This piece was published in the matchday programme for the game against Wycombe Wanderers on 7 November 2020. The Norwich City programme is really great and it is worth subscribing imho. You can do that here.
A few years ago, I was watching Norwich play in a pub with some other fans. Just before kickoff, one said something to me along the lines of, “we’re going to need to deal with their high press today, do you think we’re up to it?” I froze. How could I avoid saying I had no idea what he meant, without saying something stupid.
You see, I have really no idea what is happening on the football field. I have no sense of strategy, or tactics, or even what most of what is happening is called by those people in the know. Expected goals? More like expected time of going to get a pie and pint at halftime.
I do love the game of football. I’ve been a regular since 1988, when my Dad took me to sit in the South Stand for our game against Charlton Athletic. There was a Charlton fan behind us who seemed to think he could coach the team, or that he actually was. Every few seconds, he’d bellow instructions like ‘touch! Touch! Now, touch and go!’. I still don’t know what he meant. In the time since then, I’ve watched Norwich a few hundred times, at grounds around the country, and at no point have I ever really understood the intricacies of what I was watching. When I was younger, football meant a few drinks, a bit of shouting and a lot singing. Now I’m older, football means a few drinks, a bit of shouting and a lot of singing.
As a baseball fan from my time living in the US, I am not averse to the odd stat here and there. Baseball knows how to do that to excess, as anyone who has seen the Brad Pitt film, “Moneyball’’ can attest. That film, and the story behind it, helped to transform the world of elite sport. Emi Buendia’s numbers were what first alerted the club to him. It wasn’t watching a scintillating performance from 5ft 7 of football heaven that turned heads, it was an excel sheet showing an unfeasibly high number of assists in a poor performing team. I get a bit blinded by the science.
For people who do have the brain power for this, the last few years have been phenomenal. Access to stats today is not like it was for those of us who grew up with Match! and Shoot! Expected goals is the infamous one, but the level of detail you can get for successful and unsuccessful short passes, long passes, dribbles, tackles, runs, and drinks breaks is amazing. Heat maps used to refer to undersoil heating, but you can see precisely how every player fits into the game plan. The home dugout at Carrow Road has extra high speed broadband to cope with the data used for in-game management.
Podcasts are the new way to learn what’s going on. Dan Brigham’s straight man appearances on the otherwise funny ‘Little Yellow Bird Podcast’ was the first time I really got thinking about what was happening on the field. Tom Parsley’s angry rants on Along Come Norwich’s podcast are also helpful. Chris Goreham is masterful at painting a picture of what is happening while also giving a good insight into why, and how. But it mainly goes over my head.
It’s not that I haven’t tried. I was given the classic football tactics book, “Inverting the Pyramid”, a comprehensive look at the development of the game from 1–1–9 through to 4–4–2, sweepers, false 9s and all the other formations that swirl around in the modern game.I enjoyed the history of it, but couldn’t translate what I was seeing on the page to what I am used to seeing on the pitch. I’m probably sounding a bit thick, but I am as interested in what the away fans are up to as I am in the patient build up play on the pitch. The fans around me will let me know when it’s time to pay attention again.
But even with all the disadvantages I have in watching football with any thought, I know what sort of football gets me off my seat. Fleck through on goal, McKenzie finishing a sweeping move, Pachecho on the rebound. My favourite players are the ones who excite, but I just couldn’t tell you what they actually bring to the game. What did I like about the sort of player Dale Gordon? He was fast. Ruel Fox? He was fast. Darren Huckerby… You get the picture. I know what I like. I like the Norwich way. It doesn’t have an entry in the tactics books, but we know what it means, and we know why we like it.