20 April ~ We curmudgeons who perpetually bleat about football's predictability occasionally face a week where we're forced to revise our complacent analysis that the league table is set in stone before a ball's been kicked. Tottenham's FA Cup semi-final defeat to Portsmouth and subsequent high-octane victories over Arsenal and Chelsea were all as thrilling as they were surprising. The title race that seemed like a snooze a week ago is wide open again, albeit narrowed down to the usual choice of which team you hate least. And Arsenal threw away a two-goal lead for the first time in 12 years in less time than it takes for a dog to chew up and spit out a laminated £4,000 season ticket.
Even as we delight in reading John Terry's lips as he stomps off to prematurely squeeze his tube of shower gel, we seek some security that football's order has not changed enough to upset us too much. In that respect, the weekend brought one particularly joyous event – the forthcoming return of Norwich City headlines, which for the past year have been confined to the lower sections of the media due to the team's League One status. I've sorely missed seeing how sub-editors can regurgitate avian imagery on a weekly basis, but now that the East Anglian cathedral city side is set to return to the Championship, I can assure myself with a glance at the football news that some things in football will always be as they were.
Canaries fly back to Championship, exulted the Independent at the weekend, sensing the glorious return of ornithologically related puns to the forefront of coverage. "The Canaries are coming out of their coalmine," the Observer's Paul Hayward announced with the same brimming sense of anticipation after a 1-0 return over Leeds last month. Canaries on song, was the recent headline in the Lynn News after a win over Yeovil. Canaries on song, headlined Sporting Life online following victory over Huddersfield. Canaries on song, triumphed the Mirror last September after a 4-0 heavy pecking of Orient. Norwich's Paul Lambert puts the song back into the Canaries, narrated the Telegraph last August with a subtle variation.
Not many fans noticed the threat to the bird-based headline when Bryan Gunn took over on a temporary basis as Norwich manager in January of last year. Bryan Gunn steps into firing line at Norwich City, the Telegraph punned. When they beat Barnsley 4-0 a few days later, the Mail pointed up the reason: Gunn brings in the firepower for Canaries. And when Gunn's appointment became permanent, the same paper lead with "Gunn aims to fire Canaries to promotion after landing Carrow Road post". Mercifully, Gunn proved so inept that he was quickly, ha ha, fired (copyright the Independent, the Mail, the Mirror, and 23,719 football message boards, though with an added exclamation mark), and firearm metaphors returned to their rightful place in stories about famed north London outfit Arsenal FC.
And so, the return of the headline Canaries on song to the second tier is to be celebrated by those of us who rely on football's conservative trends for material to moan about. Even if Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal all go bankrupt this summer and next year's title race sees eight possible champions on the final day, people whose world view is threatened by too much turmoil and excitement can always pick up a paper and say in a droll manner: "Look, Norwich City won, and guess what the headline in the Mirror was." It could be Forest getting out of the woods, the Saints marching in, or the Pilgrims making progress. All praise to the legions of desk-bound, creatively sterile hacks on the evening shift who keep us content with the false but reassuring notion that football is as ageless as a team's nickname. Ian Plenderleith