First, it was Arsenal. Then, it was Tottenham. Two weeks ago, it was Manchester United and Sunderland joined the list this past weekend.
All four clubs are part of the collection of scalps Norwich City has collected this season.
The Canaries, in their second campaign back in the Premier League after a seven-year absence and only two removed from playing in League One, have hit a remarkable stride heading into December. Dating back to late October, Norwich remains unbeaten in eight consecutive league matches and nine overall, if you include their 3-2 Carling Cup triumph over Spurs.
While there is no shortage of praise to be doled out to the eleven men on the pitch, Norwich’s best in the top flight in nearly 20 years, much of the credit for this fine run must be heaped upon manager Chris Hughton.
Though he might not ever say as much, Hughton is a man on a mission this season, looking to re-establish himself as a Premier League-calibre gaffer. To say that Hughton’s first experience as a manager in England’s top league left a bad taste in his mouth might be an understatement.
In 2009 Newcastle, only a handful of years removed from Champions League play, found itself relegated into the Championship after a miserable season. Club legend Alan Shearer, who managed the Magpies for their final eight matches, informed the team that he wouldn’t be continuing on with them following their relegation. With team owner Mike Ashley preparing to sell the club, he appointed Hughton as interim boss, feeling that naming a new permanent manager whilst attempting to sell the club was inappropriate.
Hughton changed Ashley’s mind very quickly. Newcastle flew out of the gates and Hughton’s interim tag was removed by October. What the former Spurs defender did at the helm of the Magpies that season was nothing short of remarkable. The team achieved promotion faster than any side before it in history, with their Premier League return confirmed in early April. Newcastle finished the year with a staggering 30 wins, 101 points and having been undefeated at home.
Hughton should have led the Toon back to the Premiership in triumph. Instead, he became the first managerial casualty of the 2010 season. In a fit of Abramovichian pique, Ashley, who had taken the club off of the block and remained owner, dismissed Hughton in December after a loss to West Brom with the club sitting 11th in the table. Players and supporters alike were at a loss to explain the decision and, while Alan Pardew guided to Toon to a very respectable fifth-place finish last season, there are no shortage of people who believe that Hughton should still be the boss for the Tyneside club today.
But Newcastle’s loss is Norwich’s gain. When Paul Lambert decided that the grass was greener in Birmingham and took the vacant Aston Villa position, Canaries’ chairman Alan Bowkett went looking in Birmingham for a manager as well, and there he found Hughton. After leading Birmingham to a Championship playoff spot last term, where they would ultimately be defeated in the semifinals by Blackpool, Hughton saw the Norwich gig as his perfect opportunity to return to the Premiership.
Looking at the situation, some might say that Hughton is simply finishing Lambert’s job. Lambert led the Canaries to two consecutive promotions, from League One to the Championship and ultimately the Premier League last year with a respectable 12th-place finish.
Much like Hughton’s departure from Newcastle, nobody was keen on Lambert exiting Carrow Road, but whereas Hughton’s removal was met with disappointment by Magpies supporters, Lambert’s move elicited ire from Canaries fan.
Luckily for them, though, the form that Hughton has their club in right now is making Norwich fans forget all about Lambert.
Even if most of this Norwich squad has been inherited by Hughton, his mark on it has been indelible. Look no further than Sebastian Bassong in Sunday’s victory over the Black Cats.
The Cameroonian international defender, signed by Hughton this summer from Spurs, starred on both sides of the ball. Scoring after only eight minutes to give Norwich the lead, Bassong led the charge in hunkering down defensively in the second half to hold off the Sunderland onslaught and keep the impressive Danny Rose in check.
On top of Bassong taking charge in the back, Anthony Pilkington’s strong season continued. While Grant Holt is now a known commodity and should be in the England conversation, the Irishman is emerging as another offensive sparkplug. Terrorizing the Manchester United defence two weeks ago, Pilkington, a Stockport County product, made it two straight home winners with a neat finish past Sunderland goalkeeper Simon Mignolet.
As high as morale soars right now at Carrow Road, it would be remiss to not mention Hughton’s counterpart in the other dugout.
Much like Hughton, Martin O’Neill carries the reputation of a player’s manager, yet it’s becoming increasingly evident that something isn’t clicking right now at the Stadium of Light. Monday marks a year in charge at Sunderland for O’Neill, but rather than celebrating, O’Neill waits on word of how injured star Steven Fletcher just may be.
With Sunderland relying so heavily on their sole player who’s proven to be able to score regularly, any kind of lengthy spell on the sidelines for the Scotsman will be disastrous. Needless to say, O’Neill’s time at the club he supported as a boy has not gone as planned and may even conclude this season if the Blacks Cats lose their looming relegation battle.
While Hughton flies high and O’Neill flirts with his professional nadir, Sunday’s match gave a stark reminder of the ever changing fortunes of a football manager. When you’re winning, it doesn’t get much better. When you’re not, it can’t get much worse.