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FOOTBALL'S FRONT LINES

Is Norwich’s Premier League promotion a case of too much, too young, too fast?

Norwich shouldn’t be in the Premier League this season.

It just wasn’t in the plan.

Expectations were low among supporters in the early stages of their Championship campaign last year, especially after they’d sold off their two star players in James Maddison and Josh Murphy.

Their 14th-place finish the season before – Daniel Farke’s first year at the club – was something to build upon but was not considered a springboard to promotion, let alone finishing up as the champions.

Continuing our Football’s Front Lines campaign, we went to Carrow Road for the ‘six-pointer’ against Watford to speak to those who know the club best.

Norwich’s Championship title was certainly not on the cards

PA:Empics Sport
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Norwich’s Championship title was certainly not on the cards

“We started off last season with not really expecting anything at all,” explained Rob Sanderson, member of the Proud Canaries supporters group. “And in the first few games we weren’t doing too well.”

Like many fans, Rob noticed a sudden difference in the team after their disappointing start.

“There was this change in form and suddenly there were murmurs of ‘oh, maybe we’ll be in the play-offs’, but nobody thought it would actually happen.

“And then Christmas came around and we were second in the table. Then we thought maybe we won’t even need to be in the play-offs…”

Rob Sanderson and Ray Collington of the Proud Canaries supporters group

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Rob Sanderson and Ray Collington of the Proud Canaries supporters group

Norwich’s Premier League promotion was joyously unexpected — but is it a case of too much, too soon?

The Canaries’ promotion back to the top flight was one of the most surprising football stories of 2019.

From the outside, they look like a young, plucky team made up of academy graduates and smart signings, coached by the German steel of Farke, and cheered on by one of the most passionate fan bases in the country.

But over the last two years, most of the good work behind the scenes has been moulded by the decision-making of Sporting Director Stuart Webber, who was quietly the brains of their surprising return to the Premier League.

Stuarty Webber with manager Daniel Farke

PA:Press Association
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Stuarty Webber with manager Daniel Farke

Webber used the same blueprint for success he used at his previous job with Huddersfield; plucking a coach from the Borussia Dortmund system and aiding them with a squad built through clever acquisitions.

But Rob believes it’s been his use of the club’s youth players – such as academy stars Max Aarons and Todd Cantwell – that has made the biggest difference to the fans.

“He’s invested in the youth talent and he’s been integral in redeveloping the academy,” he said. “We have state of the art facilities now and that helps us grow the youth team.

“It’s made a really big difference and there’s a sense among the fans that we are one.

“We don’t just turn up, pay our money and that’s as far as it goes – the coaching staff are investing in the talent, the talent is then invested in performing for the fans, and the fans are there to cheer them on.

“The board understands that and they support it; it’s really nice to see that the club is gelling together as a family.”

Max Aarons is just one of the young players in the team that have risen from the academy

Reuters
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Max Aarons is just one of the young players in the team that have risen from the academy

But with all of that good work behind the scenes, the Canaries seemingly peaked too soon in the top flight with their blistering start, the flurry of goals from Teemu Pukki, and the dream-like win over Man City.

Since their 3-2 triumph over Pep Guardiola’s champions, Norwich have been struggling for results and went into their game against Watford without a win in their last six matches.

Speaking to long-time fans Peter and Richard Wiltshire ahead of kick-off, it seems the general consensus among supporters is that the club wasn’t quite ready for the challenge of the Premier League.

“Scoring goals seems to be the main issue at the moment,” Peter admitted. “But we’re leaking goals as well.

“You need a tough defence in the Premier League and we just don’t have that at the minute, but we’re lacking attacking options too.”

The Canaries small squad has been ravaged by injuries this term

PA:Press Association
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The Canaries small squad has been ravaged by injuries this term

Norwich’s summer approach to life back in the world’s most-watched league was one of caution; resisting the urge to splash out excessively, in stark contrast to fellow promoted side Aston Villa, who signed a host of new players in the transfer window.

But fans wouldn’t have it any other way and are adamant spending big on flashy names isn’t a strategy they would’ve wanted.

Richard said: “I think they [Villa] risk jeopardising the future of their club by spending so much money.

“In the past they’ve very nearly gone under, but the difference with us is that we’ll keep the majority of the squad next season if we do go down, and we’ll be in a good position to bounce back up.”

Rob was in agreement, and used Fulham’s disastrous 2018/19 as an example.

He said: “When it came to Villa’s spending it was almost like: ‘hang on, what are you doing?’

“The last team that came up and spent like they did was Fulham and they went straight back down.

“We don’t need to spend lots of money on new players as we’ve got a decent team already – we just need to keep hold of that team.”

Todd Cantwell, another academy graduate, has impressed this season

Reuters
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Todd Cantwell, another academy graduate, has impressed this season

That team was at its very best on that night in the middle of September when they hosted Man City.

Like many of the Norwich fans we spoke to, Andy Head of the fanzine MyFootballWriter, was at the match and agrees it was the highlight of the season already, but that he’d rather have a consistent run of results over a famous one-off win.

“If it meant more points on the board, then so be it,” he told us.

“We’ve had about five or six games now without any points since; if we could pick up points against some of other opponents, then that would go along way.”

But he added: “The win over City was probably just a one-off; but it was a lovely one-off.”

Rob felt differently though, telling us that the win over City bettered anything else he’d experienced as a supporter in recent times.

He said: “The feeling in the ground that day… I wouldn’t swap that for anything.

“We didn’t even get that last year in the home derby game against Ipswich and we won 3-1, with Lambert getting sent off.

“The electricity around the ground during the Man City game was just crazy, it was just a really crazy game to be at.”

Many fans will point to the win over Man City as the resounding highlight of the season

PA:Press Association
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Many fans will point to the win over Man City as the resounding highlight of the season

The rise and (possible) fall of star striker Pukki is a hot topic right now.

The Finnish journeyman won the Premier League’s Player of the Month award for August after netting five goals in the first four matches — including a hat-trick in the win over Newcastle.

“We’ve just got Pukki,” Peter said. “We haven’t really got anyone else to back him up, so he’s the main threat scoring goals and no one else is producing the goods to back him up.”

Rob was in agreement, telling us: “If you look at last season, he’s a prolific goalscorer and was the same in the first three games of this season.

“But it’s just difficult to know what’s going to happen, he’s had a bit of a dry spell but the team have had a bit of a dry spell too.”

Teemu Pukki has suffered a dry spell in front of goal since his strike against Man City

Reuters
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Teemu Pukki has suffered a dry spell in front of goal since his strike against Man City

For such an inexperienced team that surprised many fans by winning promotion and ultimately deciding against a summer spending spree, is it fair to say that Premier League survival at the end of the season isn’t exactly the top of their agenda?

Rob believes it isn’t the most important to things to fans who are thinking of the long-term picture, explaining: “This season is kind of a free hit; there is obviously hope and want amongst the fans to stay up, but there’s also not going to be too much disappointment if we do go back down.

“We’re known as a bit of a ‘yo-yo team’ and there’s actually a lot of thinking that last season was wonderful and it was brilliant to come into the Premier League, but it didn’t necessarily come at the right time.

“But let’s take what fate’s dealt us and let’s see what happens; we’re used to going up and down.”

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