Hughton turns Norwich into very solid citizens
There is more than one way to skin a cat; and to stay in the Premier League. The Canaries of Norwich City have adopted a different method this season from last, and been equally successful so far in teasing some of the fat cats while staying out of trouble. Yet it is a more dangerous approach, which makes an encounter like this afternoon's at home to Sunderland of heightened importance.
Dean Ashton, the former striker who liked the city so much during his time at Carrow Road that he moved back there after a distressing enforced retirement from West Ham, watches Norwich regularly and says: "From last year, when they were very attacking under Paul Lambert and throwing the kitchen sink at teams, they've gone more defensive and controlled, more solid. But it's still bringing the results and I think the fans are happy with that."
The statistics underline the point emphatically. Last season, only the top six in the League scored more goals; in this campaign, only Queens Park Rangers started the weekend with fewer. Chris Hughton might argue that when his team have opened up they have taken a battering: 5-0 at Fulham in his first game; 5-2 at home to Liverpool in the only match where they have scored more than once; and 4-1 at Chelsea after taking an early lead.
Yet from seven games without a win to start the season they are unbeaten in seven, the past three at home being 1-0 wins over Arsenal, Stoke and Manchester United.
"The Fulham game was a bit worrying," Ashton says with mild understatement, "but it was always going to take time for Chris Hughton to get the right players and the right system, and I think he's got that now. I think that's why they're on such a good run, because of the system he's playing.
"He's now brought in [Alex] Tettey in midfield and he and Bradley Johnson sit in front of the back four, making it very difficult to get through. Then Wes Hoolahan, arguably their best player, has that free role in front of them, which causes problems for teams."
There have never been vast amounts to spend at a club where Delia Smith and her husband, Michael Wynn-Jones, have remained the majority shareholders for many years. Tettey, from Rennes, was one of half-a-dozen summer signings, most of whom have forced their way into the team.
Win at home and draw away has always been a recipe for a successful season. The worry is that the margins this time are so thin and that a heavy burden is falling on the shoulders of Grant Holt, without a goal before or since a run of three in three games in October. Ashton says: "They look to Grant for a lot of the goals and to lead the line, and others have been chipping in, but I think it's going to be one of those seasons that's about being hard to beat rather than scoring lots. Sunderland are similar in that they have got [Steven] Fletcher who can score goals, but without many others chipping in, that makes it difficult."
Ashton scored 18 goals in 47 games for the club before costing West Ham £7 million, but never fully recovered from breaking an ankle at an England training session in 2006 and was forced to retire three years later aged only 26. These days he does media and charity work – he was speaking at an England Footballers Foundation event in London – enjoying life back in Norfolk but inevitably wondering what might have been.
"I'll never get over it [retirement] and whenever I think about it, it's always going to make me sad. But you move on, I'm still lucky to be in the situation I am, and there's plenty of things for me to do." Including heading to Carrow Road today.
Norwich City v Sunderland is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 4pm
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