As I settle down to write this piece, midway through a relaxed Sunday morning at my home in Manchester, I can only sit and contemplate the emotions that will be running through my mind in a week’s time.
City will have just visited the Hawthorns the previous afternoon, a fixture that does as much to intensify the heart rate as it does to tingle the spine. In crude terms, defeat in the West Midlands would see Daniel Farke’s side fall out of the Championship’s automatic promotion places for the first time since November 2, a result that would inevitably serve to exacerbate fans’ pre-existing concerns towards City’s defensive issues and depth of squad. Contrary to the Baggies’ new shirt sponsor, such an outcome would be far from ideal.
But City will travel to West Bromwich buoyed by their travelling support, a sold-out away end that will seek to vocally propel this season’s heroes onto a season-defining away win. With subsequent games against Birmingham City, Sheffield United and that televised and increasingly well-documented clash against Leeds United at the start of February imminent, a positive result against Darren Moore’s men will be critical in sustaining morale ahead of such a tough winter run.
Saturday’s result against Portsmouth should do little to suppress confidence amongst City’s ranks. Yes, we were sent crashing out of the FA Cup in the third round for the sixth – yes, sixth – consecutive season, but the performance itself was one characterised by both resilience and tenacity following Grant Hanley’s deserved 15th minute dismissal.
I wasn’t at Carrow Road for the Pompey game – unfortunately, my choice of location for the next year has limited my attendance to predominantly away games – but from the slightly dubious stream I was following on it appeared that City did everything they could to battle and progress into Round Four. Even with ten men, Farke’s enterprising substitutions during the final ten minutes visibly delineated his desire to put an end to his team’s perplexing third round hoodoo. Regrettably, unlike previous Saturday afternoons in Norfolk this season, there was no Pukki Party taking place with Portsmouth in town.
But such an outcome is a mere irrelevance in the context of City’s season. Indeed, next Saturday’s encounter is the game that will reveal the most about Norwich’s promotion credentials to date, a contest that will require both tactical nous in conjunction with psychological steeliness if Farke’s team are going to get a result. With Moritz Leitner – how much have we missed him recently? – and Marco Stiepermann still absent, City’s understudies have a duty to perform and assuage any concerns that may still be lingering regarding our side’s lack of depth.
The reality is this: the next four league games will determine the outcome of City’s season. If we depart Elland Road on February 2 still in the mix, I genuinely do believe we’ll be able to do it, particularly given our favourable-looking run-in. However, dropped points against four strong Championship sides over the next month may serve to acutely inhibit our chances of a top two finish come May.
Regardless of what happens over the next few weeks, the ten point gap between City and seventh-lying Nottingham Forest is promising. Indeed, it would take a collapse only England’s batsmen are capable of to see us fall out of the top six by May 5, a turn of events that would invariably leave us fans both severely disillusioned and utterly deflated going into next season.
But we must keep the faith. So far, this heroic class of 2018/19 have done little to warrant us doubting them, demonstrating their unity, defiance and utter indefatigability on so many occasions. Whatever happens between now and the end of the season, we will always have those memorable afternoons against Sheffield Wednesday, Millwall, Swansea, Bolton and – most recently – Nottingham Forest. It’s been a season none of us will ever forget.
The hard work starts now, however. In the face of our injury-related adversity, Farke’s men need to unite and prove to us all why they should be considered genuine contenders in this compelling Championship season. Travelling to the West Midlands next weekend with no Leitner or Stiepermann does, without doubt, hinder our chances. However, we must place our trust is Messrs Trybull, Vrancic and co to deliver the type of performances that can send the 2000-strong yellow army back down the M6 to Norfolk proud.
So, the emotions that will be racing through my mind this time next week remain unclear. What is certain, however, is that this group of players deserve every ounce of our trust, and we must do everything we can on Saturday to roar them on to a season-defining victory.