When the Yellows stormed past Cardiff City to second place in the Championship last season, they were widely tipped for an immediate return to the second tier. The “Lambert effect” wouldn’t be enough for this team, built around the goal scoring prowess of the imperious Grant Holt, and creativity of Wes Hoolahan, to survive in the top flight.
Not once this season have the Canaries looked out of their depth: wait, maybe once, during the 6-1 home defeat to Manchester City, a game which said far more about the strengths of the visitors than the deficiencies of the hosts. Actually, better make that twice, what with the reciprocal 5-1 thrashing at Eastlands by the likely title winners.
While Swansea City have stayed up through the art of keeping possession and grinding opponents down that way, Norwich have shown tremendous tenacity and a level of class and ability that belies both their financial resources and stature as a footballing outfit.
Obviously, Holt has once again been essential, netting 16 times and in the process staking his claim for shock inclusion in the England squad for the European Championships. However, as many claim, City are not a one man team. For example, between them, the often-maligned Steve Morison and up-and-coming Anthony Pilkington have scored 18 goals of a rather impressive 50 in total for Lambert’s side.
In forging a squad capable of avoiding the dreaded drop, Lambert plumped for youth and potential over the riskier, high wage options which clubs such as Queens Park Rangers went for. While none of his signings were “unheard of,” they were all understated, sensible buys, particularly Bradley Johnson, Elliot Bennett and Jonny Howson. On paper, however, it is hard to escape the feeling that the Canaries’ starting eleven is rather mediocre compared to the teams around Norwich in the table, despite its successes this past year.
Only very few times during the season have City stepped out onto the pitch equal on paper to their opponents. However, the blend in the squad, and the manner in which it is deployed, has been exceptional. Yes, Norwich have dropped off drastically in the past few games, including the lacklustre 3-0 defeat to Liverpool, themselves by no means an accomplished Premier League side. This is understandable though, after expending such energy on reaching the magical 40 point mark with games to spare.
Despite their recent form, and facing an Arsenal side chasing a Champions League spot essential for their future, Lambert’s merry men headed to the Emirates and put on a superb display, coming away with a 3-3 draw from which they really deserved far better. The understated dignity and methodically pragmatic nature with which the players and the club approach every game is remarkable. It is almost certainly a by-product of the manager who, at least from the outside, appears to rule with an iron fist.
The second season is, to quote any pundit on any given day, “always the hardest,” but City have laid solid foundations and assuming Lambert stays in charge, you can only imagine the team quietly improving and yet more intelligent signings being made. The cliché of Sir Alex Ferguson’s longevity at Old Trafford being the key to Manchester United’s perpetual success is a pertinent one: the “bad years” in which the Canaries’ board hired the wrong men (Bryan Gunn, Peter Grant and Glenn Roeder) have, since Lambert’s tenure began, been succeeded by unprecedented success. This has been led by a manager whom the fans worship, the players listen to, and the board cannot possibly fault. If Lambert stays, expect Norwich City to go from strength to strength in the Barclays Premier League.