Fulham vs City preview
Craven Cottage isn't exactly the happiest of hunting grounds for Norwich City. Assuming that you, dear reader, are of the yellow and green persuasion, you need not be reminded of that fateful afternoon of May 14th 2005, when the home opposition embarrassingly tore through Nigel Worthington's shell-shocked troops 6-0 to hand them an immediate second tier return.
Thankfully, the encounter this past March resulted in no such dismay and with no such excruciating consequence, but still with little to cheer about and certainly no points to take back to East Anglia. The one consolation was a personal milestone for Aaron Wilbraham, who netted his 100th career goal.
But Aaron Wilbraham won`t be playing this time, and another figure will be a notable absentee. After three glorious seasons under Paul Lambert, the players are faced with the unenviable task of trying to keep up the good work without the man who has been guiding them from the bottom half of the League One table all the way to just outside the top ten of the Premiership. This will be a tough start to life without him.
City's opening day League fixtures in the last few seasons don't exactly inspire confidence either. It's been an entire decade since City won their curtain raiser, with Grimsby Town visiting Norfolk to receive a 4-0 thumping, and in the last 13 seasons that's the only time the Canaries have managed to register a victory right out of the gate.
Questions are already being raised after the club's pre-season campaign, in which goals have seemingly dried up completely, and some fans aren't exactly doing cartwheels over the latest playing staff arrivals when they might've been hoping for more glamorous names appearing at Costa Del Colney.
Chris Hughton will take charge for the first time in a competitive setting. Can he break two hoodoos in his first official game at the helm?
Pre-season- Why we shouldn't get our knickers twisted.
Observe this tweet by @GeraldSteroo who seems a little disgruntled to say the least.
'#ncfc What a shocking preseason we've had. An awful defence, a toothless attack and a clueless manager. 35 points max. #relegation" (http://twitter.com/GeraldSteroo/status/234573126514647041 )
I pray the above tweet was in jest, and if it is please discard the following comments. But if it's serious, and there have been similar tweets from fans during the summer...
*Bangs head against the keyboard*
Get a hold of yourselves!
Pre-season isn't about results. At all. It is purely about fitness levels and getting your squad ready for the forthcoming marathon. Gradually as it progresses you generally see a higher class of opposition, thus your players work harder and harder the better the opposition that comes their way, and before you know what's hit you, you'll be ready and waiting for League competition again.
The so-called toothless attack certainly didn't have bad start to their summer programme, with James Vaughan, Grant Holt and Steve Morison all getting amongst the goals early on. Whilst they've dried up a bit now, something Hughton is keen to address, the defence have actually been quite solid, attaining a number of clean sheets and already looking stronger than last season's backline which only managed three shut outs during the entire campaign.
And clueless manager? Chris Hughton? Clueless? Not bloody likely.
The former Newcastle and Birmingham chief will be absolutely determined to prove himself as a Prem boss after he was so cruelly dismissed during his last tenure in the division, and Brum's play-off heartache last spring.
Crucially, he will be surrounded by players who will be just as eager to defy talk of the dreaded "Second season syndrome" and that they can still thrive at this level without Lambert's stewardship. Perhaps even more crucial when it comes to avoiding said syndrome is that Hughton's arrival automatically calls for fresh approaches to aspects of City's game, from formations to playing staff. Just when other clubs think they have them "found out" this time around, Hughton should get them all guessing again.
Speaking of proving one's self, Grant Holt will be all too eager to silence the doubters and maintain his excellent goalscoring return from last season. Safe in the knowledge that he's got the third year added to his contract and peace of mind restored, the stage is set for him to continue to make life miserable for rival defenders. Whilst his total was impressive in itself, don`t forget that he also netted against Man United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Everton. Make no mistake, he's absolutely capable of repeating such feats, and time will tell if he manages to do so.
Ful of it- Opposition.
Fulham will have been chuffed with their top ten finish last term. Prior to that previous meeting in March, they still weren't totally out of the woods in terms of the relegation battle. Early Europa League clashes had left their squad overworked and lagging slightly, but Martin Jol still guided them to 9th place and within just a point of their record Premiership points haul. They registered a first ever Anfield league win, and Pavel Pogrebnyak wrote his own name in the Cottager's history books by becoming the first player on their books to score in his first three games for them in the league.
The departure Danny Murphy has left a slight void, as has Pogrebnyak after he couldn`t agree personal terms with the club`s hierarchy and chose Reading instead. Clint Dempsey's name has been commonly heard round the rumour mill, they've released goalscorer Andy Johnson and former Canary Dickson Etuhu has left for Blackburn.
But even without a proven Premiership striker, they still boast a strong squad. Veteran goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer is as impressive as ever and his number 2, David Stockdale, just can't get a look-in and looks set to be farmed out on loan yet again. Dempsey, if they keep him, is an exceptional player. Hugo Rodallega has arrived from Wigan to boost their forward threat, ditto Mladen Petric who they hope will provide the perfect replacement for AJ and "The Pog." They are armoured with plenty of experience and steel in the shape of Brade Hangeland at the back.
Their own pre-season schedule doesn't exactly look like the sternest of warm-up tests on paper. They battered French Ligue One side OGC Nice 4-0, but otherwise they've not really been tested in the same way City have. They fought the likes of HB Koge of the Danish first division and Lokomotive Liepzig who are from German football's FIFTH tier, which to me hardly seem like the kind of teams you want to play in order to get ready for fellow Premiership teams.
Personally I think City have had much sterner pre-season opponents in Ajax and Borussia Monchengladbach, in addition to a couple of tricky customers from the Championship and a battling Celtic, so if anything we may be the sharper of the two teams going into the game. Fulham need a striker, and they`ll likely get one, but apart from Dempsey and perhaps Rodallega, they might not trouble our defence as much as you`d initially think. The jury is out on Petric, at least in this league, but he`ll need to be watched if he starts.
I said right from the start that I`ve maintained every confidence in Hughton`s appointment, and I think we could be good value for a victory this weekend. Watch this space.