Chris Hughton’s sacking by Norwich City on Sunday night came as a surprise to almost everyone who follows football around the country. The national media have had a field day and many pundits have been highly critical of the club’s decision, Gary Lineker describing it as “bonkers” on Twitter being just one example. Whilst the opinions of these highly regarded “experts” are greatly valued by the neutrals, nobody knows (or can possibly know) the true situation surrounding the club in depth like the fans. To the outsiders, this undeniably looks like a knee-jerk decision which has been taken in the wake of a disastrous home defeat to West Brom at the weekend which has left Norwich perilously close to the bottom three and with time running out. However, that is the obvious conclusion to draw.
Chris Hughton’s tenure has been, on the whole, unsuccessful. He has been given far longer than most managers at other Premier League clubs to address a worrying slide that Norwich have been in this season. Fans have tried their best to remain patient, in the hope that results and performances would improve. They haven’t. The only wins Norwich have achieved this season, certainly since November, have been those dubbed as “must win” fixtures. If you were to believe everything you’ve read throughout the season, Hughton has been one game from the sack on several occasions. Each time he managed to survive by winning a crucial home game and gaining himself a get out of jail free card for the next couple of games until the next highly pressurised scenario came about. At no point this season has Hughton been able to follow up one of these rare wins. Norwich went on to lose the next game following six of their eight league wins so far, drawing the other two. As a result, each win merely papered over the cracks and didn’t ever signal progress. This infuriating repetition has ultimately left Norwich with nowhere near enough points to be in a comfortable league position.
It’s not just results which haven’t been good enough. Speaking on behalf of many Norwich fans, the main thing we look for and expect of our team is a good performance with no shortage of effort. This has also been missing for the most part this season, particularly away from home. The fact that we’ve lost seven successive away games (at the time of writing) and only picked up eight points in total away from home all season doesn’t even begin to tell the full story on how inept Norwich’s away performances have been. It’s been embarrassing. Norwich have been either woefully inept (and been battered as a result) or have capitulated and thrown away games which they appeared in total command of.
When Hughton first took over from Paul Lambert at the start of last season, we all knew that he’d bring about a more defensive style of play and that he’d look to secure a shaky defence. Any incoming manager at the time would surely have looked to have done the same. Norwich had kept only three clean sheets the season before under Paul Lambert and by and large, the team relied on outscoring the opposition to win games due to Lambert’s own adventurous style. Obviously, Norwich couldn’t carry on in the same manner without Lambert. You simply can’t depend upon keeping as few as three clean sheets and hope to survive each season as it won’t happen. Securing the defence and trying to keep more clean sheets had to be the priority for the next season and to an extent, it worked. Norwich kept plenty of clean sheets last season and have kept eleven this season.
However, when Norwich have conceded, the floodgates have invariably opened. Norwich took the lead after just three minutes at Villa Park a month ago, on 25 minutes they were pegged back by a brilliant Benteke goal. Fair enough, a piece of quality brought Villa back into the game. However what followed was an inexplicable pushing of the self-destruct button and by half-time, Norwich were 4-1 down and the game had been lost in a few minutes of complete and utter madness. This was an exact replica of what happened in an earlier away game at Cardiff. Norwich led 1-0 at half-time and appeared in complete control of the game, 5 minutes into the second half and they somehow found themselves 2-1 down through a catalogue of errors. They also went on to lose that game, somehow.
Ever since Hughton took over, Norwich have struggled for goals no matter what the opposition, no matter what the formation or whoever has led the line. Even non-league Luton Town only required a solitary goal to embarrass us in the FA Cup last year. No non-league team should be keeping clean sheets against a Premier League team, yet they did and comfortably so. In the summer, Ricky Van Wolfswinkel arrived for a club record fee of £8.5 million and has only hit the net once all season but it’s not as if he’s been misfiring in front of goal. He hasn’t had the chances to score goals, in fact he has been taking up positions away from the goal all too often. Gary Hooper also arrived for a considerable price tag from Celtic and even his tally of five league goals looks highly impressive. The reason why they haven’t had the opportunities to find the net more regularly is simple – Hughton never played to their strengths and as a result, he was never able to get anywhere near the best out of them.
When you pair together an inconsistent defence (sometimes solid, sometimes anything but) with a toothless attack, it’s a recipe for disaster. In total, Norwich have scored just 26 goals this season in the league but have still conceded 52. Therefore, Norwich have conceded double the amount of goals they’ve scored. For a defensive manager, that’s not the sort of record that speaks volumes. There’s no point being so focused on the defensive side of play if you’ve not got any clue about playing in the opposition half of the pitch. Norwich have been poor with and without the ball this season, often wasteful as well as overly sluggish in possession and far too slow to challenge and pressurise without it.
Some more worrying statistics are that Norwich haven’t scored an equalising goal in 2014 and until Johan Elmander’s late consolation at St Mary’s recently, none of Hughton’s substitutes had scored a goal at all this season (and Norwich were the only team that statistic applied to). This has certainly gone a long way towards proving the theory that Hughton had no Plan B or no ability to change a game in Norwich’s favour. Norwich went 1-0 down at Southampton a few weeks ago and all the away fans could’ve left there and then, they all knew in reality it was game over (especially when you consider those aforementioned statistics). This is literally chalk and cheese when compared to Lambert’s reign when the team appeared to be even more galvanised by going behind in matches, whenever it happened. During Norwich’s rise through League One and the Championship, many hard earned points were gained in the final few minutes of games. Norwich’s ability to battle right to the death and turn defeats into draws and draws into wins saw them through many tough games.
Another factor behind this is that Hughton never appeared to be a good motivator, another key trait for a Premier League manager to have – especially at a struggling club. He was always described as a gentleman by both Norwich fans and neutral fans and this is definitely true. However, gentleman and nice guys don’t necessarily win football matches, a ruthless streak and a winning attitude is most definitely required. Lambert certainly had this and it was probably what led him to leave Norwich City for Aston Villa, a supposedly “bigger club”. But that’s another argument. Hughton had an unhealthy habit of being overly praiseworthy of the opposition, even when he wasn’t asked about them in his interviews. At the same time, he never tended to speak so openly and favourably about his own players. This not only greatly annoyed the fans but it must have had an impact on the players whose relatively low confidence wouldn’t have been improved at all. It certainly told on the pitch when the team lacked a mental edge against virtually every opponent they faced, as Hughton’s caution has undeniably caused fear to set in. Watching on from the stands, there have been numerous occasions this season where we’ve looked 1-0 down before kick-off and resigned to defeat. And of course, this has more often than not led to an inevitable surrender.
When you add all of this together, and many other factors which I haven’t mentioned, Norwich City under Chris Hughton were unquestionably a sinking ship. If anything the board should’ve acted much earlier in the season when the first cracks appeared to show and before the problems built up. The optimum timing would’ve been after the 7-0 thrashing at Manchester City in November. That should’ve been the end of it there and then. That’s not using the wonders of hindsight, it was something I believed strongly at the time. An overwhelming majority of fans were feeling the same way and the second half of the season has only served to convert more of those who were on the fence about it firmly into the “Hughton out” camp. However, for whatever reason, the board decided to stick with him as other clubs were sacking their managers left, right and centre.
However, whilst Norwich’s board were receiving praise from the pundits and fans of other clubs, the lack of action at the club was not met with approval by Norwich fans. Due to the fact that the majority of fans were against Hughton staying on as manager, the atmosphere surrounding the whole club has not been great and it reached boiling point on Saturday. The defeat and the shockingly poor performance was too much to bear for many and the scenes in the final few minutes and at the final whistle were nothing like I’d seen at Carrow Road before. The cardboard clappers, which the club had given out to supporters in an attempt to create a better atmosphere, were being thrown onto the pitch at the players and one hit Chris Hughton on the head. For the first time, loud chants of “we want Hughton out” were ringing around the stadium. Norwich could ill afford such negativity surrounding the club at a crucial time.
It had become clear that the club were destined for relegation this season, despite being five points clear of the bottom three after the weekend’s results. Norwich had been relegation fodder for the most part of the season and under Hughton they were looking doomed, after all he had more than enough time to turn our fortunes around. Even though it’s perhaps late in the season to make a change, a change was needed to give Norwich a fighting chance. Not only were we not scrapping like the teams around us on the pitch (just look at West Brom’s fully committed performance against us), but we seemed resigned to our fate off it. Norwich might as well roll the dice and see if it works rather than go down wondering what might have been. Neil Adams has no pressure on him whatsoever to succeed and the club now has nothing to lose. The players will now need to prove themselves again and the fans will once again be pulling in the same direction with the club as Hughton’s sacking will restore their faith and support. The Norwich fans are fiercely loyal anyway but now we’ll be incredibly buoyant heading into the crucial fixture at Craven Cottage and we’ll be heading down to Fulham as one, far more ready for the fight. We’ll be a completely different proposition to face now and suddenly I have belief, not just hope. And that’s what Neil Adams needs to give the players, belief. It’s been missing for all too long now.