Back to school
By Matt Rowson
School. A social microcosm of the entire world. Alliances, made and broken. Vendettas breaking beyond their domain and destabilising whole continents, classrooms, bus-routes. Power-struggles between nations, religions, staff, prefects, the guy who owns the football. Plus a musical dynasty complicated enough to write textbooks about, and centres of activity where all the action goes down... for the headline-dominating Middle-East, Northern Ireland, House of Commons read Broomfield Road, the Bus Station, The Ship, Dixy's Fried Chicken.
But especially the vendettas. Within each year group there were dividing lines defined by any number of things... taste in music, political affiliation (for a bizarrely intense spell around the second or third year), whatever. But when the aggression came from outside sources - another year or, heaven forbid, another school - petty civil conflicts were largely forgotten. You knew where your loyalties lay.
However many years on, and our season is basically over. Barring an all-conquering late run to eclipse even that of 1999 (on the evidence so far, unlikely) and Grimsby or Walsall putting together a similar charge themselves (also highly unlikely, even without Colin Lee's involvement) here we are and here we stay.
So what is our now neutralish perspective on goings-on at the top of the table? Well, Manchester City look to be going up, bar a miracle. Wolves are up there as well, and although we should never discount their ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, it looks depressingly as if this could be their year.
Of the rest, Millwall and West Brom are making a decent fist of securing two of the play-off berths. Norwich are one of maybe half-a-dozen clubs chasing fifth and sixth.
Whilst the promotion of the two sides lined up for automatic promotion would be odious in the extreme, there's potential entertainment in the play-off scrap. Norwich, as opponents, are at best Division One fodder and at worst a bit of a pain in the backside... a few grumpy encounters over the last few years, a location in the middle of nowhere at a venue where we've only ever recorded one win.
However, were they to make it into and through the play-offs, our perspective would change completely. Much as was the case when City were punching above their weight at the top of the Premiership and fabulously evicting the unbearably pompous Bayern Munich from the UEFA Cup, City would again become a smaller clubs' champion in the big league. Simultaneously they would annoy the biggest spenders simply by virtue of being less profitable opponents.
The same goes for Millwall, Preston and particularly Burnley, so utterly obnoxious an opponent, the double whammy of not having to consider Turf Moor and watching the likes of Henry and Beckham get bootered every week is highly attractive. Coventry, whilst inoffensive enough, would be a bit of a waste of a promotion place and of course the prospect of Palace going up is too abhorrent to think about...
You would, in all honesty, have to fear for City if they made it this season however. Their squad is relatively light, and they wouldn't be able to compete with most of their contemporaries in terms of salaries. Whilst both Charlton Athletic and Norwich's good friends Ipswich are showing that it can be done, both were dominant forces in Division One before their promotion. City, for all their improvements this season, are hardly that.
In goal for the Canaries will be Robert Green, who has taken over as first choice stopper since Andy Marshall's move across East Anglia to Ipswich. His deputy is Paul Crichton, who appears to be no more popular here than he was in his West Brom days.
City have a temporary problem at left-back, with Adam Drury, the only senior left back at the club, sidelined with a medial ligament problem. The popular and versatile Darren Kenton has filled in in Drury's absence, but he too was suspended for Friday's tie with Preston although he will be available on Tuesday. Trundling veteran Daryl Sutch deputised, although City are pursuing a long-standing interest in Scunthorpe's Andy Dawson. On the right, with Kenton at left-back, will be Steen Nedergaard, who has scored against us in the last two ties at Carrow Road.
At centre-back, a persistent hamstring problem has kept Neil Emblen out for all but two games since his summer arrival from Molineux, so former Celtic stopper Malky Mackay and Craig Fleming, who played for Oldham in the top flight, have struck up a regular partnership. Brian McGovern, once an Arsenal youth-teamer, is first-choice cover.
In midfield, much discussion amongst City fans last week was on the subject of Phil Mulryne, the creative but inconsistent Northern Ireland international who has turned down a new contract and seems set to leave the club on a Bosman in the summer. This is seen by many as unjustifiable behaviour from an individual who City paid through a long injury shortly after his arrival from Man.United, but it doesn't affect us either way as he is suspended on Tuesday having picked up five bookings. The same problem also rules out Wimbledon's on-loan clogger Andy Roberts, so Norwich are likely to have to reshuffle in midfield.
Nigel Worthington has played both 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 in recent games. On Friday evening, former Crewe winger Mark Rivers made a rare start on the right, but went off with an ankle injury, with Paul McVeigh preferred to Chris Llewellyn on the left of either the midfield or the attacking trio. In the centre the combative Gary Holt is cited as Worthington's only real success in the transfer market so far. In the absence of the two mentioned above, Darel Russell is probably a candidate to come in, although City fans are beginning to ask what happened to that bloke Easton that they picked up from us in the summer. Another ex-United man Alex Notman would be another candidate.
Up front, leading Iwan Roberts returned from seven weeks out to start Friday night's game alongside David Nielsen, whose goalscoring has dried up since he made his move from Wimbledon permanent, much to the amusement of onlookers at Wimbledon and Grimsby. Trevor Benjamin, signed on loan to stand in as City's battering ram, was dropped to the bench but is still preferred ahead of Marc Libbra, whose early season promise has evidently not been fulfilled. Gaetano Giallanza and Zema Abbey are both ruled out for the season with serious cruciate ligament injuries.
City, in Roberts' absence, had won one game in eight prior to Friday and have shipped thirty goals in sixteen away games this season. Next season we may be offering tacit support to the Canaries in the Prem, but earlier this year they nicked our conkers at Carrow Road, and now it's payback time...