Thursday, March 08, 2007

Who stays and who goes as the Canaries rebuild?

It is a rare day indeed when this intrepid pundit proves correct in his analysis of the immediate future at Norwich City: but sure enough, the last-minute victory at Kenilworth Road did indeed prove a critical turning point. Last Saturday, the Canaries cruised to an unexpectedly easy 3-1 victory over admittedly shocking opponents at Oakwell; and with the Championship's bottom six clubs plainly in a league of their own in terms of incompetence, as good as assured their status for next season in English football's second flight. Admittedly, Derby County's 2-1 victory on Tuesday night proved something of a reality check: but that said, Norwich performed well against the league leaders, and that they failed to emerge with something to show for their efforts was arguably as much due to the vicissitudes of referee Lee Probert as anything else. There remain signs of a genuine team ethic, balance and shape emerging under Peter Grant's watch: and for most City supporters, it is still very much a case of the glass being half full.

Taking the Canaries' survival as read, therefore, today's piece will focus on the options available to the pugnacious young manager as he rebuilds and strengthens his squad over the summer. He can already be said to be somewhat in credit having released the perenially disappointing Carl Robinson during the transfer window, and announced his intention to do the same with Matthieu Louis-Jean, whose chances of establishing himself at the club have been ruined by a succession of injuries, and - however unlucky - rendered him a luxury City can ill afford, as soon as the season ends.

Moreover, although Chris Brown still has it all to prove following his arrival from Wearside, Simon Lappin can certainly be considered a success thus far, David Marshall made a huge difference between the posts before sustaining a desperately unfortunate injury at Chelsea, and there is every reason to hope both Mark Fotheringham and Luke Chadwick can go on to prosper in the yellow-and-green shirt too. At the very least, Grant's acquisitions in his short time at the helm have begun to address a midfield which went appallingly neglected during Nigel Worthington's final year in charge: even, when everyone is fit, to start creating the competition for places so vital to any club's prospects of promotion, and so utterly lacking in the final dog days of his predecessor.

What the manager needs above all during the summer is a quality goalkeeper (ideally Marshall, but it seems highly unlikely Gordon Strachan will be persuaded to part with his services on a permanent basis), centre back, perhaps a left back, certainly a central midfielder, and - depending on the future of Robert Earnshaw - maybe a striker too: no mean task in any circumstances, but especially those whereby the club will see its revenue fall by £7m following the end of its Premiership parachute payments. Doubtless, Grant knew only too well how careful his husbandry would need to be when he took the job: the coming summer will test it to its very limits.

Out, surely, will go Youssef Safri, a marvellous player at his best, but whose consistent application seems questionable at times, and who still fails to impose himself on matches as someone of his class surely should; and following him through the exit door will be Jurgen Colin, whose performances have actually been much improved during this campaign, but who fails to offer the slightest attacking threat, and Grant has jettisoned in favour of the far more adventurous Andy Hughes ever since the depressing first hour against Blackpool.

There must also be a significant question mark hanging over the future of captain Adam Drury. The man once hailed by his former manager Barry Fry as "the best defender outside the Premiership" was, together with Gary Holt, an integral part in Norwich's transformation into promotion contenders in 2001/2: the side suffered whenever he was absent, and it continually appeared that if Drury played well, so did City. But much like the club, he seemed to peak during the title-winning campaign two seasons later: this writer expected him to surprise many observers while playing in the Premiership, but he struggled for confidence at times, and has yet to regain his dominant former self since. He still rarely lets the side down, still provides balance on the left, and remains a solid Championship full back: but may feel that it's time for a change in order to reinvigorate his somewhat stagnating career.

If Drury does leave, Grant may choose to replace him with Lappin: equally though, with Hughes on the right, this would surely be too offensive a strategy to attempt. So a more defensive-minded replacement is likely - though it should be stressed that the skipper's departure is by no means certain in any case. Gary Doherty's exit does seem highly probable, though: in so many ways, the club's decline can be traced back to the foolhardy release of Malky Mackay early in 2004/5, and Doherty has rarely filled supporters with much confidence as the inspirational Scot's long-term replacement. True, he was named Player of the Year last season: but this was as much a comment on the poverty of Norwich's appalling campaign as anything else, and sadly, he has demonstrably regressed this year. The replacement of Doherty with someone truly worthy of partnering Jason Shackell in the heart of defence is an absolute necessity.

Moving into the middle, with Chadwick likely to be duelling with Lee Croft for a berth out wide, and Lappin a possible alternative on the left for when Darren Huckerby is played in a more central attacking role, the key question is what Grant does about Dickson Etuhu. Signed as Damien Francis' replacement, Etuhu is someone with the capacity to truly impose himself on games: as he has done very occasionally, notably at home to Preston and more recently at Stamford Bridge. But far, far too often, he seems uninterested, and is capable of the most appallingly casual play: giving the ball away and failing to close down his opposite number continually against Blackpool, at Luton and on Tuesday night too. All too frequently, he is not so much an asset as a liability, sometimes seems unhappy at the club, and it was notable how much better Norwich looked when Fotheringham was brought on at Kenilworth Road, and especially when starting at Barnsley at the weekend.

But his manager has continually persevered with Etuhu because, as the club's only genuine box-to-box midfielder, he is close to indispensable: any team looking to succeed in modern-day football need a player of his ilk in order to do so. It is perfectly possible that Grant will look to retain him, and coax his more frustrating, indulgent displays out of him: perhaps more likely, though, is that either a like-for-like replacement will be brought in, or just possibly, a holding player recruited with the intention of giving Fotheringham the chance to make a central midfield slot his own.

All of which leaves the attack: and one, perhaps two, deeply unpopular decisions may be on the cards. Dion Dublin, whose arrival in September was bemoaned by so many as the ultimate sign of the club's chronic lack of ambition and direction, has been such a revelation that his award as Player of the Year seems now a virtual inevitability. Whether leading the line, or more often marshalling his troops from the back, Dublin's immense leadership and magnificently positive attitude have seen the club through some highly treacherous times: nobody, indeed, is more deserving of a new contract than he. But there must be a very serious question whether a club about to enter a vastly changed financial climate can afford to keep a 37-year-old on its books, however talismanic, however much he might still be capable of: at some stage, a decline in his form and/or fitness must surely set in. To gamble on him lasting another season at the top (or at least, near the top) may well prove a risk the Canary board are unwilling to take.

And then, finally, there is the question of Earnshaw. How, many will ask, could Grant even contemplate selling someone who would surely have gone on to be the division's leading marksman had injury not cut him down so cruelly in early January? But it may well not be a coincidence that, paradoxically, the fluency of Norwich's displays has improved considerably in his absence: the little Welshman is a fantastic finisher, but rarely adds much to any team's overall play. And moreover, his manager will be faced with the dilemma which confronts so many of his colleagues every season: keep hold of your most valuable player, or cash in on him in order to strengthen across the board? Earnshaw's injury may well mean he is retained until January, as it seems highly unlikely the board will see its valuation for his services met: equally though, it is very possible he will be sold in the summer regardless. Such a move will almost certainly provoke fury amongst the supporters - but it may well prove necessary if the club is to have a squad which can genuinely challenge next time around.

On the bright side, the astonishing emergence of Chris Martin - the hottest young prospect to be unearthed via the Carrow Road youth system since Craig Bellamy, perhaps even Chris Sutton - already means the Canaries are not as short up front as had been assumed. Many will want to see an Earnshaw/Martin combination in action next season; but economic reality may mean Huckerby, or perhaps someone entirely new, end up partnering the brilliant young tyro.

Nobody should underestimate the difficulty of the decisions facing Grant: how he goes about building a genuinely robust squad, while keeping the supporters onside and operating within extremely tight constraints will be highly instructive. But the reality is that in the absence of a benefactor such as Milan Mandaric, the Premiership money enjoyed this season by clubs such as Birmingham or West Bromwich, or five individuals prepared to put £5m each into the club as at Derby, Norwich are one of a clutch of clubs believing they should be in strong contention for a return to the top flight, but forced to perform an extremely delicate balancing act in order to have even a chance of achieving this. Dublin, perhaps even Earnshaw, may well prove victims of such a reality.