If you’re reading this, you’re probably going to the civic parade today, or you wish you were. I wasn’t able to make it to last year’s celebrations, so the last time I saw anything like this was at the end of the title winning season in 2004. So how does this year’s promotion team stack up against Worthington’s Wonders from a few years back?
Both sides have distinct strengths here. The 2004 team was build on a supremely solid foundation with a back 5 that barely changed all season; Green, Edworthy, Mackay, Fleming and Drury. This was a unit that conceded only 39 goals, protected by a superb central midfield pairing of Holt and Francis. Up front was where Worthington needed to improve, bringing in Huckerby, Crouch, Svensson and McKenzie over the course of the season. In comparison, and despite the loans of Pacheco and Vokes, it is Norwich’s original strikeforce which has seen them promoted with Holt and Jackson leading the scoring charts. Indeed, Norwich themselves led the way when it came to goals scored this season, while at the back, despite having individually talented defenders, clean sheets have been hard to come by.
However, beyond the main Xi and a couple of extra players, this year’s squad can seem lacking. Chris Martin scored a mere 4 goals, McNamee only delivered as a sub and Oli Johnson ended up on loan. Jens Berthel Askou looked shaky at best, we went the whole season without backup to Russell Martin, Steve Smith was poor, and the midfield trio of OTJ, Hughes and Gill are almost non existant. There was a time during the season that injuries and suspensions began to mount (not least our back 3 against Sheff Utd: Askou, Nelson, R Mart), and the team managed to get through it, but the lack of depth showed. It is testament to Lambert’s team spirit and man management that all squad players are part of the team and buy into it, but if it was to come to a straight comparison, the only element that this year’s team would win is up front. The 2004 defence was too strong and midfield too dominant to pass this up.
Beating the Scum
Striking a psychological blow with the tractor botherers down the road is always fun, sending them a nice reminder that they can’t live in 1981 forever. Both teams did it, but in different ways.
The 2004 team did the double over Ipswich, but the memorable away win was the one that set them off on their run for the title. Leon McKenzie struck a debut double as we went top of the league at Portman Road and never looked back. The convincing win in the return fixture was a mere formality.
By contrast, the Norwich of this year battered Ipswich live on TV when they were at their lowest under Roy Keane. After a resurgence under Jewell, and with the match coming right in the middle of the promotion run in, everyone expected the closest derby in years; a tense, nervous affair. What we got was a 5-1 beatdown and one of the most ruthless performances I’ve ever seen. A humiliation, Ruddy called it. He was spot on.
Arguably two of Norwich’s most successful managers ever. Worthington had already come close with the playoff season but his payoff finally did arrive two seasons later, and not before time. Playing a brand of exciting but solid football, he was reliable and well respected by the fans. Lambert, on the other hand, delivered straight away and has quickly become a cult hero. Maybe it’s because of the size of the task, or maybe it’s because we were at our lowest ebb for decades when he took over, but Lambert is certainly taking more credit for the promotion than Worthington.
Received wisdom also points to Lambert turning some lower league journeymen and stalwarts into a promotion winning force, but when you look through Worthington’s team, it is also full of players chomping at the bit for a chance at the top level; Green, Drury, Gary Holt, Francis, McKenzie, Edworthy and big Iwan. Both managers picked out some great talents, with Worthington’s first signing, Adam Drury, still being at the club today, and Gary Holt coming from nowhere to run the midfield for a few years. Lambert has done equally as well, finding lower league players like Tierney, Crofts, Fox and Jackson and turning them into a hugely cohesive unit. Even some of the lesser used players, like Oli Johnson, Anthony McNamee and Aaron Wilbraham were brought in to do a job and have, more or less, done exactly what’s asked.
If there has to be something between them, it is the sheer unexpectedness of this year’s promotion. On a tight budget and ahead of schedule, only one year after returning to the division, Norwich have gone up automatically. In this day and age, that achievement is astonishing. While Worthington’s achievement shouldn’t be understated, it felt due, which is not something that can be said of this year.
This could be a contentious one, depending on whether you reward points for effectiveness or entertainment. The football played under both managers has been, at times, brilliant. Lambert has reintroduced a passing game that has seen us monopolise the ball, keep it on the floor and play properly. He also has the benefit of, with Holt, Martin and Wilbraham, playing it more direct if needed. In comparison, Worthington was more mixed in his approach, occasionally using the strength of players like Svensson or Roberts, but usually relying on the gifted Huckerby to drive the team forward.
If there could be a criticism levelled at both managers, it is the over reliance on one creative player to get the team ticking; Huckerby and Hoolahan. Yet this seems to be done for different reasons. Worthington relied on Huckerby as the best player in the team; pacey, direct, impossible to handle and with an eye for goal as well as an assist, he could terrorise defences up front or on the left. Lambert relies on Wes because the system dictates it. Wes is a hugely gifted player and has this year offered a more defensive side to his game than many people knew existed, but the diamond formation gives him the freedom to attack and control the game. When the diamond formation was briefly dropped during the season, Wes moved to the bench, only to return when the system did. Some might also argue that the style of play has played a part in the leaky defence.
Our crisp passing game and diamond formation has, at times, seemed like both plan A and plan B. This is a case of having a system and finding the players to fit it. In our title winning season the team was more adaptable, able to mix up the passing, play counter attacking, play very wide with Huckerby and McVeigh (something we haven’t been able to do this year except with fullbacks) and all the time this was built upon a hugely solid defence.
All that said, the effectiveness of the style and system that Lambert introduced can be seen in the number of away wins and doubles this team has racked up. Norwich won 10 away games this season, the same number as in 2004, and did the double over 7 different sides. Also, here seems as good a time as any to bed the myth that Norwich won the title in 2004 with poor away form. Beyond these wins, look at the late goals. The team makes every minute count, never giving up and always showing character, which has played a large part in making the team seem so damn likeable. Their mental celebrations after a 94th minute winner mirror our own.
Fortress Carrow Road
I mentioned before that both teams won 10 away games in their respective seasons, which shows the difference in home form between both sides. In 2004 Carrow Road really was a fortress; only two defeats all season and 18 home wins paved the way for the title to come to Norwich.
In contrast, the home form of Norwich this season, while good, has been touch and go. Defeat to Watford on the first day of the season was one John Ruddy palm away from being joined by Swansea a fortnight later, and things have been closer elsewhere. Throwing away wins against Crystal Palace, Preston and Doncaster, while requiring injury time goals to draw or win against Burnley, Reading and Millwall show a clear difference. The Norwich team this year have gone some way to restoring Carrow Road’s fortress reputation, but for whatever reason, many teams have been hard to break down. Whether that is a tactical issue, with many teams sitting back and being hard to break down, or one of pressure and expectancy from the crowd, is unsure. Ultimately, 13 home wins is a great return. But it falls slightly short. Those dropped home points ultimately proved the difference between a title and a runners up medal.
So what do you fancy? Who comes out on top? In my mind, if the 2004 team plays the 2011 one, there’s only one winner. While back to back promotions are an amazing, unexpected achievement, nothing beats titles.