On the ball, City

Steady on, Norwich, now is your chance (thanks in no small part to a young, Scottish manager)

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NORWICH, England — Let’s begin with some advanced English Premier League math. Every year, as you no doubt know, there are 20 teams in the Premier League.  But there aren’t REALLY just 20 Premier League teams. There are many more than that. Like I say, it’s advanced math.

You start with the basics. Seven teams have been in the Premier League every season since its formation in 1992. The seven: Arsenal, Aston Villa, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur. None have been relegated, even for a year. Villa had several scary moments the last few seasons, but none of the other six have even come too close to relegation since the 1990s.

After those seven, there are perhaps a half-dozen teams that have been staples of the league for the last decade. Manchester City went through a bad spell in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but they are now one of the richest and most powerful teams in the league. Newcastle United, West Ham, Sunderland, Stoke City, West Bromwich, even Swansea City — these teams have generally been in England’s top flight for the last few years.

That still leaves seven or eight spots. Those spots are for the strivers, the small teams that hunger to be big and the once-big teams that struggle for past glory. There are dozens of teams that long to fill those seven or eight spots. They all have wildly different stories. Bournemouth, for instance, have been promoted to England’s top flight for the first time in their history; this is a dream. Watford have been promoted before but have also been on the brink of bankruptcy twice in the last 15 years (Watford are probably best known for being Elton John’s team).

Then, there is Norwich City, and the Canaries represent a different sort of striver.

When you arrive here it’s clear – inside the grounds and out – that Norwich City view themselves as a Premier League club. There’s little sense of wonder about getting promoted. There is no “just happy to be playing with the big boys” sense. Make no mistake: Norwich City have big goals and big aspirations.

I am standing at Carrow Road, the 80-year-old stadium that locals once called the Eighth Wonder of the World. They called it that because the grounds were built in 82 days. The stadium now barely resembles that stadium then; Carrow Road is now a charming, 27,000 capacity all-seater, too small for the Canaries’ ambitions. There are some medium-to-long range plans to expand – and there’s quite a bit of talk about how to get it done – but the larger point is that Norwich fans fill this stadium now. They could fill a bigger one too.

And they are viewed as a big club across England. Someone suggested I asked a London cab driver if he knew about the Canaries – asking London cab drivers is an excellent way of getting the pulse of the Premier League.

“Norwich City, heh?” the cab driver asked. “Yeah, yeah, good club. Canaries. Wear the yellow and green. Play over at Carrow Road, right? They still at Carrow Road? And wait, they’s owned by the lady chef, right? Yeah, sure, know all about them. Why you go over there, mate?”

“Well, I’m writing something about how they’re back in the Premier League.”

“That right?” the cabbie says. He has a funny look on his face. “Heh, I didn’t even know they was gone.”

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There’s a little apprehension about the trophy case at Norwich City. A Canaries fan might admit it looks a bit sparse. Every club in England has a trophy case (or several), and many out-of-the-way clubs (like Burnley or Huddersfield Town or Notthingham Forest) will boast glorious pasts, trophy cases filled with FA Cups and European Cups and top-flight championship trophies and all the rest. It’s always a bit of an American shock; like showing up in Des Moines or Buffalo and seeing old World Series trophies. Anyway, it’s not quite like that at Norwich City. The climb to the top has been a bit less magnificent.

Yes, of course, there have been some moments of glory. There are a couple of League Cups in the case. The League Cup is sort of like college basketball’s NIT trophy, you know, it used to be pretty important but has lost much of its weight over the years. Norwich City’s second League Cup trophy, from 1985, was particularly bittersweet; that year Norwich City became the first English club to win a major trophy and get relegated in the same year.

There’s a lovely trophy in here that was given to Norwich City by Bayern Munich. This was for the Canaries’ remarkable upset at the Olympiastadion in Munich in 1993. It remains the only time an English club ever beat Bayern Munich at the Olympic stadium. It also remains Norwich City’s only time playing in the European Championship.

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Perhaps the most fun piece in the case is a plaque commissioned by Robert Chase, the club’s chairman in the late 1980s and early ’90s. It shows the 1992-93 Premier League table. There, on top of the table, is Norwich City, followed by Aston Villa and Manchester United. It’s a magnificent moment frozen in time. It shows the table after 36 matches played.

Unfortunately for the Canaries, there were 42 matches played that season, and Norwich badly faded. So did Villa, and the inevitable Manchester United won the league going away. The Canaries did finish third, their best finish in the top flight of English football. Those were heady days for the Canaries; there was a powerful certainty among the fans that Norwich City belonged in the company of Manchester United, Aston Villa and the other top teams.

Two years later, though, Norwich City were relegated. And there were a bunch of dark days ahead.

“I didn’t know too much about Norwich City,” says Alex Neil, the young new manager for Norwich City. “I knew they had played in the Premier League in the past. I knew they had some very good players. … I knew that the whole of Norfolk (County) keep up with the team and how they’re doing, so it’s quite intense. There’s quite a lot of scrutiny surrounding the team. There’s quite a lot of hope.”

The hope and confidence of 1993 faded almost entirely after the Canaries were relegated in 1995. The club was beginning to have financial troubles. Norwich City’s then-manager, Martin O’Neill, publicly warred with Chase over money to build the club. O’Neill left after six months. Shortly after that, Chase himself stepped down. The club was suddenly in a lot of trouble.

That’s when longtime Norwich City fan Michael Wynn-Jones and his wife, Delia Smith, became majority owners of the team. Wynn-Jones brought the passion and energy of fanhood, but it was Smith who people watched closely. She is one of the most famous people in England. Smith began as a food writer for the Daily Mirror in the late 1960s (Wynn-Jones was her editor) and she developed a huge following. Here’s a fun fact: Delia Smith baked the cake on the cover of the Rolling Stones’ classic “Let It Bleed” album.

In time, she hosted a hugely popular cooking show called “Family Fare.” She became famous for making cooking look easy, and she drew such gigantic audiences, she would literally impact the food market in England. In 1995, for instance, she worked on television with cranberries and this created a national shortage of cranberries. She did the same for omelet pans and other food items. The BBC called it “The Delia Effect.”

Wynn-Jones and Smith bought their shares in Norwich City at a bad time. Norwich had stayed in the top flight by developing many good young players the previous two decades (and selling them off to keep the team financially viable). When player development stalled, things declined quickly. Managers were hired and fired too fast for anyone to keep up. Players bounced in and out. Wynn-Jones and Smith did not have the resources of the billionaires who own Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City and other giant clubs — both have said they would sell their shares to someone who guaranteed they could invest more in the team — but it’s widely accepted that their caring and steady leadership kept the team afloat.

The low point happened in 2009. Bryan Gunn, a Norwich City hero who had twice been named team player of the year, was hired to be manager. The team did not respond and was relegated from the Championship to League One, which is the equivalent of being demoted from Class AAA to Class AA in baseball. For Norwich City fans who still saw themselves as one of England’s best clubs, it was almost unbearable. In the team’s first game in League One, the Canaries lost 7-1 at home to a smaller team called Colchester United. In the middle of the match, two Norwich City fans ran on the pitch and tore up their season tickets. It was, almost certainly, the most heartbreaking moment in the team’s long history.

That was only six years ago, but this is the wonder of Premier League football. So much can change. Paul Lambert was brought in to manage, and the club immediately got promoted back into the Championship and then, one year later, was promoted to the Premier League, where they stuck for three years. They were relegated for a year, now, they’re back, and the belief is that this time, they’re back to stay.

The reason for that is a young, Scottish manager named Alex Neil.

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Alex Neil (Getty Images)

While Norwich City might not have as many trophies as the fans would like, they do sing what everyone acknowledges to be the oldest football song in the world. It is called “On the Ball, City.” It goes like this:

“Kick it off, throw it in, have a little scrimmage

Keep it low, a splendid rush, bravo, win or die!

On the ball City, never mind the danger

Steady on, now’s you’re chance

Hurrah! We’ve scored a goal! City! City! City!

The song is actually older than the club; it was written for a local factory team sometime in the 1890s, making it more than a decade older than “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and roughly as old as “America the Beautiful.” The club took on the song when it was formed in 1902.

So they have been singing “On the Ball, City” from the terraces at Carrow Road and the Nest and Newmarket Road for 113 years. It has been a long history and, as mentioned, there have been some high moments. Still, if you ask a fan to name the most important victory in Norwich City history, they probably will say that it was the Canaries’ 2-0 victory over Middlesborough in the Championship Playoff Final just last year, the one that secured a return to the Premier League.

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Neil, 34, was a shocking choice for the Canaries in January. The club’s manager, Neil Adams, resigned on Jan. 5, after Norwich City played uninspired football for the first five months of the season. After a 2-1 loss to Reading, they found themselves in seventh place and barely treading water. Few were thinking about promotion then. And the hiring of Alex Neil, who had been a player-manager for Hamilton Academical of the Scottish First Division, was, in the words of one Norwich City blogger, “straight out of left-field” and another blogger wrote that to many it “looked like an act of reckless folly.”

Neil had only managed for only 20 or so months. But in those 20 months he’d led his club to promotion. In Scotland, he was repeatedly called a “natural born manager,” because of his direct approach with the players and his obsession with preparation. The first thing fans everywhere do when their team hires a manager or coach is find out just how the last group of fans felt about him. There was mourning in Scotland when Alex Neil left.

And he immediately turned around Norwich City’s fortunes. In his very first meeting, he told everyone that things were about to change. He was tough and, he made clear, he was in charge. “Everyone was taken aback,” Steven Whittaker told reporters shortly afterward. “It was like, ‘We need to get onside with this guy or we will not be playing.”

He shifted around what had become a stale team. He inspired a more free-flowing offense (“I like to give the lads some freedom with the ball,” he says). He was demanding and forceful and fanatical about preparing his team for every situation. Neil’s style of managing would be familiar to American sports fans. He seems to be a lot like a Nick Saban or Bill Belichick — he makes hard decisions, he finds ways to inspire players, and he never stops thinking about the next game. In the moments after Norwich City beat Middlesborough, Canaries goalkeeper John Ruddy said: “I’m sure his planning for next season will start tomorrow.”

“The challenge doesn’t faze me, if that’s what you’re asking,” Neil says when asked how he views going into the Premier League with so little managing experience. “The Premier League is certainly one of, if not the the biggest, leagues in the world with some of the best players and best managers in the world. I’m really looking forward to it.

“We’ve got to make sure we’re competitive and better organized than other teams. Because, let’s be honest, we’re one of the smaller clubs in the Premier League so we have to do everything better.”

This, of course, is easier said than done. Of the 47 different teams that have played in the Premier League, more than half (including Norwich City and its most intense rival, Ipswich Town) have played in fewer than eight seasons. Getting into the league is hard. Staying in the league for an extended time is harder. Becoming one of those core teams that make their home in the Premier League is the hardest thing of all.

“Players have to know their jobs in every situation,” Neil says. “In football, there are so many different situations that come up. There are so many different tactics. It’s easy to lose yourself and what you’re supposed to do. We have to be up for whatever we come up against.

“We are not going to be able to stop everyone from playing the way they play. We just have to make sure that the players understand the message and it’s clear. You can come up with the best plans and the best tactics, but if the players aren’t together and if they aren’t confident in what they’re doing, it won’t matter.”

* * *

There’s already a legend building up around Alex Neil and how he handled the Steven Whittaker situation. Against Brentford in January, shortly after he took over the job, Neil found his team in an uncomfortable position when injuries forced out Alex Tettey and Gary O’Neil in the midfield. Neil considered going with a young player, but he did not feel any of them were quite ready.

In desperation, Neil put Whittaker into a position he’d never played before, anchoring the central defense. Whittaker was a 30-year-old veteran who had been with the club since 2012. And he was all but helpless in his new position. He gave away the ball to set up Brentford’s first goal. Brentford went on to beat Norwich City, 2-1. When Whittaker was taken off with 11 minutes left, he was jeered and booed mercilessly.

Neil was furious with his team after the match, as you might expect. “It paints a picture why we are where we are in the league,” he raged. “If you are not hungry, if you are not willing to fight as much as the opposition then you will always find it tough.”

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But when it came to Steven Whittaker, Neil’s words were much different.

“That was my decision (to play him out of position) and I take full responsibility,” Neil said. “I thought the lad went in and did his best. … Steven Whittaker is the least of my worries.”

It was a sign that the new manager was working on more than one level. Yes, he would rage. Yes, he would play tough. But always, there was purpose behind his words. And he was loyal. As Norwich City tries to fulfill its own self-image as one of the biggest and best teams in England, much of the overflowing hope is built around the Scottish manager who led them back to the Premier League.

“The fans expect success,” Neil says. “And so do we. Together, we can do a lot.”

The next match, Whittaker went back in to his regular position at right back. He played brilliantly. He was a key player in the Canaries’ run to promotion. “He kept faith in me,” Whittaker said. “Faith can go a long way.”