It all started so well, with great expectations and a draw at Fulham. Zoë Whitford takes a look back at August, a month that got Norwich City stumbling forward, if not quite sprinting.
If the sight of Usain Bolt lying prone on the track of the London Stadium taught us anything, it is that sporting success is never guaranteed, no matter how much it might be deserved or expected. You work harder than you’ve ever worked before; someone else might have worked harder. You’re the greatest athlete ever; someone else is younger and on form. You’re in the zone, ready for history; your body lets you down. Sport is about human success but also human error, that is what makes it so joyful, so impressive, so relatable.
The absence of a fitting ending to Bolt’s career is also a reminder that those sporting fairytales are rarely already written; athletes and sportsmen must not only earn the right to make history but so much else must happen in their favour to create those perfect moments. The weather, the crowd, whether people who’ve been banned for doping twice are given lifetime bans, the opposition; they’re all subplots interwoven with our hero’s story, and so is time itself. The timing must always be perfect. We must remember that.
In pre-season, Norwich City only had themselves to beat. Perhaps surprisingly, they actually seemed to be winning this battle. Total change. New structure, new manager, new budgets, new players. It was unquestionably absolutely vital that this change happened. For the first time in what seemed like forever (real time: approx 18 months) the fans and club were totally united by a common goal. What wasn’t to like? A charismatic manager from exotic lands - bringing with him a ‘philosophy’, no less - and a brand new defence.
Never underestimate the healing power of the off-season in football. The trials and tribulations of last year were soon wiped forever from the slate of disappointment, a necessity purely to free up some room, and excitement and anticipation took over. Bizarrely, people were even learning pidgin German. Everything was in place for a season of success. Except we hadn’t even played anyone yet.
That’s the thing about sport, success isn’t earned in isolation. You don’t win the league because you like the manager. That success is earned over a period of time, and in competition with other teams with similar goals. Norwich’s season is will not be defined by a crucial game in May, just as the story of Bolt doesn’t start as he stands on the start line in the 100m Olympic final. The difference here is that we do not see Bolt’s stuttering training sessions, the days he cannot find motivation even on the exquisitely cold underside of his pillow. We do not see him wincing in pain or sharing his crippling doubts with his coach. We do not see him practicing the early phase of his race as he drives his massive frame into a standing position. Just because we do not see it, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t count.
In football, during the long, harrowing Championship season, we watch our teams go through all of this. The injuries, the no-shows, the concerning periods. We watch it all play out before our eyes as we hope that the stars will align to give our boys the best odds as they line up for their 100m final.
August has been difficult for Norwich City. Would it ever have lived up to the colossal expectation, based on little but thin air and blind optimism? The team is still in the Carabao Cup but the league has been more of a battle: a euphoric draw at Fulham, a home win over QPR and some brief glimpses of beautiful football through the gloom are the only high points. More goals conceded than anyone cares to count and some rather ropey performances have probably defined the month, alongside some injuries that are more significant than they are being given credit for.
The long-term absences of Pritchard and Klose have been crucial blows and during this first month Wes, Nelson, Ivo and Cameron have all had weeks where they have struggled for full fitness. Aside from weakening the team, it also hasn’t helped Farke understand what his best team might be. And while he continues to work out what he can expect from his squad and in what circumstances, there will be some bizarre team and squad selection. Farke should be applauded for his willingness to rotate his players and to vary his team selection; Alex Neil seemed at times to be resistant to change and this didn’t help matters at all. While we appreciate the shuffling of the pack, we also have to accept that sometimes the tinkering just might not work, especially in these early days.
The call for patience is an obvious one, the season is still new and the team is still new. Nothing worthwhile ever came from 2 weeks of hard work and a few double training sessions. Usain Bolt didn’t win Olympic gold in his first race; he didn’t win the triple triple simply because he’d appointed the right coach. It is worth noting that in the halcyon days of 2009/10, the season where it feels we won practically every game 5-0, Norwich won 2 of their 5 games in August. In September, they won 1 of 5. The league was won by 9 points. Don’t write the team off just yet: there is an awfully long way to go.
So back to Bolt’s relay, the finale we all thought he was meant to have. But as we all stared in disbelief at him lying on the track, this superhuman suddenly relegated to mere mortal, the race continued around him. And suddenly it became clear that the great sporting moment was not coming from where we had thought, the story was the GB team’s and not Bolt’s. And to take joy in that unexpected, glorious success, was equally surprising and thrillin
Sport is at its best when it is most unpredictable, and that unpredictability is why the Championship is one of the most engaging, exciting competitions in football. After just one month, 5 matches, we don’t know if or from where Norwich’s success might come as the season unfolds. We don’t know who the heroes will be, or the villains. But we do know that if things improve, if we do get to stand on that start line as the season draws to its final stages, August will be remembered as if it were a training session spent struggling to stand up straight after our feet had left the starting blocks.