x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Sacrificing Hughton at this point will not do Norwich City any favours

What can be said with some certainty is that Norwich City ignored the warnings from their past and the majority of outside opinion when they dismissed manager Chris Hughton on Sunday, writes Richard Jolly.

Norwich City sacked manager Chris Hughton and his backroom staff on Sunday after back-to-back defeats left them in a relegation dogfight in the English Premier League. Ian Walton / Getty Images
Norwich City sacked manager Chris Hughton and his backroom staff on Sunday after back-to-back defeats left them in a relegation dogfight in the English Premier League. Ian Walton / Getty Images

Relegation looms. Norwich City act decisively. They fire the manager. They seek solace in their past, appointing a popular former player, who is untried in the cut-throat world of first-team coaching. They go down. They lose 7-1. They fire him.

History can provide coincidental comparisons or apocalyptic warnings. Time will tell which bracket Neil Adams’s appointment as Norwich manager belongs in and whether he is the new Bryan Gunn, the much-admired former goalkeeper who oversaw their demotion to League One in 2009.

What can be said with some certainty is that Norwich ignored both the warnings from their past and the majority of outside opinion when they dismissed Chris Hughton on Sunday.

If it has left many baffled – by the timing, by the decision, by the ruthlessness exhibited by a club seen as one of the more stable and sane – it is a sign that all is not quite as it seems at Carrow Road.

This is a tale of two Norwich Cities. There is the Norwich others see, the club who ought to represent a success story, that won back-to-back promotions, who overachieved by finishing 12th and then 11th in the Premier League under Paul Lambert and Hughton, respectively.

This is the Norwich that, after being in League One five seasons ago, has no divine right to expect membership of the top flight, let alone make demands about the brand of football played.

This is the club that had so little perspective that in January David McNally, the chief executive, deemed relegation “worse than death”.

This is the Norwich who, after dismissing the dignified Hughton, will attract little sympathy if they go down.

Then there is the Norwich the locals in Norfolk know. This is a club that has had a civil war this season between the Hughton loyalists, arguing he deserved patience, and the growing, ever-more-vocal band of unbelievers.

Unrest culminated in Hughton being hit by a cardboard clapper after Saturday’s 1-0 defeat to West Bromwich Albion, but it has been fermenting all season.

This is the Norwich where they remember their club were Europe’s 15th-biggest spenders last summer, where complaints about defensive and low-scoring football have become commonplace, where they have eyed the progress of Southampton, playing attacking football and safely ensconced in the top 10, or Swansea City, promoted alongside them in 2011 and winners of a major trophy last season, and believe it could have been them.

This is the Norwich where they look back nostalgically on the extraordinary progress Lambert made in his three years at the helm and wonder why it was not sustained.

The answer, perhaps, is that it was virtually impossible. Lambert did too good a job with too limited a group of players. He ramped up expectations to an unrealistic level.

He was eager to leave while Norwich, and his career, were still on an upwards trajectory. He did.

Tellingly, Hughton took 76 points from 71 league games for Norwich while Lambert, at a bigger club in Aston Villa, mustered one fewer in the same time.

He did not do a disastrous job. Significantly, too, most of Lambert’s players are back in the Championship. It is their natural habitat.

It meant Hughton had to perform a radical overhaul. Where he failed was in the final third of the pitch. One of his striking signings, Gary Hooper, at least started well but has not scored in his past 15 league games.

The little-used Luciano Becchio has not scored in 17. Ricky van Wolfswinkel, the most expensive buy in club history, has no goals in his last 21. Johan Elmander has one in 26. It is an abysmal record and Norwich’s away form, consisting of six successive defeats, is similarly poor.

Yet wretched as they were against Swansea last week and West Brom on Saturday, there were reasons to persevere with Hughton.

Until this weekend, whenever Norwich most needed a win, whenever the pressure was reaching boiling point, they always delivered: against West Ham United in November, Hull City in January and Tottenham Hotspur in February.

Perhaps, because we will now never know, they would have done so again at Fulham on Saturday.

Their final four fixtures are notoriously difficult. They face Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal.

It is a run-in that has been used all season to justify an air of imminent danger around Carrow Road. In effect, Norwich’s is a 34-game season. Unless they beat Fulham, their fate rests in others’ hands.

The Norwich board would argue it depends on Adams. Yet they did him no favours with a rambling statement on the club website that cited, among other things, Adams’s commentary work with Radio Norfolk and his title-winning experience at Everton in 1987.

For the record, he appeared in 12 of Everton’s 42 league games 27 years ago, which, if Liverpool are champions this year, would presumably give someone grounds to appoint Iago Aspas as manager in 2041.

This is no time for a novice and, while Adams won the FA Youth Cup with Norwich’s under 18s, he is a complete rookie.

“The club had no choice but to act,” read the statement. It is palpably untrue. They had a choice. They chose to sacrifice Hughton.

It was a populist gesture to the Norwich support and an unpopular one in the wider footballing world – and it smacks of panic.

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