In the end, it was all so depressingly predictable. The failure to strengthen properly in the summer, throwing money at the problem in January, was straight out of the Nigel Worthington Premier League season. When the cheque book was opened, the recruitment was reminiscent of Hughton’s relegation: largely abject. Neutral commentators in that season noted how Norwich City had a distinct lack of identity – nobody could quite put their finger on what we actually wanted to do on the pitch. That same issue has been noted more than once in recent months as Alex Neil has desperately tried player after player, system after system, and ended up playing most of the same players who got Norwich relegated two years ago.
But then, Neil is just the latest in a long line of Norwich City managers who had no Premier League experience to speak of when they took the Canaries into the top league. To suggest this displays a desire not to go for the hoary old favourites is generous in the extreme. What it actually typifies is a lack of proper long term planning, as if the limit of Norwich’s ambition is getting to the Premier League and anything else after that is a bonus. Norwich, after all, are the team with the most ever Premier League relegations. Did no-one at the club notice that?
And the lack of a coherent plan – in recruitment, in academy progression, in coaching, in management – is the reason Norwich will never ‘do a Swansea’ and be an established Premier League side. McNally thought he could fix it all – I’ve heard an insider at Norwich City say that it was like working for a wannabe football manager – but he just didn’t have the time, skilled people around him or indeed the skill himself to make anything stick. His desire for the much derided football board at Norwich is actually a good idea – a sporting director would be able to put long term goals in place for the kind of club Norwich want to be on and off the pitch. It would provide continuity, direction and crucially, an identity which could survive a manager who didn’t quite work out, or, ahem, went to a ‘bigger’ club.
But it would also require the club to find someone who was actually good at the job, rather than just filling positions with people already at the club and hoping it works out.
All of which is nothing Norwich fans haven’t mused upon already. But maybe there is the opportunity now key positions lie empty to set something in place to change the long term direction of the club. And it may also involve a change of manager – though I’d praised Neil up until that decisive Newcastle game, there have been some worrying noises coming out of Colney.
His mea culpa after the relegation was confirmed was totally laudable. Such honesty meant rumours that Neil was battling with the dressing room months ago after incessant line-up and tactical changes made sense. Senior players pleaded with Neil to play players in the right positions – and when he finally did, Norwich got that precious 0-0 draw with Manchester City. I learned today that for the last three games, for example – which you’d think were relatively crucial and required detailed planning – the players didn’t know the team until they arrived at the game themselves. Which means they couldn’t possibly have known the tactics, either.
It all smacks of throwing a team out and hoping something sticks rather than having an understanding of how a team gels and how players ride the vagaries of form. Grabban and Johnson may not have been incredible players. But to drop them – sell them, even – after one poor game (a game in which Grabban was pretty unlucky really) was ridiculous. Grabban was rightly criticised for going awol. But this was a player Neil loved playing: so to fall out with him was odd. Wilful, even.
Mbokani, too, proved against Watford that he knows where the goal is, if given the right service. Or indeed, allowed to have a bad game and not be dropped. He’ll find another Premier League club and good luck to him.
He’ll probably be relieved: it is a matter of some concern that it’s difficult to pick a player who has significantly improved in recent years. The coaching staff were similarly unproven at the highest level. And the way in which some of the younger players have simply not been given the chance borders on the wasteful. If Rashford could lead the line for United, then Toffolo could have played left back for Norwich when Olsson was injured. Brady could have played in his proper position, and it would have sent a message about the kind of team Neil wanted to build.
It summed up the culture of fear that seemed to run through the club this season and in other seasons. The board have been afraid to take big decisions, the likes of which Swansea, Southampton and Leicester for example have been prepared to take. There was Neil’s fear after the Newcastle game and the players’ fear of making a mistake in case they got dropped that destroyed the second half of the season.
Of course, Alex Neil gave Norwich fans Wembley, a day that will never be forgotten. But it will always be tainted by what came next. Given what all Norwich fans have learned over four Premier League relegations, what tends to happen next is a laudable commitment to some kind of stability followed by the manager getting sacked when the season starts unravelling. Neil will probably have goodwill on his side but he needs to implement revolution not evolution.
A fresh start for everyone, at every level and some dynamic thinking using the millions we still have means relegation might not be such a bad thing. It might break the cycle. It just requires the right decisions by the right people – and right now trusting the hierarchy to make them is tough.