Is the 90s Back for Good?

Gary Barlow? Britpop? Bez? Thomas Uden thinks the 90s are surging back into modern culture. They’re surging back to Norwich City too. Should we be worried?

Nineties revivalism is all the rage right now. Fashion, film, music; people are lapping up creative output inspired by the decade faster than you can say “New Labour.” 

Football, too, has not been above a tip of the hat or two towards an era that brought us the advent of the Premier League, Gazza’s tears and the sport itself home. For Norwich fans, the first part of the decade were halcyon days; swaggering around the top division and volleying Bayern Munich out of Europe, before a period that oscillated between ignominy and mediocrity.

For some followers of the Canaries, it is to this latter part of the nineties that we as a club have returned. For them, an intransigent board, protected from overt criticism due to a heady mix of accumulated goodwill and nostalgia, oversees a infrastructure that appears content to settle for kicking around in the long grass of the Championship, while making overtures of aspiration and platitude.

In part, this is the case. One can pay all the lip service in the world to a desire to attain promotion. However, doing so while withdrawing to the shadows in the face of increasing criticism, aside from the occasional interview so heavily scripted that it should have been in the running for a Golden Globe award, it begins to represent little beyond an attempt at placation.

One part of this comparison with 2017 Norwich vs 1999 Norwich that riles me, however, is that of the respective playing squads. Chiefly, the issue of potential, and to what degree both achieved theirs.

The current first team is absolutely bloody full of potential. Peppered with internationals from back to front - internationals that have played and scored at major tournaments no less - our squad as it stands is, on paper, a strong one. We have an abundance of Premier League experience; players who have gained promotion from the league in which we currently find ourselves; aspiring young stars keen to show off and make a name for themselves. And yet we have consistently, maddeningly, overwhelmingly failed to live up to that potential. That Robbie Brady’s red card appeal was denied by the Football Association and the decision promptly celebrated by a large number of fans is the perfect encapsulation of where we are on the pitch right now.

And this is why comparisons to our squad of the late nineties become unfair. That squad was not full of potential. Decent individuals performing at just about their expected level? Sure. The odd young starlet cruelly robbed from us by a bit of grievous bodily harm from an Australian right-back? Absolutely. But potential? Not here.

Do not mistake this assertion as a criticism of that team. Many of the players from that era served us reliably, admirably and valiantly for many a season. Some went on to become club heroes; others to play key roles in future promotion-winning sides. Others were called Victor Segura. No, my point is that while comparisons in terms of league positions, a moribund sense of aspiration off the field and a general acceptance of malaise could be argued to be characteristics of both iterations of NCFC, I would argue that in the 90s, the fare on offer was generally what fans expected. Rightly or wrongly, we were never going to gain promotion with Lee Marshall and Chris Llewellyn, God love ‘em.

The current side, though bumbling around in much the same league position, are most certainly not living up to expectations. There is of course an argument to be made that those expectations were elevated to unreasonable levels. But, I think there’s probably a happy medium between merrily walking away with automatic promotion, hand in hand with Newcastle, as some fans predicted, and the ignominious calamity that has made up all too many of our performances. 

That’s what grates the most.

This season has been frustrating in many ways: the haphazard fan engagement; the reluctance to convince us that what’s being said and what’s being done off the field aren’t so out of sync as to be existing in different postal codes; the almost offensively bizarre ticket pricing. The one that rankles most, though, is that for large swathes of the first part of this season, when looking out across the pitch, one is met by a side falling unbelievably short of their potential.

Working in education, I often deal with two types of pupil: those who are slightly lacking in academic ability, but make up for it through application and good nature. That is late nineties Norwich. The other; the intellectually able, but who, for various reasons don’t meet their potential, have much in common with the current crop of players. It often takes staff who can successfully engage this second group in order for them to achieve, and the jury is still very much out on whether Alex Neil remains the right custodian to bring the best out of our squad. 

Whatever happens as our 2017 league campaign continues this weekend, though, I hope it’s an improvement on last year. Because, as that other cliched school phrase goes, “I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed.”

Thomas Uden tweets under @_thomasj