Harder than you think

As I write this, Norwich City have won eight games on the spin, are sitting comfortably at the top of the Championship table and have 79 points, ten clear of their closest rivals, having won four more games than any other side.

But remember: we must not be lulled into thinking that what we are doing this season is easy, just because that is how this team makes it look.

Only seven relegated sides have secured an immediate return to the Premier League in the past ten seasons, and only two through automatic promotion: Burnley in 2015–16 and Newcastle in 2016–17. Both went up as champions, but they had something else in common: they placed their faith in the managers they already had, Sean Dyche and Rafa Benítez respectively, and did not go in search of a quick, easy fix.

But Burnley had earned 33 points in the top flight, with seven wins and 12 draws, and ended in 19th, only five points adrift. Newcastle managed 37, finishing 18th and missing out on survival by only two points; they won nine games and drew ten. Both clubs lost 19 games.

By virtually every measure, Daniel Farke’s task this season was even greater: we ended our top-flight campaign rock bottom of the table, with only five wins and a whopping 27 defeats, 13 points worse off than our nearest rivals in 19th and 14 points from safety.

Only five teams in the 29-year history of the Premier League have amassed lower totals, and of those only two had a worse goal difference. I say this not to pile on the misery but to emphasise that what our head coach is on course to achieve this season is not only extraordinary but almost unique.

Let’s take a closer look at that top (or should that be bottom?) five: the Worst Team in Premier League History, Derby County, narrowly avoided back-to-back relegations after their dire 2007–8 season, finishing 18th in the Championship; Huddersfield Town, the third-worst side, repeated that feat exactly in their return to the second tier in 2019–20.

Sunderland, who have the dubious honour of occupying both the second and fifth spots, fared better, managing promotion in 2005–6 and reaching the play-offs in 2003–4. It’s worth noting, though, that they earned a third appearance, in eighth, in this top of the flops rundown with their most recent Premier League season, in 2016–17 — and if you’ve watched the Netflix series Sunderland ’Til I Die, you’ll know what happened next. They finished 24th in the Championship, having gone through four managers, and were relegated to League One, where they have been ever since.

It’s clear, then, that despite what you read on social media, the parachute payments intended to soften the blow of relegation do not guarantee promotion, although there is no denying they bestow an advantage. But the competition in the Championship is so fierce, so close, so unpredictable, that swollen coffers alone do not have the influence that many imagine — and that wealthy club owners may hope for.

The size of the challenge that Farke faced back in August cannot be overestimated. Not only did he have to pick his players up after a poor season and a club-record ten consecutive defeats, but he had limited time in which to do so, with only a brief summer break after the late finish to the disrupted campaign. He had to lift his side without the benefit of a full Carrow Road crowd, to assimilate new players — acquired, as always, on a limited budget — while coping with the loss of two key cogs from our previous promotion drive.

He made the big call to drop Emi Buendía and Todd Cantwell in the defeat by Bournemouth, the third game of the season, explaining that he felt they had lacked focus in training. It was risky, but it worked — within a few games they had found their way back into the side, and Cantwell, in particular, has appeared a player reborn in recent weeks. As he has done repeatedly during his Norwich reign, Farke answered his doubters, emphatically.

This may be his fourth season in English football but that is about the sum total of his top-level managerial experience: his previous roles were with Borussia Dortmund II and Lippstadt, a semi-professional side in the fourth tier of German football. He is still learning on the job, and doing so quickly: as fans we can see, in real time, as he applies the lessons of previous seasons, and adapts to the new challenges he faces.

And that is the benefit of trust, and longevity; of making the conscious decision that the effort it takes to build something that will last is worth short-term pain and disappointment. What Farke is doing at this football club — or crucially, what he is being allowed to do by a hierarchy who have the courage to give him time, that most precious commodity — is special. And however this particular chapter of Norwich’s history ends, Farke’s lofty place in it, and in our affections, is surely already secured.

This piece was published in OTBC, the Norwich City matchday programme, for the Championship game against Blackburn Rovers on 20th March 2021.




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