This is about a forgotten man. Forgotten amongst all the excitement. Forgotten despite being a defensive colossus for us in the opening half of the season. Hang your heads in shame you forgetful forgetters.
In pre-season Paul Lambert had done some good business among which was that he had bolted on to his defence the 6’ 1” Mr Elliot Ward on a free transfer from Coventry. This was the only addition defensively (the arrival of one Master Ruddy into the building excepted). Ward & Whitbread were our first choice centre half pairing with Lord Admiral Nelson and the Great Dane as back up, neither of whom, if we’re honest, any of us fancied at your Championship level. Zak Whitbread soon morphed into his less powerful alter-ego Zak Whitbread (calf) in pre-season as his injury jinx struck again leaving us a bit light in defence. Lambo acted swiftly, recruiting Leon Barnett on loan from WBA on the 17th of August through till January 4th and in so doing slammed another 6’ 1” of defensive muscle into the team.
I must confess to knowing absolutely nothing about ‘Barney’ (as I shall henceforth matily refer to him despite having never met him) before his arrival. A quick trawl of the world wide information superhighway though gleaned some uncomplimentary stuff from Coventry fans and a general ‘Meh’ from West Brom’s (he signed for WBA from Luton for £2.5m in 2007 subsequently spending time on loan at Coventry). But ILWT and it quickly became apparent that our manager had done his homework yet again.
‘Barney’ made his debut for The Norwich at Forest (A), my only away trip this season. It was a hugely encouraging performance from the team in general against one of the teams fancied to be there or thereabouts come playoff shake up time. ‘Barney’ made a solid debut, quick across the ground and strong in the air, there was some initial awkwardness due to unfamiliarity with his team mates, although he had played alongside Ward at Coventry, which is only to be expected.
In the coming weeks ‘Barney’ settled in well to the side. It became clear that he ‘got’ The Norwich and fitted in with the great team spirit. He showed great prowess in the air, nearly always winning his headers. I can only recall him not being dominant in the air at home in one match and that was against Pompey’s front pairing of Kitson & Nugent, so no shame there. I took to calling him ‘One touch’, much to the constant amusement and no doubt delight of those seated around me, because he doesn’t stand on ceremony with the ball at his feet. His pace allows him to track back quickly to avert any danger and cover right across the back line. At the other end of the pitch ‘Barney’ often won headers from corners but has a 50p piece head with the ball flying off it at all angles. He finally got his first goal for us, the equaliser, v Leeds. A towering header from a David Fox corner (Assist from Chris Martin who took out Schmeichel. I felt a bit sorry for Leeds on that one, no I didn’t).
The news was out in November that ‘Barney’ was free to extend his loan period but we went one better and on the 10th of December announced that he would join us on 1st January for an undisclosed fee (widely reported, well OK tweeted once by Tom Haylett, to be c£500k) on a 3.5 year deal. ‘Barney’ celebrated the very next day by getting sent off against Portsmouth at FCR. He brought down Nugent to concede a pelunty in the dying moments earning his second yellow of the night, then to make matters worse he petulantly threw the ball at the ref as he walked off gaining himself an extra two match ban for his troubles. He returned from suspension, after purely coincidentally having the whole of Christmas and New Year off, and slotted straight back in to the heart of our defence as if he hadn’t been away.
Then ‘Barney’s’ Hammy snapped. No, no, his pet Hamster didn’t have a sudden existential breakdown at the meaninglessness of it all you idiot, hammy is footballers slang for a Hamstring, you know, the semimembranosus and semitendinosus muscles at the back of your thigh. He was chasing a ball down the flank alongside a Reading player when he pulled up sharply and hobbled off. It looked like a season ending injury at the time and so it proved. Luckily for us Zak was returning to full fitness just in time and played so well that we forgot about ‘Barney.’ While he may have slipped our minds, the players hadn’t forgotten him and they proved as much when WFLGH led the team in the classic ‘baby cradling-arm swinging-Romario/Bebeto-Brazil-World Cup 1994’ celebration after scoring at Leicester to commemorate the birth of ‘Barney’s’ child. I normally find this particular celebration nauseating in the extreme but when our players did it I loved it off, finding it endearing and indicative of the strong bond that exists between our squad.
So what about next season? What will the first choice centre back pairing be? I’d be amazed if we didn’t sign another centre back so who can tell? One thing we have learnt this season is that it is a squad game and ‘Barney’ will play his part. He is one of only five of our current squad to have played in the Premier League, and will feel he has something to prove at this level. ‘Barney’ has the physical tools to do well in the ‘Best League in the World™’ and I for one wish the forgotten man well.
by Richard Jeffery