The sight of Todd Cantwell crestfallen on the Carrow Road pitch said it all.
Here was a player whose infectious performances have been one of the few reasons for Norwich City fans to be cheerful this season. Yet there he was, a picture of loneliness, head bowed in sombre reflection after a 0-1 defeat to Brighton. No fans, no joy - and, now, seven points from safety with five games to go, no hope.
Relegation will be confirmed in the coming weeks, but it has been on the cards for months and months. Since losing 4-1 at home to fellow strugglers Aston Villa on 5 October they have remained in the bottom three, and they’ve been bottom since Boxing Day.
It would be wrong to say Daniel Farke and his side have been immune to criticism, but there seems to have been an acceptance internally and externally that there was only so much they could have done. Last year’s promotion from the Championship was better than expected, especially as champions, and thus judging these players and this manager through the harsh prism of the Premier League was warned against before 2019/20 got underway.
But Cantwell’s visible dismay hinted at the toll this rough, drawn-out season is taking on players and supporters. Though they have been satiated by the openness of both Farke and director of football Stuart Webber, even their refreshing honesty can take its toll. When you’ve endured the trauma of just five wins across 33 matches with a negative goal difference of -36, sometimes you just want to be lied to.
Norwich have provided interesting viewing for the rest of us. A side who did not invest beyond their means, handing over just £8m in transfers (including loan fees), and stuck to their ethos of promoting their own. Regular first-teamers Cantwell, Jamal Lewis, Max Aarons and Ben Godfrey came through the academy, along with Adam Idah who started up front against Brighton.
They are ninth in the league for passes both attempted and completed (80 per cent on the latter) and are 11th for chances created from open play. The football has been consistent with last term’s values of flow. Where they have lacked has been the hustle.
For a group who have been “fighting” against relegation, they have the third-best disciplinary record in the league, and only four teams have conceded fewer fouls than their 317 so far. They have faced more shots on target than anyone in the league, and only Aston Villa have conceded more than their 61 goals.
As such, the casual neutral might have observed what seems an attractive style of play. Their matches have been fluid, uninhibited by any evident rough-housing expected of teams near the bottom. Certainly, on the break at times, they have shown flashes of panache. Yet they are also the league’s lowest scorers (25). As stylish and ineffective as a lace pashmina.
The question is, what can we learn from Norwich? Is it a story of patience and sensibility, or one of damning lack of ambition and pretension to stroll through a season believing in an ethos that is being punctured every week?
Cantwell, the poster boy for carefree in yellow-green, looked to have had enough of it. Farke has started to wear impending relegation heavier than he ever has before. Even Webber, who has used his omnipotent presence in the press to reiterate that collective vision will not waver with results, was drawn into stating that he would not be firing Farke “next week” while on The Ornstein and Chapman Podcast.
If anything, the side - and the project - has benefitted from Project Restart protocols. No fans in the grounds mean no one to boo when you’ve lost four matches, three at home, conceding nine and not scoring once. Even Farke’s press conferences over Zoom provide a barrier from a proper grilling that usually awaits managers circling the drain.
The peculiar truth is that even when Norwich go down having offered the least resistance, it will probably be too early to judge them.
They will go down in better financial health with parachute payments, having not stretched their belt buckles during this period at the top table. Bigger clubs may come sniffing after their wares, but they will largely be much of the same in 2020/21, with a top-flight season’s worth of experience in the veins of their young pretenders.
It will require a new level of understanding from fans whose patience and belief has been impeccable to date. They appreciate finances drive the bottom of the table just as much as it does the top. Norwich do not have anywhere near the £100m West Ham have spent that has only just kept their heads above water. The onus will be on the team to start the next season strongly to repay that faith.
Indeed, if they return in more robust shape next season or even the season after, with or without Farke at the helm and Cantwell as their totem, you could argue everything has gone according to plan. Swallowing relegation for the greater good is a damning reflection of what modern football has become. Norwich can’t change that - but they can at least try and game it.