Defence has never been considered a fine art by many of those who follow Norwich City; a club viewed by many of its fans as a naturally offensive force with tricky wide players, scoring men and inventive artistes conducting things in the middle like Simon Rattle. They might lose, yes, but at least they try to entertain.
When Chris Hughton took over the reins it was after a rather forlorn summer for the Canaries when the wheels spun off an amazing season almost as soon as Aston Villa were dispatched on the final day – only to wreak the ultimate revenge by snaffling Paul Lambert into the back of the club coach after. Grant Holt then made suitably loud noises about leaving “Holt angry! Holt wants respect!” Momentum, it seemed was in danger of fading away with what little there was of a British summer. Chris Hughton however was a largely popular choice, albeit with a certain caveat: ‘He’s quite defensive, you know?’
Paul Lambert seemed to view football matches almost as psychological as tactical. Each game was unique and so were his selections. Bold and not scared to completely chop and change during games no one, including many of the fans, were entirely sure as to what was going to happen. Lambert was as unused to clean sheets as Shane MacGowan and was confident and risqué. Crucially, it worked. If Hughton was to take up the mantel left by the steely-eyed Glaswegian, then his legendary defensive mind had better click.
The opening 5:0 defeat away to Fulham was a series of car crashes akin to a drunken stock car derby. There were new players being blooded and Fulham has never a happy hunting ground for Norwich, but the manner of the defeat was soul destroying. The back door was as leaky as the New Mexico border.
A couple of draws before three straight losses and the fans were getting antsy. Liverpool bagged five and Chelsea took four. OK, so where was this legendary defence? Fans tweeted and phoned into complain that an away defeat at Stamford Bridge to the European Champions was unacceptable. Yet anyone who watched that game, with the right kind of eyes, would have witnessed something very positive from Norwich. We played well. Crucially, Grant Holt had a stormer.
Of course any defence is going to leak if it’s battered time and time again, and it was shoring up the midfield that changed things for Hughton. Norway international Alex Tettey had shone during a Capital One tie against Doncaster and it was his aggressively positive display alongside Bradley Johnson, when picked for the first team that inspired City to beat Arsenal. Michael Turner, a defender many thought not up to the job, stepped back into the fray and showed some genuine grit, almost scoring against the Gunners. The following game away to Aston Villa, Turner scored the equalizer in a game that City should have won. Hughton had stuck to his guns and it was starting to pay off.
The Capital One Cup provided City with more positives after Spurs were thwarted at Carrow Road, before a league win at home to Stoke, a draw away at Reading and then the small matter of putting Manchester United to the sword, the only negative being the almost delirious ‘small town’ hyperbole dished out by the local press with its historic ‘wraparound cover’ seemingly unaware that Norwich actually used to beat teams like United on a regular basis. Still, three clean sheets and more crucially points on the board and Hughton’s stock is rising. The back four look like a secure unit with the odd change at right back. The centre halves form the base of Norwich’s spine which now flows from the awesome Bassong and Turner, to Tetty, Johnson and Hoolahan, and onto the old dog himself, Holt.
Foundations have been laid, and so maybe a new addition upfront, could have Norwich looking pretty sweet in all areas. In sharp contrast to Aston Villa, who seem to pinning everything on Benteke. Hughton may not be as cavalier as Lambert, whose team went two up against United only to lose the lot, but who got the points?
So Lambert – whom Norwich owe an immense gratitude – may finally be turning into a distant memory for the right reasons for many City fans, as their heads are turned by the successor, who is definitely doing things his way. Who knows, possibly some who follow Aston Villa are wishing that the former Birmingham boss had joined them instead. But then they would never appoint a former Blues man. Would they?