Can Alex Neil guide Norwich to a second season in the top flight?

‘Alex who?’  It seems hard to believe that it is barely a year since this was the most popular reaction amongst Norwich supporters as news filtered through about the appointment of their new manager.  In that time Alex Neil has kickstarted a faltering Championship promotion campaign, and seemingly survived a steep learning curve to give the Canaries a fighting chance of avoiding the relegation which nearly everybody outside of Norfolk, as well as a significant number within its borders, had considered a near certainty at the start of the season.

However, with the transfer window now well and truly open, the young Scotsman must be forgiven for wondering whether he is appearing in East Anglia’s very own version of ‘Groundhog Day’.  Last month Neil made no secret of his frustration at the club’s pre-season squad strengthening, lamenting the fact that the club’s inability to land their main targets had ‘made our job harder’ whilst also expressing the belief that  ‘this January could give us an opportunity to make it easier’.

Little that has happened over the last ten days will have reassured him that he will be feeling any more sated than he did back at the end of August when the window closes again in a little over three weeks.  Repeated attempts to prise Benik Afobe away from Wolves ultimately met with failure in the summer, so it must have been particularly galling for Neil to note the apparent ease with which Bournemouth were able to reinforce their forward line by signing the ex Arsenal front man earlier this week.  Afobe’s first goal in his new surroundings duly arrived on Saturday, rounding off an excellent performance during which he ran the Norwich back line ragged and thus merely rubbed salt into the wounds.

The Cherries’ second new striker arrived 48 hours later, a face very familiar to the former Hamilton boss, and a man whom he had repeatedly refused to sell to ‘a direct rival’ when previous enquiries had been made.  Yet Lewis Grabban was indeed allowed to join a side at that stage sat two points behind the Canaries, although at least chief executive David McNally added a clause to prevent him from making his debut against his former side.

Whilst few fans would quibble with the decision to make a sizeable profit on a player whose temperament has been shown to be suspect and who remains unproven in the top tier, some will no doubt have been surprised by the timing of the sale, added to the fact that it flew in the face of comments made by his manager just four months earlier.  And whilst the seemingly never-ending pursuit of Gary Naismith does eventually seem to be edging near to its conclusion, another relegation rival were able to bolster their midfield options in the blink of an eye, albeit for an eye-wateringly high price.  Jonjo Shelvey would not feature at the top of many clubs’ shopping list of £12 million rated footballers, let alone a club of Norwich’s limited financial muscle.  However Newcastle’s willingness to swell Swansea’s coffers may yet have a highly undesirable knock-on effect, with the Swans now rumoured to have joined the race to sign Naismith.

So for now the fans have had to be content with just one new face, the Portuguese full back Ivo Pinto.  Whilst the new signing’s potential is unquestionable, with recent Champions League experience on his cv, there are few among the Norwich faithful who would have made a new right back their number one priority.  Neither Steven Whittaker nor Andre Wisdom have been overly impressive in that position, but they have rarely seemed seriously out of their depth, and the consensus is that captain Russell Martin is actually far more effective marauding down the right flank than when he is deployed in the centre of defence.

Neil recently dismissed suggestions that geographical location was a major problem with regard to attracting players to the club.  However it is hard to believe that this has no bearing on the issue, and as long as the Canaries have neither a sugar daddy for a chairman nor the years of Premiership television rights income which have been squirrelled away by the likes of Stoke, Sunderland and West Brom, the wages on offer will never be extravagant enough to compensate for the lack of motorways in some eyes.

For now it seems likely to be a case of playing a waiting game and hoping that the club’s patiently determined approach pays dividends.  A centre half and centre forward would seem to be the very minimum that is required, but most of the talk in the last few days has revolved around unloading a few more squad players off the wage bill, with Gary Hooper apparently heading for Sheffield Wednesday or anyone else willing to pay the quoted £3.5m fee.  Leeds’ determination to sign Kyle Lafferty is also likely to lead eventually to the Northern Ireland international’s departure, with Euro 2016 looming large on the horizon and his playing time remaining severely restricted.

However even if the month passes without all the desired pieces of the jigsaw falling into place, there is still plenty about which to be optimistic following the events of the last month.  Declan Rudd seems to have been waiting in the wings forever for an opportunity to shine between the sticks, and now that it has arrived, he has seized it with both hands.  His own goal at the Britannia aside, Ryan Bennett has been excellent at the heart of the defence alongside Sebastien Bassong since replacing Martin, and such has been Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe’s impact in his first few appearances in green and yellow that Nathan Redmond now knows he has a real fight on his hands to keep his place, a situation that can only bring about the best of him.  The last Norwich player to have cost more than £5m before Robbie Brady was an unmitigated disaster, but whilst Ricky van Wolfswinkel remains out on loan in La Liga, the Republic of Ireland international has proved himself to be equally adept in defence as in his favoured midfield position when the need has arisen.

Whilst all around his main relegation rivals continue to splash the cash, Neil must know that his improved tactical acumen aligned with a determined and united group of players have a great chance of avoiding a second relegation in three seasons. Nevertheless a couple of new faces would undoubtedly lift the spirits for the difficult months which lie ahead, and in spite of all the obstacles which remain in his path, few would bet on him accepting a repeat of last summer’s frustrations.

Featured image: All rights reserved by Kiwicanary

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