BPL but neither were Leicester [wait, what? Oh] but the side was strong enough to be safe.
Pre-season was a mixed bag, losing to Maccabi Haifa but beating Augsburg, losing to West Ham but beating Brentford. Fans got to see more of Tony Andreu, building up a nice partnership with Jonny Howson and Gary Hooper, Harry Toffolo looked like a bright player. City had a good team, they could compete with the squad they had.
8 August 2015, first day back, at home to Crystal Palace, three points would be a great start to the season but a point would be a fine too. Things started badly early on, less than ten minutes in Glenn Murray rash, studs up leaving more than a mark on Graham Dorrans, looked like the Palace man would be given his marching orders but the striker wasn’t even shown a yellow, okay, that was fine, that was the bit of bad luck out of the way early on.
After being on top for most of the first half, Norwich were left stunned five minutes before half-time when Wilfried Zaha volleyed in from close range, the visitors doubling their advantage five minutes after the restart when Damien Delaney was free to nod in at the far post following a well taken corner.
Twenty minutes left and Nathan Redmond had a deserved goal back for the Canaries, the hosts were back in it. Five minutes later and one of the best goals Cameron Jerome has ever and will ever score was ruled out for dangerous play – a decision that has been universally panned by [neutral] critics since.
It should have been 2-2, unfathomably it wasn’t but Norwich were going guns blazing. Into stoppage time, Seb Bassong going up for a header in the box and clearly shoved in the back, stone-wall penalty and once again the ref was having none of it. But the players wouldn’t let it go, didn’t just take it on the chin, and they were still remonstrating when Yohan Cabaye, after having been released by James McArthur, was bearing down on John Ruddy’s goal, slipping it past the big number one.
It was 1-3, and no one could understand how or why.
Things picked up in the next game, a commanding 3-1 win at the Stadium of Light followed by a point against Stoke City, a game that could easily have been three points for Norwich had it not been for some world class saves from Jack Butland. Next Norwich, lost 3-0 at St. Mary’s, sold Badley Johnson and signed Matt Jarvis and Dieumerci Mbokani on loan.
A satisfying win over Bournemouth and two frustrating draws against Liverpool and West Ham followed, five points that easily could have (should have) been seven, three silly mistakes leading to the Hammers’ very late equaliser at the Boleyn.
October was a long, cold month, four matches, eleven goals conceded, four goals scored and not one point picked up. A particularly scarring 6-2 loss to Newcastle United, Alex Neil with a big decision that backfired and left him too scared to play his normal game for most of the remainder of the season.
Sloppy, preventable goals conceded, chances not taken and an inability to keep a clean sheet, heads hanging low as the calendar flipped into November.
Starting the month off with a win, an ugly 1-0 over Swansea City and a first clean sheet of the season (in match week 12), a feat achieved in part to the Swans not managing one shot on target at any point during the match. A 1-0 loss at Stamford Bridge to a Chelsea side that had somewhat fallen from grace preceded a 1-1 at home to Arsenal.
As days got shorter and match weeks got fuller and fuller, the Canaries started December off with a frustrating 2-0 loss at Vicarage Road, Norwich without any fight, the men in yellow rallying for their next game, another 1-1 draw at Carrow Road, this time against Everton. Six days before Christmas and a ninety-minute game that might as well had been wrapped up with a bow for the away fans, Norwich beating Manchester United at Old Trafford for the first time in 26 years.
The rollercoaster year that was 2015 was drawing to a close, there were just two games of the season left before we welcomed 2016. A first was a 3-0 loss to an imperious Tottenham side who played like champions, but eyes weren’t focused on that game, they were looking forward to the crunch game against Aston Villa that followed two days later. Villa had their own long-standing problems but they were a wounded animal at the base of the table, lashing out and looking for points wherever possible. Mini heart-attacks averted as they were beaten 2-0, Carrow Road a happy home once again.
2016 brings no joy
A quick turnaround before 2016 started off the right way, a tight 1-0 over Southampton but then they year turned sour, quickly, picking up just two points from the next ten games. Losing 3-1 and 3-0 against Stoke and Bournemouth respectively then back home to face Liverpool.
Ten minutes into the second half and the Canaries lead 3-1, the commentators already proclaiming the match over, it was 3-4 as the ref signalled for stoppage time, Bassong grabbing a late equaliser and the home fans erupted. Followed by a sucker-punch, Adam Lallana with a late late winner, scenes of Jürgen Klopp covered social media, the lovable German with his broken glasses. The men in yellow left licking their wounds.
Somewhere along the line, Ivo Pinto, Timm Klose and Steven Naismith had been signed as Elliott Bennett, Lewis Grabban and Gary Hooper had all departed. But was it all too little too late? Another three goals conceded to Spurs then worryingly losing 2-0 at Villa Park, City were falling apart and had to piece themselves back together for the next game, at home to West Ham. Cruising at 2-0, Norwich switched off and conceded twice within two minutes. Heads hung low once again.
Next up was title-chasing Leicester, City looked good, shading possession and chances, with just minutes left it looked like they could add one more point to their tally, but Leo Ulloa with an easy finish after a smart flick from Jamie Vardy was enough to give the Foxes all three points.
Suddenly it was March and Norwich were back in the drop-zone, Carrow Road was hosting Chelsea and the men in yellow were determined, full of fight and conceding in the first minute and then against one minute into stoppage time, Diego Costa scoring from an offside position.
Nathan Redmond giving the home fans some hope with twenty minutes left but a lack of killer instinct was enough for Chelsea to leave with all three points, two shots on target more than enough for the Blues. Four days later the Canaries fell to an insipid defeat to Swansea whilst Gianni Infantino watched on, bored out of his mind.
A small glimmer of hope after a nil-nil draw against Man City, the Citizens doing nothing with 66% possession and fifteen shots to Norwich’s five (zero on target). Then two wins on the bounce, a 1-0 at the Hawthorns and a nervous 3-2 over Newcastle, the Canaries were back out of the danger-zone, sat in 17th, looking down anxiously.
One, two, three, four losses on the bounce followed, a frustrating 1-0 at Selhurst Park then a damaging 0-3 against the Black Cats – Sunderland full of fight, Norwich disinterested. Back to back 1-0’s, first at the Emirates then at home to Manchester United.
Norwich with a faint hope but only if other results were to go their way, one way or another needing help from Watford and Everton.
Things started badly in the penultimate game of the season, Troy Deeney giving the Hornets the lead with just over ten minutes played. Were the Canaries sunk already? No, fight, hunger, suddenly Norwich were playing and playing well, Redmond with an equaliser less than five minutes after the opener then Mbokani with quick-fire second, mopping up the scraps after Redmond had fired against the post, Redmond striking the post again before Craig Cathcart diverted the ball into his own net with a spectacular own goal.
It was 3-1 heading into the break and everything was as it should have been, or at least it would have been good news had Sunderland not also been taking a two goal advantage into the break against a dismal Everton. Watford came out strong in the second half and Odion Ighalo reduced the deficit as Norwich looked to be slowing down but once again Mbokani was there to widen the lead.
The final score was Norwich 4-2 Watford but further north Sunderland had romped to a 3-0 win over a limp and pathetic Everton side to guarantee their safety.
Down but not despondent
Norwich were down with one still to play, too little too late was the adage. But something else was happening at Carrow Road, as the Watford fans were cheering Sunderland on, chanting about the host’s relegation, the Norwich faithful were in full voice too. Chanting and cheering, singing about coming for Ipswich Town and reminding Watford that yes, yes they were playing a Championship side but they were being beaten by a Championship side.
Relegation had been looming, some of the fans had seen it coming over the horizon earlier in the season, others still had hope but knew it was a mountain to be climbed, the loss to Sunderland had been enough to put all Canaries on alert. After the match the players did their lap, applauding the fans as they applauded back, loud cheers for Alex Neil, a man in the lowest point of his career.
A season of what ifs, poor form, individual errors and good old-fashioned bad luck. Even the Player of the Season, Jonny Howson, had suffered a dip in form earlier in the season, fan-favourite, Wes Hoolahan was getting old and the defence had been shambolic for most of the season. There were issues everywhere. January-signing Timm Klose had looked sharp before his injury, if only he had been signed in the Summer instead or if only Norwich had a potent striker; a Ighalo or Vardy. If only.
Chief executive, David McNally has already left, there will, undoubtedly be more behind the scenes shuffles and departures but what of the players? Players who haven’t been good enough this season, players who are Championship but not Premier League quality. Players who deserve to be in the top-flight that Norwich would be foolish to let go but unable to hold onto. And what of the Scot in charge?
It would be unwise to fire Alex Neil, who unquestionably learned a lot this season, management in the BPL quite a different story to management in the SPL. He needs to be brave in his decisions, yes, he can’t go guns-blazing at every team in the top flight, he has to be measured but he also can’t run scared as he did this season. If he wants to stay then there’s no reason to part company, he knows exactly what’s required to achieve promotion to the top-flight and with the correct investment (and at the right times) there’s no reason Norwich can’t 1) bounce straight back and 2) maintain top flight status.
Jonny Howson, Robbie Brady, Wes Hoolahan, Timm Klose, Martin Olsson, Ryan Bennett, Alex Tettey. Seven players that the Canaries have to fight to keep – Redmond is a tricky one, clubs have clearly shown interest, maybe it’s best to just sell him now and invest the money elsewhere.
But there’s a wealth of younger talent in the team, Josh and Jacob Murphy certainly have an argument for being part of next season’s promotion push. Although the likes of Louis Thompson, Harry Toffolo, James Maddison, Carlton Morris and Jamar Loza, could still do with loan spells to strengthen their games.
In will be a turbulent summer, but Norwich City know exactly what it takes to be promoted to the Premier League. The fans are loyal to a tee, as long as the board is willing to support to the manager and the players are committed to putting the work in then the Canaries will have a great platform for the promotion-push.
The 2016/17 Championship season kicks off on Saturday 6 August.