Football: Walker's new chord for old Canary song: Under an unheralded new manager Norwich City are leading the Premier League by making the game less easy on themselves

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The Independent Online
SELL, sell, sell. It may profit Arthur Daley and the president of the Bundesbank (are they in some way related?), but it is a downward spiral in football. With one delightful exception.

Norwich City like to buck the trend. At a time whe it was becoming de rigeur to kick and rush your way out of the Second Division, they passed their way to promotion. Once up there, conventional wisdom has it that membership of the exclusive club is exclusively expensive, yet they have sold players to the value of pounds 12m and replaced them on the cheap.

In theory, they should be on their way back whence they came, six years ago, but where do they stand this morning? Proudly, if improbably, on top of the pile, the bold-as-brass leaders of the Premier League.

After losing seven of their final eight First Division games last season, they were desperately close to missing out on the breakaway gravy train, yet four months on they are setting a cracking pace, with six wins and a draw in eight matches.

Some transformation. And all down to Mike Who?

When shoestring management became too much for Dave Stringer - a decision he reached shortly before the end of last season - Norwich's original choice to replace him was Phil Neal, who had just been sacked by Bolton Wanderers. It was only when Neal decided against uprooting his family that Mike Walker, the reserve team coach at Carrow Road, crept into the frame.

When he was appointed, in June, it looked suspiciously like the easy option. A stopgap. Three months later, the choice is beginning to appear inspired.

Credentials? A playing career as a journeyman goalkeeper, which took him from Reading to Watford via Shrewsbury and York, and dismissal as manager of Colchester United made less of an impression than his nurturing of Norwich reserves like Chris Sutton, Robert Ullathorne, Daryl Sutch and Lee Power, all of whom have graduated to the first team, courtesy of Walker's sympathetic tutelage.

A dapper 46, he is at last finding fulfilment after the cruellest of starts in management. Five years ago, he had just been named the Fourth Division's manager of the month when the Colchester chairman, Jonathan Crisp, asked to see him.

The man of the moment takes up the story: 'I was expecting good news. Having worked without a contract, I thought he might offer me one, with a pay rise or at least hand over the bottle of Scotch I'd won. Instead, he gave me a shock. My cards.

'Apparently, he'd been told: you'll never get out of the Fourth Division playing football. Anyway, after I left, he spent a lot of money bringing in people like Alan Ball, Jock Wallace and Mick Mills, and all it got them was relegation from the League. He always said he'd get them out of the Fourth Division.'

Unsurprisingly, the experience had a profound effect. 'It made me a lot harder. If I walked in here tomorrow and was told I'd been sacked, I don't think I'd turn a hair.' In truth, the hair has already turned, its steely grey sheen matching Walker's character.

He and Norwich provide further testimony to the old adage that teams are the embodiment of their manager's personality.

Canaries are pretty rather than predatory birds, and the nickname has often seemed apposite. Dogged determination and a cussed will to win have never been characteristics readily associated with Norwich. Until now.

These days, when the plumage is ruffled, they come out fighting. In the eight games played to date, they have yet to lead at half-time, yet they have won six, with victory snatched from the craw of defeat at Arsenal and, most recently, Chelsea. In each case, they were two goals down and came storming back to win.

Walker accepts that the old Norwich would have lost both games, and he has had to work hard to eradicate the que sera mentality and all-too-easy acceptance of failure.

'We've played eight games in a month and kept the momentum going, and I'm particularly pleased about that,' he said. 'In the past, Norwich have had a reputation as an excellent footballing side, but if they had to play two hard games in succession, they usually lost the second. We're sustaining it, we're churning the results out.'

There was a price to pay for this new-found consistency. 'I'll hold my hands up and admit that there have been games when we haven't played great football, but it is important for us to keep getting the results. Our style is still to play, but we've got to compete as well. Never, though, to the detriment of our ability. We'll never allow that.'

Suggestions by David Speedie that they had battered Southampton into submission were dismissed by Walker as a none-too-serious case of 'pot calling kettle black', and one of Carrow Road's most distinguished old boys, Andy Townsend, was quick to leap to their defence.

Townsend, whose Chelsea team lost 3-2 at home to Norwich last week, said: 'I read what Speedie said, but the basis of their game is football, not thuggery. A team with players like Mark Robins, Lee Power and Ruel Fox, are not about to go around hammering people.'

There has, though, been a significant change of style, as well as emphasis. The expression 'direct football' has become a euphemism for the up-and-under, but Walker has made Norwich more direct in the one area where they needed to be.

He explained: 'Everyone knows that for the last few years we have been a good passing side, but we have probably over-passed and been too elaborate - certainly on the edge of the penalty area.

'We never really got enough finishes in. We'd have 90 per cent of the game, allow the opposition one chance and they would score and win without us getting a shot on goal.

'When I took over, I decided that we had to keep playing our football, because that is what we believe in, but that we also had to be more competitive, and more decisive in front of goal. We have done a lot of work on crossing and finishing, and it's paying off. It's as simple as that.'

The pay-off has been such that shot-shy Norwich have become the League's leading scorers, averaging more than two goals per game, with Robins, who has six in as many appearances, epitomising the club's shrewdness in the transfer market. The young striker was hired from Manchester United for pounds 800,000 to replace Robert Fleck, who cost pounds 580,000 from Rangers and was sold to Chelsea for pounds 2.1m. No doubt Robins, too, will move on at a huge profit one day.

Walker, a hard taskmaster, is not entirely satisfied with his first major signing. 'The reason we bought Robins is to score goals,' he said, 'and in that sense he's doing what we got him for. He gets in the box when it matters - makes the right runs to get there, and tucks them away.

'I expect more from him, though. If he's going to be a top-class Premier League player, he has got to do more outside the penalty area. At the moment, he is not contributing enough in his general play.'

Walker is no less frank about his team's prospects of retaining the leadership. 'Realistically, I don't think we can win the League,' he said. 'That's not to say we won't try, but you've got to be looking for the big clubs to come through - the ones with the big squads who can buy the players they choose to buy. We can't do that.

'We said from Day One that a successful season for us would be a place in the top six, which we would hope to be good enough to get us into Europe. The other way of getting there, of course, is to win a cup, which is not beyond us. We've had two semi-finals and finished fourth in the League in 1989. I don't think it's unrealistic to talk of matching that.'

For the moment, though, it is a case of savouring the view from the top. Manager of the month would do nicely. Sans P45, of course.

(Photograph omitted)