Managing expectations

This piece was published in the matchday programme for the game against Derby County on 3 October 2020. The Norwich City programme is really great and it is worth subscribing imho. You can do that here.

The triumph of hope over expectation. It’s what being a football fan is all about. If we didn’t have hope, what would keep us coming back year-after-year. That’s the case for football fans the world over, but even more so for Norwich fans. The start of every season has us wondering, fearing, anticipating, about what the new campaign will bring.

It’s been a decade with more relegations and promotions than any other team in the country. We never know whether we’re coming or going, and we never know when the hope is rooted in reality or the dream that this year is going to be one of yet more amazing memories, not a year yet more agony.

Remember the start of the last season, as long as a lifetime ago. We had high hopes going into the game against Liverpool, strangely reinforced in the aftermath by the exhilaration of “winning the second half”. The mood soared to dizzy heights after the win against Manchester City. It didn’t take long for reality to hit home, hard.

As bad as last season finished, it is when the gap between hope and reality is at its biggest that memories are made — for good or ill. I was a little nipper when Norwich started the first season of the Premier League. Year zero, if you believe Sky Sports. Everyone — absolutely everyone — tipped Norwich to finish bottom of the pile. I was on holiday in Yorkshire with my family, happy in the knowledge we’d be back in Norfolk in time for my first season out of the South Stand Family Enclosure, and on the terraces of the River End. The house we were staying in didn’t do TeleText (!) so my dad had me check the radio for scores. “It’s two-nil to Arsenal, dad,” I reported at half time. He thought it was going to be one of those years, I can remember having the excessive levels of hope of a 13-year-old. Mark Robbins scored two utter bangers, Ruel Fox got one, and David Phillips did a rubbish cartwheel to celebrate his. What a year it went on to be, partly fuelled by the disbelief we all had that it was happening.

Our first game in the third tier of English football in my lifetime happened to come on my wedding day. We all thought it was going to be an easy season, despite the form that had put us down in League One in the first place. When I arrived at our reception, having clean forgotten the game was on — it was my wedding day after all — a friend asked me if I wanted to know the score. Of course, I said. 7(seven)-1, he said. Wow that’s amazing, I replied, who scored all our goals? There was a moment of silence from those gathered round as they waited for me to clock that it wasn’t a Norwich rout. I was on honeymoon when they sacked Gunny and brought in the man tried to ruin my wedding day. What a world.

August and September are the months where we can suspend our disbelief, refuse to sink into despair, or refuse to get carried away. We don’t know for a while what’s coming our way. Alex Neil’s season back in the Championship started well before it got fairly ugly, fairly quickly. This time two years ago, Daniel Farke must have been feeling a bit hot under the parker collar as we played Ipswich with his job (possibly) on the line.

This year has been an odd one so far. One win, one draw, one loss, and many fans are just delighted we’re not embarrassing ourselves like the tail-end of last season. But the performances have been pretty patchy. New players are still bedding in, old players are trying, with varying degrees of success, to adjust to the knowledge that while they were premier league once, they aren’t anymore. The system has changed a bit, the players needed to play in it, and where they’re best placed, is only slowly coming together. But we won against Huddersfield where in the past we might have only taken a point. We drew against Preston where last season their first goal would have meant we were down for the count, let alone their second. We played our best football against Bournemouth, dispute the result.

I don’t know what my expectations are for the season yet. It has the feel of a team who should be in the top three. Stuart Webber’s famous statement that we’re a top 26 team means that anything other than the playoffs would be a disaster. But we just don’t know yet.

I do know what I hope for. Fight, and flair. The second best thing about two season ago was winning the league. The best thing about that season was the absolute majesty of our play, and the grit and determination to fight for every ball, and to the fightback from every setback. Every single player playing for the badge, not for themselves. That’s what the best Norwich teams of my lifetime have had. Let’s hope — and expect — for that from the lads this season.

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