Caroline Bailey was dancing in the streets of East Anglia in May and hasn't given up hopes of a repeat performance
Picture a golden evening in May. Fifty thousand people, drunk on unaccustomed success, are clinging precariously to phone boxes and lamp posts as an open-top bus, its passengers playing pass-the-parcel with the First Division trophy, inches into view. With Premiership football to look forward to for the first time in almost a decade, it’s easy to believe, as grown men weep openly around you, that this is just the beginning.
Five months later you’re not sure whether to pull a party popper or pop another paracetamol. In failing to win any of their seven opening fixtures, Norwich City, along with West Brom and Crystal Palace, appear to be nursing a promotion hangover of unprecedented proportions. As gleeful pundits helpfully reiterate, no Premiership club in similar circumstances has ever avoided the drop.
Palace and the Baggies have both paid recent, if fleeting, visits to the top table – they know the drill – but Norwich are another matter. During their nine-year sabbatical from the big time, top-flight football has taken on something of a hard-faced sophistication.
The fixture list, it must be said, has dealt them an unusually cruel hand so far this season, with trips to Manchester United, Newcastle and Tottenham plus visits from Arsenal and Aston Villa all before October. Take the 2-1 defeat at Old Trafford. The chasm in class was encapsulated not so much in the scoreline as a single tackle when Thomas Helveg chopped down Ryan Giggs with a move straight out of the Wormwood Scrubs book of tactics. Helveg, the Denmark captain, made 13 appearances for Inter Milan last season – a messianic signing by Norwich standards and yet, alongside Giggs, more Hackney Marshes than San Siro.
Crushing defeats at the hands of international superstars are inevitable and, in the absence of any victory of their own to celebrate, gaping in open-mouthed wonder at Thierry Henry and Djibril Cissé has become a pleasure in itself for Norwich fans. After all, it’s relatively easy to be magnanimous in the face of an early-season master-class or two. But what happens later when fate places its clammy hand on City’s shoulder at Fratton Park or The Valley? There’s nothing reassuringly glamorous about paying 30 quid to see Kevin Lisbie give you the runaround.
Worse still, the Premiership does not for once appear to boast its usual raft of lame ducks on whose visit one could traditionally rely for three nice, fat points. Everton and Bolton are punching bafflingly above their weight while Southampton, Blackburn and Manchester City are in a state of flux that could just as easily inspire as destroy them. It is, however, comforting to remember that the teams who have taken three points off Norwich so far – Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool – will all but invariably take three points off everybody else.
Patently, though, the current combination of Darren Huckerby and a cheery disposition will not be enough for Norwich. Nigel Worthington did bring seven new outfield players to Carrow Road during the summer, but not one of them was an out-and-out striker. The talismanic 20-goals-a-season centre-forward required for survival has been something of a mythical figure for the club since Chris Sutton moved to Blackburn ten years ago.
Nevertheless, Worthington has surprised the City faithful with his ruthlessness. A couple of Christmases ago the club produced an uncharacteristically glossy calendar featuring the first team posing awkwardly in the comfort of their own homes – Adam Drury reclining on a white leather couch, Robert Green beside a wood-burning stove, Steen Nedergaard with his remote controls lined up like little soldiers. Eight of those 12 have since departed, most recently the much loved 32-year-old centre-back Malky Mackay, who headed for West Ham.
Before Delia Smith brought her business acumen to the board, Norwich’s reputation as a “nice little club” frequently equated to a lack of integrity and during the 1990s turned Carrow Road into the perfect pipe-and-slippers stop-off for the clueless and uncommitted. This manager is all too aware that success makes no allowances for the sentimental and such blunt-edged euthanasia, although slightly foreign to Norwich’s forgiving fans, is nonetheless a step in the right direction.
With eight games fewer than in the First Division and every fixture sweatily crucial, Worthington and his players may no longer have the luxury of a meaningless Tuesday night at Deepdale in which to acclimatise. But with hard work and some judicious shopping in the January sales, there may be time for another party popper yet.
From WSC 213 November 2004. What was happening this month