It was good to be back on the road with Norwich City on Friday.
That Tie at Preston was my first away game with the Canaries since December. It was a journey that felt as long as the one given on the government’s roadmap for Covid restrictions.
It would be wrong to pretend it feels like a return to normal.
There wasn’t much to complain about on the square. Even after a week of international intrigue and injury nightmares, it took a late and happy distraction to keep Norwich City from winning another championship win.
Anyone who’s been to an away game knows that the game itself is only a small part of the story.
Under normal circumstances, I imagine that at least a few thousand City fans would have made this trip to Deepdale. Norwich supporters always travel in remarkable numbers and especially when an advertising campaign looks like it’s reaching its home stretch.
Traveling most of 500 miles in a day just to watch 90 minutes of football doesn’t make sense to a lot of people. It’s only when you’ve been away that you realize that the journey itself is just as important as the destination.
Planning a route, figuring out where to eat, and soaking up the atmosphere before and after the game are the things that really matter. More brilliant football stories are written in cars, buses, cafes and pubs than on the playing field.
My first trip away was when I was nine when I saw the FA Cup semi-finals against Sunderland in 1992, and the game ended in a devastating 1-0 defeat.
Do I remember a lot about the game? No not true. The most vivid scenes of the day were painted on the carriage to and from Sheffield. I rode a bus with many of my father’s work colleagues. It was the day I was let in on the secret that is the joy of a day away.
I didn’t get all of the jokes, I wasn’t old enough to drink which inspired them to get louder as the day progressed, and wasn’t able to help when one of the buses broke down on the way back had . There was an energy and excitement that couldn’t be compared to anything I’d been part of before. It was certainly very different from being in the family enclosure on Carrow Road on match days, which was the only experience I had while playing football until then.
Years later, it turned out that a young Rob Butler was probably riding the same bus to Hillsborough that day as me. We worked that out during one of the endless conversations that fill the highway miles in BBC Radio Norfolk’s car to away games. Right now I’m flying alone. Social distancing means teams like Preston can’t put the two of us in their press boxes.
Many Norwich City players collapsed on their knees when the full-time whistle blew for Deepdale. Receiving one final equalizer felt like a devastating blow. It reminded me of the Easter weekend in Stoke two seasons ago when the Canaries only drew 2-2. Two valuable points were lost in the race for promotion.
On that occasion, when Rob and I had a snack on the way home, Leeds had lost to Brentford and Norwich was almost guaranteed a return to the Premier League. We have spoken many times about the surreal atmosphere that followed when we asked some Norwich fans in a gas station parking lot about their reaction.
When I stopped on Friday it was a table for one. There was no line for a coffee and a definite lack of replica yellow and green shirts roaming the otherwise soulless building. It was just too quiet.
That will always be missing this season. No matter how fast Norwich City rises and how many records they break along the way. The team did a brilliant job on the pitch, but it was a campaign that was played in black and white. Football can go on, but the glorious technicolor that comes with story sharing from the stands won’t return until fans do.
The game of trust
When Timm Klose was allowed to leave Norwich City on loan in October, it caused some Canarian concerns.
Only Grant Hanley, Ben Gibson and Christoph Zimmermann stayed at the club as high-ranking central defenders. Can we really count on these three to master the demands of a shortened championship season? The scars of a defensive injury crisis in the Premier League had not healed. It would only be a matter of time before a midfielder with an angular alignment would have to fill a defensive round hole. Alex Tettey and Ibrahim Amadou spent far too much time providing emergency aid last season.
When Klose left it was said from the club that you feel safe enough with what you have. “Daniel is very fond of the looks of young Andrew Omobamidele,” read a message.
That Impressive debut of the youngster at Preston wasn’t quite as unplanned as it might have felt. Omobamidele has been waiting for an opportunity for six months and if Hanley, Gibson, and Zimmermann hadn’t been so reliable for so long, his chance would have come much sooner.
For the most part, throwing an 18-year-old in at the crucial end of the season would feel like a huge gamble. If Daniel Farke has proven it all after four seasons on Carrow Road, this is it you can trust him when is the right time to debut a young player.
Ask James Maddison, Max Aarons, Jamal Lewis, Todd Cantwell, or Ben Godfrey how grateful they are for the trust Farke has shown in them. Aarons’ first league start was in an East Anglian derby on Portman Road. In either case, more experienced options were available. The city’s head coach was given the task of bringing more young talents through, but many of his predecessors would have gone with the tried and tested. It is not easy to be brave when your reputation depends on any outcome.
Omobamidele is still learning and one point at Preston is like that one swallow that doesn’t mind summer. It’s too early to talk about he’s the next 18-year-old to take Carrow Road by storm, but if Daniel Farke trusts him, that’s good enough for me.