By Dave Major
The first leg of the friendly cup is upon us this Sunday, between the 1985 Milk Cup contenders Norwich City and Sunderland. An historical reference to the behaviour and good-natured fan relationships of its day – a day where hooliganism and racism were more prevalent in football than even some newspapers would believe today.
Not a friendship born of that day, rather work and late night drinking sessions, I have my own friendly rivalry with such a Mackem. And this week as our attention turned to the weekend, his first question was after their ex centre half Michael Turner.
I’m afraid to say my thoughts upon his mention still turn irrevocably to that first day horror show at Craven Cottage. Of a defence disorganised and like strangers, with little protection or interest in front of them and of thoughts to a long hard season. No one optimised this no-show more than Turner did. Indeed, in his next Premier League game, Norwich City again conceded five in an appalling defensive no-show.
So, how does this compare and relate to now? Seven unbeaten in the league, only three goals conceded. Gone has the Paul Lambert “we’re going to score one more than you” ethos, replaced with the more traditional Brian Clough methodology of building from the back.
Those seven games have been built on a fairly stable back four and just as importantly a solid two of Bradley Johnson and Alex Tettey in front – the destroyers. For Johnson’s critics and weaknesses, defensive resolution is amongst his strengths. Tettey looks a revelation, the heartbeat of the team.
But the biggest difference is audible. A leader has emerged in the shape of Sebastien Bassong. Watch what he’s doing in those quieter moments of a game; he’s organising a Tettey or Garrido; he’s talking others into position, into shape. He’s doing the biggest thing that was missing that day at Fulham – talking.
Gone has the brittle resistance, days which in truth were with us since the Shackell and Doherty pairing barely uttering two words to each other. Goals and excitement at the other end managed to cover it up during the Lambert years. Now, however, with a new man at the helm, the age old problem seems to be resolved, mirroring more the good old fashioned and at times industrial language not seen since messrs. Mackay and Fleming marshalled the Canary back line.
I’m not for one moment saying Bassong’s the finished article. If he were, he’d still be leading Tottenham’s defence rather than ours. He does, like Bradley Johnson at times think he’s a slightly better footballer than he is. And the dancing, well, it seems on a par with Henri Lansbury. But here’s one signing, a Hughton signing, that is making a massive difference to the goals against column, and will it seems weigh in with the odd goal for as well.
His presence has transformed Turner into the player we believed we’d signed back in July; a man who may well repeat Michael Nelson’s trodden path from write off to hero in the months to come. But its Bassong’s leadership may well have transformed Norwich into a team capable of competing defensively in this league.