The top flight team that put faith in the Football League
You’ll need Premier League experience, they said. You’ll get slaughtered with those players, they said. Holt will be useless against Premier League defenders, they said. Lambert scoffed, finished off his Carlsberg Special Brew and got to work. I’m almost sure that’s exactly how it happened, says Norwich City fan Matt Wallace.
More or less.
But those kind of statements, those broad generalisations were and still are part of the discussion when promoted teams make the step up. It’s as if a special type of aura surrounds a Premier League player but not a Football League one, like they’re two different sports. I’ve lost count of the amount of times, either online or with friends, the topic of ‘Premier League experience’ has come up. Examples get thrown at me like Blackpool, Burnley and Hull who struggled to improve the side and paid the price. It’s become the premise of all teams going up, a sneer from those who think they know football but wouldn’t know their St James’ Park from their St James Park.
For one, Lambert believed different. He believed in the squad that got him to the Premier League and just wanted to add to it, not overhaul it. Evolution, not revolution. So to go with the lower league stars that we already had, your Holts and Martins and Crofts’ and Jacksons, we brought in more. He began to cherry pick some of the best. Elliott Bennett from Brighton. Steve Morison from Millwall. Anthony Pilkington from Huddersfield. Bradley Johnson from Leeds. The players we did bring in from Premier League clubs – Daniel Ayala, Kyle Naughton, Ritchie de Laet and James Vaughan – all came with about 14 minutes of experience. They were used to the Championship, spending years on loan down there at clubs like Leicester, Crystal Palace and Derby.
These were players untested at this level, forever written off by experts who seem to think the Football League is all about hoofing and clogging and the Premier League all about grace and finesse. Surely none of these lads could make the step up? Surely they needed some experience to bind them, a wise head to see them through? We all thought it. I did. I was as guilty as everyone in wanting someone who knew the division, especially at the back.
And yet we will start February in ninth place, with one defeat in our last ten games. Undefeated in January. For all the comparisons to Blackpool (a dirty word around these parts), and how they started in a similar fashion, we’ve hit 29 points a full four games before they did, and we’ve done it with more than a Plan A. I don’t mean that to be disrespectful, but it became clear after not too long what Blackpool were all about and how they set up to play.
In contrast, Lambert has spent this season baffling his own fans with erratic team selection and tactics. No one is undroppable. We’ve played nice, we’ve played ugly, we’ve played long, we’ve played short, we’ve played diamond, we’ve played wide, we’ve played one up front, two up front, three up front, we’ve played three at the back, four at the back, five at the back. Flexibility is the key and it is the players, these written off players, who have made it work.
These players who have been told that they wouldn’t make it. These players who get released from Premier League clubs and have to work their way up the hard way. These players who’ve had part time jobs. Who’ve played non league football. Who will run through walls to prove that they deserve to play in front of packed houses and on TV as much as any over-priced import. These players who just wanted a chance.
How do you know whether someone is going to be good enough until you give them a chance? With a manager who has faith in them, and a team spirit second to no one, these players have proven that they belong here. Pilkington comes back from a dreadful injury to nail his place and score crucial goals. Bradley Johnson comes on a free and gets into the provisional England squad. Holt and Morison both look on course to hit double figures this season. Hoolahan, lightweight and small, continues to pull the strings. Surman, a ‘failure’ at Wolves, scores against them. The rest all have their stories to tell, but they’re all part of a bigger story to us Norwich fans.
They show what many of us who watched Football League games knew for years. That there are players out there who are good enough but just don’t get the opportunities. That it’s too easy to dismiss these players as ‘lower league cloggers’ on the basis of a couple of games on a ploughed field. Norwich are by no means the last team to do it, and there’ll be other managers who decide to be brave rather than follow received ‘wisdom’. There are still players out there, like Butterfield, or Mariappa, or Rhodes. There are still players desperate for a chance to prove themselves at the top.
Will this tactic work forever? Probably not. Will it save Norwich? Possibly not. The season is a long way from over and just a few bad results and we are in a relegation battle. But what these unfashionable names have proved is that they can step up. That they can compete. As Saint Paul says, they’ve earned the right to be here. Give them the chance to stay, rather than ruining their confidence and opportunities by immediately replacing them with overpriced journeymen and players just looking out for their retirement fund.
There’s some pretty good players in that there Football League, you know…