Exactly 33 months have passed since the arrival of a man Norwich City hoped would help lever them in among the Premier League’s middle order. The £8.5m signing of Ricky van Wolfswinkel from Sporting Lisbon was a big deal – not to mention a club record one – but one goal in an insipid 2013-14 relegation campaign was the net effect and it stretches credulity that the Dutchman, currently on loan at Real Betis, remains on the Canaries’ books.
The deal made nobody look good and was a reminder that, where transfer activity among the division’s lower orders is concerned, talk of ambition, player profiling and the nebulous “next level” frequently fail to be backed up by sound logic. Norwich hope their latest fight for survival falls into a different bracket and that a winter of relatively high-profile incomings did not come too late to avert a second demotion in three seasons.
Their manager, Alex Neil, says one of his lessons from an at times brutal introduction to the top flight has been that “recruitment is absolutely key”. It was something the club had attuned to after promotion from the Championship last summer, when they rejigged a structure that, in Neil’s words, “probably wasn’t in a place where it could or should have been”. Lee Darnbrough became the new head of scouting but there was little time to add the quality Neil felt was necessary and, instead, planning intensified for what, from the outside, may have resembled a desperate January trolley dash.
It certainly speaks of the high stakes at the bottom of the league that Norwich and Saturday’s visitors Newcastle were two of the window’s biggest spenders. Steven Naismith and the Wolfsburg centre-back Timm Klose joined for fees slightly lower than that paid for Van Wolfswinkel, while the Portuguese right-back Ivo Pinto and the conversion of Matt Jarvis’s loan into a permanent deal completed the set. Even if Norwich’s expenditure was not merely a reaction to their foundering league form, the short-term imperative is that the time for settling in has passed.
Klose, a 6ft 4in Swiss international, has made the biggest impression so far. He bought himself favour at the outset, saying that the club’s set-up “smells of football” and receiving cult status in return during a difficult first few weeks. Norwich were midway through a run of eight defeats in nine games when he arrived but Klose was outstanding in a draw with Manchester City and win at West Bromwich Albion that have brought a degree of momentum to a campaign in which the slide had started to appear terminal.
“In the last two games he’s shown all the quality we believed he had,” Neil said. “He’s fitted in great – he’s a good lad who wants to learn, do well for himself and for Norwich – and his performances of late have been excellent.”
A previously unsettled defence that had not kept a clean sheet since 2 January looks more ordered in the presence of Klose and the onus is now on matters further forward to click as well. Naismith is one of the players Norwich would have liked to get over the line in August but after a goalscoring debut against Liverpool on 23 January his impact has been limited, a hamstring injury and a lack of match fitness putting on hold any thoughts that he would be the panacea for a blunt attack.
“We brought Steven in so that in big games he can make a difference for us,” Neil said of the former Everton forward. “He’s played for Rangers in the Uefa Cup and the Champions League, Everton in the Europa League, played in Merseyside derbies and the rest of it, so he’s well versed in that and there’s no question that he should have enough firepower and quality to help us.”
Naismith will be named in the 18 to face Rafa Benítez’s Newcastle, despite pulling out of the Scotland squad to protect his hamstring. He would be an expensive luxury in the Championship and the figures spell out what is expected of him clearly enough. The centre-forward Cameron Jerome has scored three times in 29 league games this season, while Dieumerci Mbokani – who Neil said is “fine … he has all the mental and physical support he needs” after being in close proximity to the Brussels bombings – has four in 23. The Chelsea loanee Patrick Bamford, another January addition, is yet to score in five outings and while players such as Robbie Brady and Jonny Howson are capable of match-winning contributions you sense it could take just a modicum of consistency from someone in front of them to make the difference over the next six weeks.
Neil, who admits to reining in his side’s approach after the 6-2 defeat Norwich suffered at St James’ Park in October, says this return fixture is “more must-win for Newcastle than it is for us”. The table bears that out but if Norwich are to realise the longer-term aims of their January work, then defeat certainly cannot be countenanced. None of the current squad run the risk of turning into a Van Wolfswinkel between now and May but the demand is that they give themselves a platform to be so much more.