Is Chris Hughton or his bosses particularly concerned with the Norwich manager’s popularity rating amongst City’s faithful? Possibly not, as long as the club – who were almost on the verge of financial collapse not too long back and in the third tier as recently as 2009/10 – progresses on all fronts. However, what is clear is that there is a sizeable portion of the East Anglian club’s support who, on the first sign of Hughton’s men failing to deliver, will waste no time in calling for the gaffer’s head. In this age of documented opinion many have made their feelings plain and one has the feeling that many were smiling through gritted teeth after yesterday’s entertaining 2:2 draw with Everton.
Hughton succeeded last year in putting together a team and a philosophy that kept Norwich up. The football was often considered contained, blunt and too respectful of the opposition. The fact that these criticisms were borne from some element of truth doesn’t necessarily make them right. For every game Hughton was lambasted for not ‘going for it’ there just as many examples of us and our rivals losing ground and points by doing just that. Norwich didn’t have a Benteke, or anything approaching one, yet still finished above Paul Lambert’s cavalier Villa – and eight other clubs – despite a second-half-of-the-season collapse. To put it another way, Hughton’s team kept themselves up with a decent first half of the season that included a ten-match unbeaten run.
Last year’s spending was hardly the stuff of Brewster’s Millions and the lone striker system – loathed by many at Carrow Road although it is of course used by many in the top flight – was possibly not helped by the talent that operated it. A lone striker when that man is Ricky van Wolfswinkel is much more attractive a proposition than with the starting-to-fade Grant Holt. With new winger Nathan Redmond, the system has much more pace and ultimately that should mean more food for the Wolf.
So, the first match of the season saw the system stay in place, with Wes Hoolahan playing in the hole behind the new former Sporting Lisbon striker. The team is possibly not the eleven Hughton would have in mind, had he had a full squad available. Fellow Dutchman Leroy Fer – who was suspended – may have taken a centre midfield spot or possibly would have relegated Wes to the bench. Absent Sébastien Bassong was a rock at centre half last season but it still not match fit. Striker Gary Hooper signed from Celtic in the summer would have at least been on the bench and Ryan Snodgrass, who embodies the team’s battling heart, was also missing after picking up a groin strain following England/Scotland. Not Hughton’s ideal #11 possibly, but I think many of his harshest critics – who would rather see a shop dummy on wheels playing as a second striker than just the one man upfront – must view Saturday’s line-up a as progression. Unless of course Norwich had lost.
A game that Everton possibly shaded, both teams played as if they were enjoying it. Nathan Redmond and Elliot Bennett regularly swapped wings for the Canaries and looked lively, and Everton’s 19-year-old Ross Barkley looks a real prospect, smashing home their leveler before Seamus Coleman added a second just four minutes later after Norwich took the lead in the 51st min.
Most Norwich fans would have been looking forward to seeing Ricky van Wolfswinkel in his first Premier League game but it was actually right back Steven Whittaker who had the biggest impact on the game for the home side. In what is becoming a trademark sortie into the box topped off with a cultured strike, Whittaker’s shot bounced off the post but the former Rangers man had enough nous to net the rebound. It was Whittaker again, with a wobbly shot-cum-cross that met the head of RVW (71st min). The Wolf showed pace and guile all game but didn’t get to trouble Everton on too many occasions but when Whittaker’s cross came in from right the Dutchman got his angles just right in order to nut home a leveler into the far corner.
The opening game of last year saw Norwich get mauled five nil at Craven Cottage and so to share the spoils with many new signings waiting in the wings will be seen by many at Carrow Road as a decent enough start to the campaign, even if many are silently sharpening their knives.