It's not the hope that kills you, it's the dagger in the heart. Zoë Whitford comments on the up-and-down season that is the Championship 16/17. Build it up, and they will come.
For the type of fan who remains convinced a losing situation will be recovered, however miraculously, until proved wrong by the final whistle, this season has been a difficult one to handle. The early months were fairly plain-sailing, the wins were racking up, performances came and went in dazzling 20 minute spells. As Norwich hit the top of the league, I was calm, confident, complacent.
Then the bad run, and the criticism, the name-calling, the in-fighting, the constant question marks. The pockets of dominance had gone missing, and wins couldn’t be found. Occasionally, worryingly, the players didn’t even seem to be looking that hard. But there should always be room for rampant optimism in football, it’s our hobby after all, and what happened 2 years ago opened our hearts and minds to believing that anything is possible if you want it badly enough.
Since the turn of the year, the dam of hope has been compromised and the positive thoughts have come rushing back into our minds. They’ve come back so easily because we want them to, hope keeps us all going. Results have been good, the team’s form recovered. The players have remembered what it’s like to fight, to earn a win. 1 loss in 9 and suddenly the play-offs were within our grasp. The top six won’t stay like that, we allowed ourselves to think, everyone in the Championship goes on a bad run at some point.
The thing with hope, and letting our guard down, is that the reality, or potential hopelessness of a situation, can come as a bit of a shock. The defeat at Burton Albion was one of these such moments. Another painful defeat to a team not safe from relegation, another day where none of the top six let themselves down. And suddenly, after weeks slowly allowing hope to creep back in, doubt returned, everything became difficult again, and we chastised ourselves again for daring to be positive.
And now, the scariest of all situations. Our season, whether or not we can retain hope as the season thunders to its conclusion, hinges on Ipswich Town. It’s almost too much to bear. With Leeds playing Sheffield Wednesday and Reading at Fulham, this is a real chance to make up ground on all those clubs that never seem to lose. At this stage of the season two years ago I remember thinking Norwich were playing like they wouldn’t ever lose again. That form, that fight, that luck, somehow it all needs to be rediscovered and this Sunday seems to be the ideal occasion for it, however terrifying it may be.
On its own, the East Anglian derby carries the hopes of a city (or a town, depending on who you support), expectation, emotion, feeling. It is the players’ duty to perform, to win, for pride. For Ipswich, the fixture is simultaneously everything and the only thing left to hope for. For Norwich, a small difference: it is everything, because it is the chance to have something left to hope for.
This weekend’s derby is so extraordinarily important because it must be used as a stepping stone on the way to something even bigger; the chance of the top 6, another shot at Wembley. Winning would lift the fans, convince many that Burton was a blip rather than symptomatic of the season, and most of all be a message to the players that they can triumph in the big games. There could be many tough ones ahead, if they win. Sheffield Wednesday, Huddersfield, Leeds, all away. Beating Ipswich at home should be easy compared to that lot, in theory.
A defeat to Ipswich and it feels, even though there’s nothing mathematical about it at all, that there will be little left to play for. The long shot would become too distant, too far from our grasp. More than that, spirits would be down - players and fans would struggle to recover from lost pride, an opportunity missed.
Two seasons ago, our hopes rested on beating Ipswich, but back then a win guaranteed a place at Wembley. This year, Wembley is still a lot of work away, a distant thought, but still it comes down to a derby game. This Sunday lunchtime, it’s about passion, local pride, a bitter rivalry, and above all, hope.