What if we actually do it?
By Matt Rowson
So. Fourth, then. Still. Crikey.
I didn't expect this. Nothing like it. As you've probably gathered. And yet here we are... not only fourth but deservedly so having largely succeeded in adapting our game to circumstances as Betty insisted would be crucial at the start of the season. When our tails have been up we've been irresistible, even flamboyant, like during the memorable first half against Saturday's opponents at Vicarage Road in September. When we've been on the back foot we've been dogged and defiant, like the second half of the same game when Norwich came back at us. And when we've needed to scrap, we've scrapped... as during Saturday's win over Stoke when, without creating many more chances than our opponents, we looked more assured and convincing at both ends of the pitch.
Reservations remain, of course. We've been largely excellent with something close to our first choice eleven, particularly our first choice forward line, but far less assured when a squad higher on quality than quantity has to cope with missing bodies. The rapid development of some of the youngsters, the phenomenal Bangura not least, has meant that this hasn't bitten quite as much as seemed possible though... and let's not be greedy. We're still a long way from where I'd feared we might be, and it looks likely that our attention will remain focused on the top end of the division as the season finally sorts itself out.
Which raises an awkward question that has been largely possible to ignore since, well, the last time it was an issue.
What if we actually do it?
What if we actually gain promotion to the Premiership (not Premier, etc, certainly not with our pitch in it...)? The benefits are immediately obvious. Financially a whole load of problems become a whole load less daunting. It's a shame that the most obvious benefit of a sporting achievement that so many supporters follow their clubs relentlessly in hope of for years, decades on end should boil down to cash but there you are... the creation of the Premier League, the formal kicking out of so many rungs on the ladder renders that inevitable.
And if it happens, the journey itself will be shamelessly enjoyable... although surely nothing can match the drama of 1999. Or the hangover that much of Watford struggled through June 1st that year with. And then of course the chance to see big names at Vicarage Road and elsewhere. Henry (maybe). Rooney. Lampard. Robbo. Lee Hendrie...
It's not all great, though, is it? Being patronised by Gary Lineker isn't something I've missed, personally. Nor is paying through the nose for a couple of hour's worth of "entertainment" (although we could yet be asked to pay £30 for the privilege of a rotting wooden seat at Selhurst Park, boys and girls, on April Fools' Day, would you believe. A preview that writes itself...). Entertainment that could well involve getting a stuffing as often as not... and not a stuffing by a side playing sparkling, flowing football which might almost be tolerable, but a stuffing based on clinical capitalisation on mistakes and then an efficient closing down of a game which might be, at 1-0 down, over after twenty minutes leaving you plenty of time to ponder the howevermany quid you shelled out for the experience. Or competing for tickets with lifelong fans who weren't quite as devoted when it was a Friday night trip to Cardiff or some such that they were being offered. And so on and so on.
Yes, I'm a miserable bastard. But it's not black and white, rather a shade of grey like most things. Stark illustration of which is provided by Saturday's opponents, themselves re-acquainting themselves with more familiar surroundings after a season in the top flight. A season in which they acquitted themselves quite respectably for the most part, despite their relegation, and which was preceded by automatic promotion secured by a comfortable fifteen points. The Canaries seemed well set to achieve that ultimate goal of small-to-middling clubs, "doing a Charlton"... grabbing a foothold and establishing a relatively safe but inconspicuous niche in the Premiership, winning compliments for their pretty football from managers of clubs who knew that they weren't threatened.
It might still happen. Despite what has widely been accepted as a ghastly start to the season, certainly relative to expectation, Norwich are five points off the play-offs (albeit having played a game more than Preston) and thus not out of it - Saturday's game is being built up as decisive in some quarters, as without Palace's resources, Leeds' head start or Preston's impressive unbeaten run we're the incumbents to aim for.
But City's position demonstrates that the commonly, if subconsciously, held belief that getting there, getting to the Premiership, is the be-all and end all isn't quite accurate. Back down in Division Two, rumours persist of Dean Ashton, only spasmodically impressive and reputedly a little tubbier this season, moving on with West Ham particularly keen... for a fee that would represent a tidy profit on twelve months, one suspects, and would leave a big wedge to invest, some of which supposedly in Cardiff youngster Cameron Jerome. Hardly inspiring stuff though, particularly with Pompey still sniffing around Rob Green. Pompey, for Christ's sake.
Part of the issue at Norwich this season has been the slightly questionable way in which Nigel Worthington has added to his squad since the summer. The most generous assessment is that he has recruited players who know what the division is all about. Perhaps more realistically Worthington's signings, predominantly defensive midfielders for some reason, are uninspiring plodders who don't sit comfortably with the mental image of an established Premiership side in the making - in Norfolk or anywhere else.
For the timebeing, Green remains City's number one although the Canaries' unspectacular defensive record is presumably one of the reasons for him no longer appearing to be nailed-on as England's third-choice keeper in Germany in the summer. There's plenty of experienced cover behind Green... ex-Forest man Darren Ward missed Saturday's draw at Plymouth with a knock, but third choice Paul Gallacher has seven Scotland caps.
In defence, with Marc Edworthy and Thomas Helveg having both departed in the summer right back seems to be a bit of an issue; Matthieu Louis-Jean, never a stand-out player in Forest's relegated side, constitutes perhaps the oddest of Worthington's signings. He is, in any event, out with a hamstring injury and so Dutchman Jurgen Colin, who hasn't impressed since his arrival from PSV Eindhoven, is likely to play. Less of an issue is left-back, where the defensive but solid Adam Drury recently clocked up 200 appearances for the club. In the centre, Craig Fleming was for several years Malky Mackay's partner in the centre of Norwich's defence and is now seventy-three. Gary Doherty, who never seems certain whether he's a striker or a centre-back, has impressed alongside Fleming in recent games. Youngster Jason Shackell, who had a decent run in the team at the end of last season, is coming back from an ankle injury sustained against our reserves in September but might get a place on the bench.
City have been playing a 4-3-3 formation, but messageboard comment picks out the lack of mobility in midfield, with Damien Francis and David Bentley further summer departures, being incompatible with this formation. A big miss on Saturday will be Moroccan Youssef Safri, in Egypt with the Moroccan National side ("torn" between club and country according to the headline on the official site, although the player's comments in the linked article suggest less of a quandary than this implies). City haven't won this season without Safri in the side.
Midfield ranks were strengthened this week by the £50,000 signing from Sunderland of Carl Robinson, previously on loan and playing with the eighth different club that he's represented in this division which must be some kind of record. However, he too is out with cracked ribs, and so Saturday's trio is likely to comprise Jason Jarrett, Dickson Etuhu and Simon Charlton. Jarrett has been on loan at Plymouth, and was at Vicarage Road a month ago; he seems to have recovered from a dead leg picked up at Home Park at the weekend. Etuhu scored the winner against us on the opening day having been comprehensively not tackled by Jordan Stewart; he has since moved to Norfolk for £450,000. Charlton, more typically a defender, is mockingly described as City's Makelele. Andy Hughes, never very popular at Reading and not overwhelming the fans of his new club yet, might get a game but has been out with a fractured cheekbone, will probably have to sport a protective mask and may still be short of fitness. Canadian Jim Brennan, yet another ex-Forest man, or youngster Mickey Spillane could get a place on the bench.
Up front, even if Ashton is still at Carrow Road come the weekend he looks like a doubt for Saturday having pulled a hamstring at Plymouth and not trained by Wednesday. The experienced but less intimidating Peter Thorne would be his most likely replacement. Darren Huckerby, thirty before the end of the season, should play on the left where he has "teapotted" through much of the season so far, whilst Paul McVeigh, good on the ball but not so great without it, should come back in on the right following a one game ban. This should see the energetic Ian Henderson drop to the bench. Leon McKenzie is out with an ankle injury and has been a big loss, whilst Ryan Jarvis, a scorer on our last visit to Carrow Road, is also out with a knee problem.
The bottom line, on weighing up the "to go up or not" debate is that there's a positive slant to be taken whichever division we're in. The positive slant for Saturday doesn't take much thinking about... a trip to one of the fancied teams in the division in front of a large but impatient crowd described by one Norwich supporting friend as "as negative as I've ever known them".
Bring it on.