‘We didn’t expect to be here’: Meet the underdog hoping to stun Liverpool in season opener
Sport news Aug 8, 2019 at 18:03
(CNN)When the world tunes in for Friday’s curtain raiser of this season’s English Premier League, they will be witnessing a true baptism of fire.
After threes seasons out of the top flight, Norwich City travels to Anfield as a rank outsider. Among the hot favorites to be relegated, many predict the newly-promoted team to provide little opposition to Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, still riding the wave of its UEFA Champions League triumph last season.
And who can blame them? After all, the disparity between the two clubs is cavernous.
As well as starting the new season as the reigning European champion, Liverpool finished second in the league last season — falling just short of Manchester City by a single point in one of the most tightly fought campaigns in the history of the division.
And let’s not forget Liverpool’s history. The Reds have won the domestic title 18 times and have been champions on Europe on six occasions. Meanwhile Nowich has spent most of its modern history yo-yoing between the first and second tiers of English football.
“Apprehension is probably the overriding emotion for me,” said lifelong Norwich fan Jack Reeve, founder of podcast Talk Norwich City, speaking to CNN Sport ahead of Friday’s game.
“Nobody expected us to go up last season so I guess that puts us in a tricky situation. We are where we are but we didn’t expect to be here.”
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Global vs. local support
Reeve has spent six years growing his fan podcast which now boasts over 16,000 YouTube subscribers.
The 21-year-old knows the club more than most having interviewed players both past and present whilst following his team up and down the country.
Like many Norwich fans, he is excited to be back with the “big boys” this season having watched his side languish in obscurity in recent years and knows exactly what this game means to the wider community.
“You’re almost in a little bubble because wherever you go, everyone supports Norwich,” he added, describing the buzz around the city ahead of the season.
“Norwich is not very well connected so it feels like us against them at times. People don’t want us to succeed, so we will try even harder to succeed.”
Norwich, owned by one of Britian’s most loved celebrity chefs Delia Smith, has to rely on predominantly local support which cannot compare to Liverpool’s global fan base.
The iconic Anfield stadium, with its capacity of just over 54,000, holds almost double Norwich’s Carrow Road ground alone but Reeve says being a smaller club offers spectators a “unique” experience.
“I think there’s a lot of pressure and there’s a lot of expectation on players who come to Norwich because for a lot of fans, it’s all they’ve got and it’s all they live for,” he said.
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Since Norwich was last in the EPL, Liverpool has spent millions molding one of the most complete squads in the world.
The Reds spent $226 million on recruiting players ahead of the 2018/2019 season alone and paid agents $57.2 million (£43,795,863) between February 2018 and January 2019 — the most of any English club in this period.
In comparison, Norwich has never spent more than $12.5 million (£10m) on a single player and has resisted the temptation to splash the cash again this summer, despite netting a potential windfall of more than $206 million for promotion.
However, one of Liverpool’s concerns this season is just how many games they will have to play.
As well as 38 Premier League games and defending its Champions League title, Liverpool will travel to Qatar in December to play in FIFA’s Club World Cup tournament. Klopp’s team will also compete in two domestic cup competitions — the FA Cup and League Cup — while on August 14 play Chelsea in the UEFA Super Cup final.
A new report by FIFPRO said players such as Sadio Mane, Alisson Becker and Mo Salah — all of which played international tournaments this summer, hampering their ability to rest — could be at risk of burnout.
Klopp himself has been critical of the season’s start date, having already played and lost the Community Shield against Manchester City.
“I don’t know why we start that early. The Premier League is such a wonderful product. It doesn’t make sense,” he said.
“I love football. From my point of view we can play each week but somebody has to think about the players and nobody is doing it.”
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Despite being unable to compete with Liverpool on a financial basis, Norwich has been undergoing a quiet revolution over the last couple of years.
A restructuring of the club’s hierarchy, more pertinently the arrival of sporting director Stuart Webber in 2017, has seen a rapid turnaround in the club’s fortunes.
Webber, who previously worked as Liverpool’s director of recruitment, has set about adopting a philosophy that runs through the entire club and out into the wider community.
Along with team manager Daniel Farke, Webber has created a winning mentality that’s mirrored the fortunes of his former team Huddersfield — which he helped promote to the EPL in 2017.
Even still, last season was simply not meant to happen and promotion came as very pleasant surprise.
“It means that we’re coming up to the Premier League with a squad that a lot of people have written off already,” added Reeve, admitting last season was a shock.
“I mean, you look at the odds, I think we are second favorites to go down and I think that’s probably justified in a way because we’ve spent barely spent any money.”
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‘Let’s show the EPL what we can do’
Central to the club’s new philosophy is a considered transfer policy which has seen a host of previously unknown players come in and surprise a lot of people.
That approach has seen the likes of Argentine Emi Buendia and Finn Teemu Pukki join the club, both of whom have had a huge impact.
Striker Pukki was perhaps the most surprising success, arriving for free before becoming the Championship’s top scorer (29 goals) in his first season at Carrow Road, although he’s yet to come up against the likes of Liverpool’s record signing Virgil van Dijk.
Meanwhile, youngsters such as Max Aarons and Jamal Lewis have proved welcome additions to the team having graduated from the youth academy — an aspect of the club rejuvenated under Webber’s watchful eye.
“For me, I think he’s [Webber] is a genius,” added Reeve, who interviewed the 35-year-old on his podcast ahead of the new season.
“It’s just been a really slow process but there’s always been an end goal and he’s always been honest and open with the fans. We don’t get that across football nowadays.”
Webber is also realistic about where the team stands but is determined to stick to his plan.
“I’m confident we’ll give it an unbelievably good go. I really do,” he told Talk Norwich City podcast.
“I’m enjoying all the experts telling us that we need to spend this, you need to do that. It’s great because it’s the same stuff we were hearing last year. Let’s go and prove people wrong, embrace it and enjoy it.”
Farke, also instrumental in implementing the new brand of football, has drawn parallels with counterpart Klopp since moving to English football in 2017.
Both German managers spent time at Borussia Dortmund in the past — albeit at different times and Farke taking charge of the reserve side — and both have seemingly energized their current club whilst adopting a friendly approach to the media.
As a result, Klopp will be facing some of his former players on Friday, with the likes of Mario Vrancic, Marco Stiepermann and Moritz Leitner likely to feature for Norwich.
“It’s a really interesting story, pretty much all German managers who work in England managed at Borussia Dortmund, that’s really funny,” Klopp told Optus Sport.
“He’s [Farke] doing an incredible job.”
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Reeve hopes the energetic and attacking brand of football that Norwich has now adopted will give his side a chance against a Liverpool side expected to be firm challengers for every competition this season.
Let’s not forget that the last time Liverpool played Norwich at home on the first day of the season, the Reds went on to win the league.
“Let’s go there and let’s show the world what we’re about,” Reeve added.
“Let’s play the football we played last season, football that took us up as champions by some distance and was so successful and let’s show the English Premier League what we can do.”