The closing of the Premier League for Arsenal and Norwich City on Sunday brings an end to two seasons of polar opposites – one looking to build and move forward with a potential trophy and another banished to the dark depths of relegation.
Both Arsenal’s and Norwich’s 2013/14 season began with the classic case of early cautious optimism – both clubs made record signings in the summer in the form of Mesut Ozil and Ricky van Wolfswinkel, respectively, and early hope of a season of the club moving forward slowly moved into the realisation that both clubs would be fighting for where they were last season – Norwich in a relegation scrap and Arsenal settling for fourth (which, incidentally, is pretty much enshrined in the Premier League rule book). Arsenal, however, have secured their homely comfy berth of fourth and now face the very real possibility of a first trophy in nine years – ultimately, a successful season.
However, Norwich are now confined to the dark depths of relegation. Three seasons in the Premier League has proved enough for the Norfolk outfit, and hopes and dreams of mid-table obscurity a la Aston Villa or Swansea have been dashed as the Canaries are arguably put back to their spiritual home of recent years – the Championship. Ultimately, it is this that has so infuriated Norwich fans both this season and last – that expectations have not been reached, even that the lowest expectation of even the most pessimistic Norwich fan has been surpassed and beaten. It is the management of Chris ‘But he’s such a nice bloke’ Hughton that many have levelled their blame at, infuriated by Hughton’s negative tactics and reluctance to even try and win, rather, tactics that are formed around the concept to not lose. It is argued, contrary to Danny Mills and his band of merry Match of the Day pundits, that any relegation this year was not because Hughton was sacked too late by the Norwich board, it’s that he wasn’t sacked early enough. Indeed, Norwich’s finish of 11th last season was masked by two wins against West Brom and Manchester City on the last two games of last season. Norwich were still in a relegation scrap.
It is the performances of the players, however, that marks the big difference between last season’s finish and this. The usual stalwart of Sebastien Bassong at centre-back has been nothing short of dreadful this season, after being given the captain’s armband, and poor quality players like Bradley Johnson in midfield and Stephen Whittaker at right-back that have shown the teams Championship leanings at times. However, it is arguably the brand new, Champion’s League, international and Premier League experienced strike force that have been the biggest disappointment for Norwich fans this season – a combined tally of 8 goals between Ricky van Wolfswinkel, Gary Hooper and Johan Elmander in the Premier League makes guessing where Norwich’s problems have come from this season fairly easy. Indeed, even unlucky injuries to some of the better performing players such as Leroy Fer or Jonny Howson have made Norwich’s job considerably harder. Ultimately, it is the massive loss of Norwich ‘identity’ that maybe the fans can level their blame at – the loss of almost all players that were with the club through successive promotions, the manager that masterminded the operation, and the club talisman and 3 time Player of the Season winner Grant Holt all in fairly acrimonious circumstances means that the club has arguably lost its identity forged through the successive promotions of the 09/10 and 10/11 season and is now a club with an identity crisis. Indeed, the saga with the Wes Hoolahan transfer in January proves that all is not peachy behind closed doors at the club.
David Mcnally, Norwich’s Chief Executive, has stated that Norwich’s financial plans rested on the Yellows securing at least 17th season in the Championship, even with parachute payments and the like. However, maybe Norwich fans has a reason to be optimistic about a season in the Championship. Sure, it will be hard, because the Championship is a hard league, and the club will lose many of its Premier League quality players – Snodgrass, Fer, Pilkington, Ruddy, Redmond, and Hooper spring to mind – however, the club is as of this season externally debt-free, still has some decent players likely to stay with the club, can look forward to a new manager and can start again with a fresh challenge at promotion. We can even look forward to beating Ipswich again. However, is this optimism of this summer the exact same rosy optimism we felt of last year? One thing is certain – Norwich have failed on almost every level this season. Next season will decide whether the failure is long term or just a blip on the rise-to-the-top (‘top’ being a solid mid-table Premier League club) radar.