Bradley Johnson was like Marmite: rubbish at passing. But even his detractors will have felt something shift at Norwich when his departure was announced. Dan Brigham salutes a very human hero
Ninety-eight days. That’s how long it took for puncture wounds to appear in the happy bubble that had looped over Norwich since the Play-off final win.
Norwich’s lack of signings on Transfer Deadline Day was met with a grumble, but that grumble turned into roaring anger when the news broke that player of the season and former top-knot hero Bradley Johnson had left to join Derby County. It’s like those scenes in a movie where the narrative shifts completely and no one has any idea what the hell is going on. Brad Pitt is Ed Norton? He sees dead people? Bradley Johnson is Keyzer Soze?
Even those who never rated Johnson particularly highly – and that’s me included – felt the Norwich world lurch a little. There aren’t many players over the last decade who have divided opinion quite like Johnson at Carrow Road. Earnest, wholehearted Ipswich-slayer or technically-stunted, sloppy, pass-fumbler? Truth is, he was both, and that's why he garnered so much affection. His mistakes made him more human, and last season made him a hero. It was an intoxicating mix – heroes with a dash of human frailty are always the ones you really root for.
Last year Johnson often looked like the only player under Neil Adams who was desperate for Norwich to be promoted, who would do anything to drag Norwich away from the same fate as Fulham and Cardiff. Alex Neil came in and called him a “real man’s man”, and the Norwich fans plugged into him in a way that hadn’t been seen since Grant Holt left. For nine months, he energised Carrow Road.
There was never going to be a repeat, though. Last season was always going to be Johnson’s apogee in a Norwich shirt. He’d hurled the team to the Premier League, but it came at a personal cost; his reward was to be demoted. Aside from the occasional heroic performance, he has never been Premier League class. The game moves too quickly for him at that level, and his itchy first touch is quickly exposed.
While some have suggested that something awry behind the scenes has led to his departure – and Neil’s quote after the Sunderland game that “Bradley did well last year, I don't think he's done as well as he should have done up until this point" seemed out of character for a manager who doesn’t make individual criticisms in public – the evidence was that in a midfield full of ball-players and deft touches, Johnson was a pug among greyhounds.
That Jonny Howson started on the left in Norwich’s last three games tells its own story, and with two genuine left-wingers in Robbie Brady and Matt Jarvis, Johnson’s days appeared to be numbered.
When news broke that he’d been sold, it was the moment the top was blown from a shaken bottle. Anger shot up, spewed, frothed and overflowed. David McNally was attacked, Alex Neil – Alex Neil! – was blamed for what some saw as a lack of signings. Take a step back, though, and Norwich have done some canny business in most departments.
The signings of Brady and Jarvis mean our left side is significantly stronger, while Youssouf Mulumbu will add a bit of ball-breaking to the midfield when fit and Graham Dorrans has provided a calm presence in front of the defence (which, again, is a big improvement on what Johnson provided in that position). We don’t know how Dieumerci Mbokani will do, but the quote from the BBC’s John Bennett – who knows his African football – summing him up by saying “he’ll miss a few, he’ll score a few, he’ll elbow a few” means we should have fun finding out.
It’s not all good, though. In fact, some of it is pretty bad. With Russell Martin and Ryan Bennett the only options to fill in the gap next to Seb Bassong (and it’s often a really rather large gap), poor John Ruddy has had a worse transfer deadline day than most. Carlos Cuellar and Jos Hooiveld were tried last season – and Ignasi Miquel looked dashing in the Christmas catalogue – but none came close to solving the problem.
Although the return of Bassong was a godsend, the problem is still to be solved. Buying a new centre-back always felt like the difference between survival and relegation, and after conceding eight goals in the first four matches, it still does.
To survive, Norwich are just going to have to score a whole lot of goals. So, no pressure, Mbokani. After all, Norwich suddenly have a vacancy for a new hero.