Time stands still for Norwich

The defeat to Crystal Palace doesn’t deserve much of the hysteria it has generated. Norwich played pretty well. But there was a sense that the Premier League has moved on in their absence. By Dan Brigham

March 22, 2014. Around 15.32.

Sunderland’s John O’Shea heads away a Wes Hoolahan cross at the near post, looping it out of the area. Alex Tettey, 30 yards out, meets it like Eric Cantona fly-kicking a Crystal Palace fan, and the ball crashes past Vito Mannone into the top-right corner. Norwich are 2-0 up.

Carrow Road belches out a roar of disbelief and delight, Tettey’s team-mates pile on top of him, Sunderland look doomed, Norwich are seven points above the relegation zone with seven games to play. Life is good, football is good, even Chris Hughton is good.

At full time, the exit from Carrow Road is a happy one, people stay for an extra beer, Match of the Day is watched with no sense of foreboding, everyone wakes up on Sunday morning convinced Norwich will be a Premier League team next season. Just one more win, that’s all it will need, that’s what we all say.

That win never came. That victory over Sunderland, that strike from Tettey, was the last time the Premier League was a fun place for Norwich fans. The league carried on at break-neck speed, with Sunderland miraculously galloping past us, but Norwich slowed to a standstill. We’re still waiting for that win.

Despite this, despite the scarred memories of that season, it was good to be back. Like a child looking forward to a return to the naughty step, it was moments like Tettey’s volley we’d logged in our minds, not the five successive defeats that followed, the pain of failing to score against Swansea, West Brom and Fulham.

There was much that was familiar: Norwich lost, Jose Mourinho moaned, Arsene Wenger had to explain an opening day defeat, the refereeing was a bit rubbish, Tony Pulis played 4-4-2, Roberto Martinez’s team can’t defend, Sunderland look like the worst side in the league, Robbie Savage was a pundit without a hint of insight. Ah, welcome back.

While time has stood still for Norwich since that Tettey volley against Sunderland, the bottom half of the Premier League has got stronger

But things had shifted; the Premier League plates had rumbled apart a little in Norwich’s absence. Gary Lineker’s desperate puns were still in place, sure, but the Match of the Day analysis was excellent. Norwich weren’t patronised as they once were; instead the insight was knowledgeable.

Then there was Crystal Palace. We left them in the Premier League as a journeyman team who’d enjoyed an unlikely escape. Now, here they were at Carrow Road playing pacy, intelligent football with one of the division’s best midfielders, Yohan Cabaye, in their ranks and England’s possible next manager on the touchline.

Zoom out of Carrow Road on Saturday and it was a similar story across the Premier League.  At the Britannia Stadium, Xherdan Shaqiri watched from the stands ahead of his proposed move to Stoke. Shaqiri to Stoke. Italian international centre-back Angelo Ogbonna is at West Ham. Holland winger Georginio Wijnaldum has signed for Newcastle.

While time has stood still for Norwich since that Tettey volley, the bottom half of the Premier League has got stronger. There is an impression that outside of the top six or seven sides, the division has become a quagmire of mediocrity, with teams lacking in quality and as interchangeable as a room full of John Malkovichs. This was true the last time Norwich were in the top flight, but it doesn’t appear to be the case anymore.

Submerged by more and more cash, teams who have no right to be signing Inter Milan playmakers are suddenly signing Inter Milan playmakers. While initially it created a table that was bottom-heavy, now it is becoming fatter in the middle, stuffed full of sides not good enough for the top six and too good to go down. Can anyone see Palace, Stoke, Newcastle, West Ham, Southampton or Swansea relegated?

That leaves the three promoted sides and Aston Villa, Sunderland, Leicester and (keep those fingers crossed) possibly West Brom fighting it out for survival. Which is probably why there was such hysteria after Norwich’s defeat about Lewis Grabban’s miss (it’s one miss, guys. One miss. It’s worth remembering that Grant Holt scored only once in his first seven Premier League matches). The task to survive has been ratcheted up a notch, and it may have taken defeat at home to Palace for that to fully sink in.  

The top flight has moved on without us since Alex Tettey traction-engined one of the great Carrow Road goals, and they need to catch up quickly.

Lucky, then, that Alex Neil appears to be a quick learner. He’ll need to be.