After a year away, Alex Neil has led Norwich to the Premier League not as newcomers but as returnees. But will their familiarity with the division help or hinder them? (It's help them, obviously). Dan Brigham looks ahead to the new season
Have you noticed how Norwich keep being referred to as Premier League newcomers?
Is that right? After all, you don’t go on holiday and return to your house as neighborhood newcomers. You have absolutely no intention of throwing a housewarming party; you just want to shove your suitcase in a corner, make a cup of tea, sit on your sofa and start fretting about that feral dog that bit you.
More accurately, Norwich are Premier League returnees. If anything, there should be Welcome Home banners waiting for them, and people should be asking how the break in the Championship was (everything’s a bit cheaper, the views are average and you end up going to places you never, ever want to go back to. The division really needs to be sponsored by Ryanair).
When the season kicks off, it’ll have been only 455 days since Norwich’s last Premier League game. There will be a familiarity about the surroundings, and, thank the sweet lord for this, the noisy neighbours – the Suarez family from over the fence who held parties on Sunday nights, leaned up against your car for a cigarette and let their kids set fire to your cat – have moved on.
That sense of returning rather than discovering is what makes the build up to this season rather different to the giddy, trippy ascent in 2011-12. Back then, Norwich fans were on such an unexpected high that there was very little expectation about the season. Win every game, lose every game; either way we were going to hold hands, hug and enjoy it. Like going to a big music festival for the first time, we were just there to drink, dance and vomit no matter how crap the weather or how putrid the portaloos.
This time, everyone’s a little bit more serious, a little less naïve. We’re a seasoned festival-goer, wary of the weather, weary of the mud, tutting at all of the kids shouting out “boooolloooooocks” across the campsite, and we’ve even taken to telling people younger than us about that time we saw Paul Weller come on stage during Oasis’s Champagne Supernova, and what do you mean you’ve never heard of Paul Weller, no he wasn’t in The Fast and Furious, the sheer state of today’s youth.
So this time we’re prepared. We know what’s going to happen. We’ve tucked our shirts in and put on a tie. But this can work in two ways: knowing what to expect means the players should settle quickly, but knowing what's in store may also hold nightmare reminders of just how tough it is in the Premier League, how the highs of an unexpected, arse-nipping point at Old Trafford can be followed by the arse-dropping lows of losing at home to a shinned-in Connor Wickham winner.
Unlike in our first Premier League season under Paul Lambert, we won’t have the advantage of playing on adrenaline like a puppy in a cattery (which could well sustain Bournemouth and Watford). But we do have a squad which contains a core of players who should never have been relegated two years ago until they were Hughtoned into numb, lifeless submission and an energetic, crisp style of football which should allow Norwich to pick up points from teams in the bottom half of the table.
We also have a manager who has yet to put a foot wrong. And who cares if Alex Neil is inexperienced? He was inexperienced when he got Hamilton promoted, he was inexperienced at top-flight football in Scotland when he led Hamilton to an excellent start in the SPL, and he was inexperienced at Championship level when he joined Norwich. Just imagine how good he'll be when he actually gets experienced at something.
While the lack of a new centre back is a real worry, the mad dash for a striker is less concerning. Picking out a new Wilfried Bony or Christian Benteke would be just lovely, but if nothing materialises then Norwich should still be capable of scoring enough goals.
Lewis Grabban was outstanding under Neil before his injury and has the game – pace, clever movement, good control in tight areas – to flourish as a lone striker in the Premier League, while Wembley offered the first glimpse of Cameron Jerome as a truly quality forward. It may also turn out to be the final glimpse but, at 28, he has a bit of time on his side to finally prove he’s as good as his goal celebration suggests he is.
While the midfield may have be a little more defensive than in the Championship – Alex Tettey and Youssouf Mulumbu could be spending a lot of time in each other’s company when the latter returns from injury – in Wes Hoolahan, Nathan Redmond, Jonny Howson, Graham Dorrans and Robbie Brady Norwich have classy, hipster ball-players who have shown they can create and score goals at the highest level.
At the time of writing, only three players who are likely to get close to the first team have yet to play in the Premier League – Grabban, Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe and Harry Toffolo (with apologies to Jacob Murphy, Conor McGrandles, Louis Thompson and Tony Andreu).
With that sort of experience, Norwich aren’t newcomers. They are slouching back to the Premier League like a cheating lover who wants to show they’ve changed. They have the flowers, the reformed attitude, the new clothes and the cautious enthusiasm of someone who knows they have the chance to put right their wrongs, to show everyone they deserve to be back, to prove it was Chris Hughton that made them do it.
So, welcome back Norwich. The Premier League might not have missed you, but this time, shorn of negative tactics and frigid performances, everyone may just end up falling in love with Alex Neil’s Yellow And Green With A Massive Sponsors’ Box And Green And Yellow With A Massive Sponsors’ Box And Yellow And Green Hoops Army.