THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

It wasn't meant to be like this. Norwich's sensible approach to promotion and relegation has ended in recriminations, rather than happiness and a fresh challenge for a Premiership place, writes Graham Dunbar

A heartfelt question to supporters of Sheffield United and Reading – do you want promotion? Honestly, do you?

As things stand, both clubs have paid their Championship dues and deserve a rise in living standards. But take some well intentioned advice. Enjoy the cakewalk of the next few months for there is no reason to suppose following your club will offer much fun in the near future. Look a long way down the table and see Norwich City, whose experiences in the past 18 months are turning into one long cautionary tale of getting what you wished for and losing what you had.

The collective personality and confidence of the 2004 title team has gone, along with most of the players signed specifically to bridge the quality gap to the Premiership, and has been replaced by an ingrained losing habit. Even the debts grew.

The problem is not that the club is bearing the burden of self-pity, as it did for too long after going down the last time in 1995, although recriminations from the abject, last-day, 6-0 capitulation at Fulham did carry over into this campaign. (Memo to Damien Francis: it’s not safe to visit just yet.) And while the fans and manager appear to have overestimated the strength of the squad in August, Nigel Worthington did well to spend much of the summer warning against complacency. That didn’t stop the blithe assumption spreading that a forward line of Dean Ashton, Leon McKenzie and Darren Huckerby would rip through any lumpen, second-flight defence, Youssef Safri would rise above the scrappy midfield fray and, with a World Cup finals place to play for, Robert Green’s goal would be impregnable.

It was a nice theory, but Ashton has been strangely hesitant in front of goal, McKenzie injured since August, Huckerby tetchy and reluctant to take on defenders, Safri classy but never fully fit and Green simply not as dominant as two years ago.

Then there are the rumours. Ah, the ugly rumours, which have swept through an insular city that often acts, bizarrely, like it would rather be a village. Though the tittle-tattle might have originated elsewhere, the local message-board geeks seized upon it in a desperate search for lurid reasons to explain the on-field malaise. After the gossip was raised by shareholders at the AGM in October, the main subject – Leon McKenzie, scion of a boxing family – was forced to fend off the low blows in public. Hence, we heard the remarkable comment: “People have been coming up to me asking if I’ve been in prison or a mental institution.”

For a player who scored twice at Ipswich on his debut, sparking the surge to promotion, and got timely goals that almost staved off relegation, McKenzie deserves better than to have his divorce made a matter of public record and his children hear playground taunts about their father being a “nutcase”.

The rumour mill eventually ground out nonsense about players’ sexuality and mutiny in the dressing room, partly because it was less painful than analysing the disintegrating displays at Carrow Road and away performances that even Worthington had to call spineless and dishonest.

The sense of bewilderment has been such that partisan fans variously proposed hiring Sir Bobby Robson as director of football, George Burley as manager and Matt Holland to shore up the soft spot in midfield. Every one of them a previously hated folk hero in Suffolk.

Delia Smith and her husband Michael Wynn Jones, the majority shareholders, have preached a gospel of togetherness at every level of the club and have not entertained sacking Worthington – whose poor summer signings have left him exposed – out of loyalty and perhaps a lingering sentimentality about the good times.

For many years, and quite rightly, Delia has held up Charlton Athletic as her guiding light, a well run, medium-sized club with strong ties to the local community and which held its nerve through the yo-yo years, keeping faith in Alan Curbishley, and is now being handsomely rewarded. A growing number of fans, however, look nervously at Coventry, Derby and, yes, Ipswich as potential role models with their big debts, no more parachute payments, unbalanced squads and dwindling hope.

In South Yorkshire and Berkshire, as promotion beckons, just know what you’re letting yourself in for. And enjoy it while you can.

From WSC 227 January 2006. What was happening this month

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