Saturday afternoon saw Norwich City record their first victory since the departure of Alex Neil as they overcame a plucky Barnsley side 2-0 at Carrow Road. Whilst City picked up the much needed 3 points, surprise defeats for both Sheffield Wednesday and Fulham have resulted in the gap between Norwich and the top six being reduced to 5 points with 24 still to play for. We couldn’t, could we?
It feels like Norwich fans have been left asking ourselves a similar question every other week since the turn of the year. One week, for example the 5-1 defeat at Hillsborough two weeks ago, our play-off ambitions are completely dead and buried. A fortnight later, and some surprise points dropped by Wednesday in sixth and suddenly we are – albeit tentatively – asking the question again. This time, however, I am refusing to get pulled in. It’s not going to happen.
Of course, a 5 point with 8 games still to play is not insurmountable – even less so when you consider that the team we are primarily chasing, Sheffield Wednesday, have lost 4 of their last 6, and the other, Fulham, still have to come to Carrow Road. They will both drop more than 5 points, I am sure of it. It’s not them, however, that I am worried about – it’s us. Despite the win on Saturday, there was nothing to suggest that Alan Irvine has suddenly transformed us into a team capable of going on a winning streak, home and away, overnight. In all likelihood, we would have won that game under Alex Neil, too. It was much the same team as the one that regularly played under Neil, and much of the same defensive frailties that derailed our season under the Scot were demonstrated once more. In fact, it was fairly reminiscent of our home games earlier in the season when, despite winning and being top of the league, City fans were always left coming away feeling slightly dissatisfied. In other words, it wasn’t convincing.
Ultimately, our home form was never the problem. Until City show us that they are capable of doing anything other than rolling over and accepting defeat away from home then, no matter how many points Fulham or Wednesday drop, the play-offs are an irrelevance.
Unfortunately, as the fixture list has fallen, our final 4 away games of the season are 4 of the most difficult that the league could offer. Starting a week on Saturday, we still have to travel to Aston Villa, Preston, Huddersfield and Leeds. Villa, whilst in the midst of an indifferent season, are recently rejuvenated and with 5 wins out of their last 6, lead Championship form table. Preston themselves have had a bit of a recent recovery, climbing up to 9th, level on points with ourselves, and they too will be harbouring distant play-off ambitions. Leeds and Huddersfield, the two surprise packages of the season, have the 2nd and 4th best home records in the Championship. Considering that in recent months we have lost to Rotherham and Barnsley, teams with the 21st and 23rd worst home records, expecting us to go to the likes of Leeds and Huddersfield and receive anything other than a drubbing feels delusional. We have shown absolutely nothing this season, either with Alex Neil or without him, to suggest that we are capable.
Thankfully, I feel that the trip to Villa will finally put us out of our misery – allowing us supporters to finally begin the grieving process over a woefully dreadful campaign and look ahead to next year. Defeat there and it will become apparent that defeats will most likely follow at Deepdale, The John Smith’s Stadium and Elland Road, too. Mid-table mediocrity, or a fight for the heady heights of 8th place, will become a reality. With the combination of Villa’s home form and our away form, I can’t see anything other than defeat. This is, however, Norwich we are talking about. Norwich like to build our hopes before knocking them down, so don’t be surprised if we win at Villa Park, move to within 2 points of the play-offs only to lose 5-0 at Huddersfield on the following Wednesday.
As they say, it’s the hope that kills you.