For much of this East Anglian derby the main subject of debate between opposing supporters was Ipswich Town’s recent history.
Their 15 continuous years in the Championship is the longest current run of any league club in any division and Norwich City fans gave it an ironic minute’s applause at the relevant point in the match. Ipswich fans responded with the following chant: “Fifteen years in the Championship, we’re still famous and you’re still [word that almost rhymes with Championship].”
It was a decent bout of ribaldry between two clubs that are more evenly-matched than they like to think. Ipswich have the history, Sir Alf, Sir Bobby, the Uefa Cup and all that. Norwich have the more recent pedigree, spending four of the past six seasons in the Premier League (they also haven’t lost to Ipswich since 2009). But while no one can take Portman Road’s honours board away, however long ago it was last updated, the Carrow Road club is currently enduring a prolonged bout of status anxiety.
According to a recent survey that pulled together trophies won alongside average attendance, historic league position and, yes, social media following, Norwich City are the 22nd biggest club in Britain. That puts them outside the top flight but permanently on the verge of promotion. Come the end of the Old Farm derby, however, Norwich were in eighth place in the Championship table, six points behind the play-off positions. With five of the top six still to play, starting away at Sheffield Wednesday next weekend, the Canaries still have matters in their own hands. But only just. And if the play-offs are missed, a squad heavy on Premier League wages (if not necessarily talent) will almost certainly have to be gutted.
Alex Neil cut a composed figure after the match. The Scot, only 35 years old but possibly starting to feel older, has endured a hellish time of it this season after seeing his side go through a run from mid-October to the end of 2016 in which they took just eight points from 12 games. The Norwich board stuck with their manager, not a common move it hardly needs pointing out, and form has turned upwards since the new year. But familiar problems remain and surely cannot continue if the club are to achieve their objective.
“I thought we put a good performance in over the 90 minutes,” Neil said. “We created a lot of good opportunities, I thought we were wasteful at times with some of the chances that we did have and their goalkeeper pulled off three really good saves in the match as well. Ipswich had one shot on target and they scored the goal. But when you don’t take your opportunities then that sucker punch can come your way.”
Norwich are used to sucker punches this season. They conceded one goal in their defeat at relegation-threatened Burton Albion last weekend by giving the ball away carelessly by their own corner flag. Sunday’s goal was more regulation, a cross that wasn’t cut out and a run that wasn’t tracked allowing Jonas Knudsen to head home at the far post. Consistently defending crosses, a central part of Championship defensive work, is still something Norwich cannot do, seven months into the campaign.
Neil was right about the opportunities though, Norwich had 13 shots with seven on target, and earned 14 corners in the game. Ipswich’s goalkeeper Bartosz Bialkowski pulled off a stunning save to deny midfielder Alex Tettey and also did well to frustrate Alex Pritchard and Steven Naismith. His one weak moment led to the equaliser: youngster Jacob Murphy, who lost Knudsen for Ipswich’s goal, creating space and firing in at the near post, low and through the keeper’s body.
Norwich have scored the second highest number of goals in the Championship and Neil’s expressed philosophy – we’ll score more than you – may yet bear out. But doubts remain over their ability to score at crucial moments and the sight of Cameron Jerome, for all his hard work and intelligence, missing chance after chance as he did against Ipswich, is far too familiar for Canaries fans by now.
Hillsborough will be a crucial fixture. Norwich have only won four away games all season, Wednesday have lost four times at home. “Everybody’s looking at it as if we have to go into the playoffs next week, but the fact is there’s 12 games left”, Neil said. “Whether we get in just now or whether we get in in a few weeks’ time my only concern is that in 12 games’ time, we’re in the play-offs. So if it takes us till the last game to get in there, that when it’s important, not just now.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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