Nor­wich keep eyes on top flight as Chelsea ar­rive for cup clash

Main con­cern af­ter up­heaval on and off the pitch is pro­mo­tion be­fore para­chute pay­ments stop

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SOCCER - Paul McInnes

Nor­wich City v Chelsea Car­row Road, to­day, 5.30pm Live on BT Sport 2

Are Nor­wich City hav­ing a bad sea­son?

It seems hard to ar­gue they are hav­ing a good one; af­ter 26 games they are 13th in the Cham­pi­onship, nine points off the play-offs, one place and two points be­hind Ip­swich Town. Next up, the not al­to­gether wel­com­ing prospect of Chelsea in the FA Cup to­day.

Low­lights in­clude a run of eight matches with­out a win from Oc­to­ber to De­cem­ber, a 4-0 maul­ing at Mill­wall, de­feats at Car­row Road by Sun­der­land and Brent­ford and only 14 home goals, fewer than all bar four teams in the di­vi­sion.

Boos have been a reg­u­lar back­drop and the man­ager, Daniel Farke, has been un­der con­sis­tent pres­sure since join­ing in the sum­mer from Borus­sia Dort­mund’s re­serves.

On the pos­i­tive side, there was a nine-game un­beaten run, a nar­row de­feat by Arse­nal in the League Cup fourth round and a com­fort­able derby win at Port­man Road.

Per­cep­tions of over­all per­for­mance may vary de­pend­ing on your per­spec­tive. For four of the past seven sea­sons, Nor­wich were in the Pre­mier League, first with a buc­ca­neer­ing style un­der Paul Lambert, then more prag­matic un­der Chris Hughton and fi­nally, af­ter rel­e­ga­tion, a brief re­turn un­der Alex Neil.

They have an av­er­age at­ten­dance of 25,500, higher than seven teams in the top flight, and last sea­son ran up a wage bill of ¤62 mil­lion, the se­cond-high­est recorded in Cham­pi­onship his­tory. This is a club which be­lieves it be­longs at the top.

Look at it an­other way and the pic­ture is dif­fer­ent.

New own­er­ship

Over a longer pe­riod, Nor­wich have spent only eight sea­sons in the Pre­mier League dur­ing its 25-year his­tory. They have cur­rently only the ninth-high­est at­ten­dance in the Cham­pi­onship, now a di­vi­sion full of his­toric clubs, many un­der new own­er­ship, all try­ing to make it to the promised land. And that wage bill? It’s a mill­stone around their neck.

At the AGM in Novem­ber the chair­man, Ed Balls, ad­mit­ted the club would face “a sub­stan­tial fi­nan­cial chal­lenge” were they not to be pro­moted this sea­son. A third year in the se­cond tier would see an end to para­chute pay­ments and a huge hole in the ac­counts.

“Tough de­ci­sions will have to be made,” Balls said. For fans, this re­mark was in­ter­pretable in only one way: Nor­wich’s best play­ers will be sold.

There is no doubt as to who those most prized as­sets are: Alex Pritchard and James Mad­di­son. Both were signed by Neil but nei­ther mid­fielder fea­tured much un­der the Scot.

Mad­di­son, loaned out to Ab­erdeen last sea­son, has flour­ished in an at­tack­ing mid­field role, scor­ing seven times and adding eight as­sists. Pritchard, the Tot­ten­ham academy grad­u­ate and a player of un­doubted abil­ity, re­turned less then a month ago from an in­jury sus­tained in pre-sea­son. He is on Mad­di­son’s wave­length and the pair com­bined for the win­ning goal in the re­verse fix­ture against Mill­wall on New Year’s Day.

That the de­par­ture of these two – Mad­di­son is 21, Pritchard 24 – is the most likely op­tion should City re­main in the Cham­pi­onship (and per­haps even be­fore then) speaks to the ab­sence of al­ter­na­tives.

The owner, Delia Smith, is a life­long fan who has kept the club from fi­nan­cial ruin more than once but her vi­sion re­mains as it has al­ways been, that Nor­wich City should be self-suf­fi­cient. This is not a po­si­tion shared by more vo­cal el­e­ments of the Car­row Road crowd, and is cer­tainly at odds with other clubs in the di­vi­sion.

Changed struc­ture

There is a strong ar­gu­ment Smith has never re­ceived due re­spect for what she has achieved at Nor­wich, even if her “let’s be havin’ you” mo­ment was even­tu­ally in­cor­po­rated into a chant. It is also true her strat­egy for the club is more than just rhetoric. In re­mov­ing Neil last spring the club also changed its struc­ture, also re­mov­ing the role of chief ex­ec­u­tive and cre­at­ing se­nior posts of man­ag­ing di­rec­tor and sport­ing di­rec­tor.

The lat­ter was filled by Stu­art Web­ber, poached from Hud­der­s­field. He re­cruited Farke from the job pre­vi­ously held by the Ter­ri­ers man­ager, David Wag­ner. He also over­hauled the re­cruit­ment sys­tem. In the sum­mer, along­side Farke, he made 10 sign­ings, most on low wages. The 33-year-old also gut­ted the coach­ing staff and re­booted the club’s academy, declar­ing it “para­mount” the fa­cil­ity pro­duced more first-team play­ers.

This is a sea­son of mas­sive change, what­ever the per­spec­tive, and many fans have been un­will­ing to put up with the con­se­quences. Web­ber and Farke have surely made mis­takes too but the ur­bane Ger­man ap­pears to have forged a real bond with his squad. He claimed the ha­rangu­ing that fol­lowed the Brent­ford de­feat on De­cem­ber 23rd led to tears in the chang­ing room but his team re­sponded with seven points from nine in the Christ­mas pe­riod.

With 20 games re­main­ing, the gap to the play-offs is not in­sur­mount­able. It will re­quire a con­sis­tency Farke’s side have yet to show but a suc­cess­ful chap­ter in the Ca­naries’ his­tory has not yet come to a close.

Farke claimed the ha­rangu­ing that fol­lowed the Brent­ford de­feat on De­cem­ber 23rd led to tears in the chang­ing room but his team re­sponded with seven points from nine in the Christ­mas pe­riod

PHO­TO­GRAPH: SAM BAG­NALL/ AMA/GETTY IM­AGES

Alex Pritchard, a Tot­ten­ham academy grad­u­ate, re­turned to ac­tion for Nor­wich City less than a month ago. He is one of the club’s most prized as­sets but may be sold if the side fails to win pro­mo­tion

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