Simon Hart: Neil Adams’ unavailing relegation battle has let him spread wings with Canaries this season

Life beyond the Premier League: 'We’re not looking to maybe make the top six – we want to win the Championship,' says Norwich manager

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The Independent Football

“When you’ve got Jose Mourinho standing four feet away, you know this really is the highest challenge you can get.” Neil Adams is looking back on last spring and the experience of being thrown in at the deep end as Norwich City manager. From the outside, the youth-team coach promoted to replace Chris Hughton had a thankless task – Norwich’s final fixtures were against Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal – yet Adams saw it differently.

“Sometimes you get only one opportunity,” the 48-year-old reflects, “and I really enjoyed it last season. I felt really comfortable in the role. You never really know how you’re going to be until you test yourself.” The only point he took was in a goalless draw at Mourinho’s Chelsea yet, despite relegation, Adams still ended up with a three-year contract. It seemed quite a gamble by the Carrow Road board but Adams has rewarded their faith by leading Norwich to second place in the Championship table, a point behind Nottingham Forest.

“I just think the board and supporters saw something in those last five games,” he adds. “Even in that short space of time there was a turnaround in the way the club felt, the way the players were, we tried to make the football more attacking and entertaining. We could and should have beaten Fulham [losing 1-0] and we gave Liverpool an almighty scare [in a 3-2 defeat]. Brendan Rodgers was very complimentary to me privately. He said we really gave him a tactical battle and he was impressed.”

It was Rodgers who noted that a coach like Adams – who guided Norwich to the 2013 FA Youth Cup – will have learnt important lessons at junior level “because that is where you’re continually allowed to make changes and tinker because results aren’t essential”. Results count now, of course, and Adams tinkered impressively after Norwich’s opening-day loss at Wolves; he switched to a 4-2-3-1 and they went eight games unbeaten before Tuesday’s Capital One Cup defeat against Shrewsbury.

For Adams, the first priority in reviving Norwich’s fortunes was to add goals (“the team scored 28 in the Premier League”) and new strikers Cameron Jerome and Lewis Grabban already have 11 between them. Equally significant – amid the departures of Robert Snodgrass and Leroy Fer – was the decision of players like John Ruddy, Nathan Redmond, Alex Tettey, Bradley Johnson and Wes Hoolahan to commit themselves to the club.

“It was really pleasing that those players felt that we’ve a really good chance of getting back at that first attempt,” says Adams. “We’ve made our intentions clear. We’re not looking to maybe make the top six; you have to set the bar as high as you can and we want to win the league.” This desire is transmitted on the training ground where “we have to train every day with the intensity and the tempo we need in games and the players to a man have bought into that.”

Adams may be unproven but what becomes apparent in conversation is that the Norwich job is not something he began working towards only in 2001, when starting academy coaching at a club where he had previously made 206 appearances. Rather, he has been building towards this ever since his league debut as a Stoke City winger in September 1985. “I used to write [notes] on players I came up against,” he explains. “It is all done for you now with the match analysis [but] when I made my debut at Stoke the first thing I did when I got back in was write things down about the opposition left-back.”

The learning process accelerated when, aged 20, he joined Everton and ended his first season with a championship winner’s medal in 1987. “I couldn’t wait to get up every morning and go in and learn,” he said. “I learnt so much under Howard Kendall and Colin Harvey and then moved to Oldham to an equally esteemed name in Joe Royle. Then down at Norwich I played under Martin O’Neill and Bruce Rioch.”

Adams admits that he still uses “tactical sessions I was learning under Howard Kendall and things that maybe Colin Harvey had said at half-time”. Even the team spirit engendered by Kendall’s famous “team-bonding sessions” is something he wishes to emulate. “It is done in different ways now – you can’t send your players out to go and drink 12 pints, the sports scientists would be having heart attacks!

“It was all about team spirit and this is what we’re trying to achieve at Norwich. When we went to Italy in the summer, Ryan Bennett had a guitar out and we had a sing-song and a laugh and a joke. You have to try and encourage that sort of atmosphere.” The evidence of Norwich’s last two league games, coming back from two down to take points against Cardiff and Birmingham, suggests their spirit is strong. Adams has got the Canaries singing again.