Norwich City’s Premier League fate hangs in the balance, the summer transfer window is still more than two months away, but the big circus tent is already being pitched.
Depending on where you consume your transfer tittle tattle, in recent days it was ‘revealed’ the Canaries had an approach for Coventry City’s attacking midfielder, Callum O’Hare, ‘rejected’ in January. Now the Sky Blues have slapped a £5m price tag on the ‘Norwich City target’.
Both are news to the key players inside the walls of Carrow Road. O’Hare is not and has never been on the recruitment radar. At any point.
The link is an obvious one. Perhaps those further afield look at the Emi Buendia-shaped creative hole in the current squad, and feel O’Hare has the talent and potential to make a similar impact.
He is certainly an integral part of the Sky Blues’ late bid for a Championship play-off place under the astute Mark Robins. Which took a major dent in a 3-0 Easter Monday home defeat to Bournemouth.
O’Hare’s personal statistics stand favourable comparison with any other creative force outside the big league – 34 goal contributions in 131 appearances prior to the Cherries’ visit.
Perhaps a stronger tie is Dean Smith worked with O’Hare at Aston Villa. The Solihull-born 23-year-old spent 15 years in the Villa academy, but ultimately when he reached the cusp of Smith’s first team plans was maybe deemed too far down that particular pecking order. A logical conclusion given the squad overhaul set in train by Smith upon guiding his club back to the Premier League, and keeping them there in 2020 as Norwich fell through the trapdoor.
O’Hare spent that ‘Project Restart’ campaign on a season long loan at Coventry that turned into an initial three-year deal following confirmation of his Villa release.
Transfer speculation is inevitable with his star on the rise. Although he signed a contract extension at the start of this year taking him through to 2024. Norwich will not be his end destination this coming summer.
Which begs the broader question, what do Smith and his sporting director, Stuart Webber, feel is the scale of the squad surgery – should a place in the Championship be confirmed in due course?
Smith, himself, back in March drew a parallel with what unfolded at Villa after he had managed to keep that club in the Premier League.
“When we stayed up we then had a squad with a season in the Premier League, and we could add to that, but only small amounts, by signing the likes of Ollie Watkins, Bertrand Traore and Emi Martinez,” he said. “All of a sudden you feel you’re part of it, you feel that you can go and compete.
“I think we finished 11th in that second season. If we survive this season, which I believe that we can, then certainly there’ll be a big confident group next season.”
Despite a recent upturn, that looks increasingly beyond Norwich. But you could argue the same incremental approach in this upcoming summer transfer window would be his preferred method.
Look beyond the group Smith had available at Old Trafford on Saturday and you can see the potential to renew and refresh that starting XI from those already inside the building. Two names spring readily to mind.
Andrew Omobamidele and Adam Idah will target pre-season returns from back and knee injuries respectively which curtailed, at different stages of this campaign, some eye-catching displays.
Omobamidele grabbed his opportunity down the stretch of the most recent Championship title victory, due to injuries for Ben Gibson and Christoph Zimmermann. Even allowing for a change of head coach one suspects Smith would have trusted him alongside Grant Hanley, had his fitness issues not intervened to deny him a chance to assess a player he clearly rates.
That much was clear from the tone of Smith’s comments prior to the 3-2 weekend defeat at Manchester United, when he confirmed the cultured teenage centre back would not return over the run in as he awaits the all-clear from another scan.
There remains an enduring vulnerability at the heart of the current City backline, underlined by Gibson’s difficult afternoon at Old Trafford. A fit and healthy Omobamidele, in the less challenging environment of the Championship, is a better option than they could reasonably expect to attract or afford this summer.
Smith has already indicated the club’s intention is to exercise a 12 month option to keep Teemu Pukki as his attacking spearhead. His latest goalscoring display at United highlighted there is no discernible sign his powers are waning, or that in a side configured to provide him the service he craves, there is another large haul awaiting him in the Football League.
But there is surely a recognition a succession plan must be unfurled for a player who would be 33 by the end of next season. Idah has long since been viewed as a natural successor by many. Josh Sargent may still have something to say about that, after a season to adapt to the unique challenges of English football.
But that tantalising glimpse of what Idah could bring, under a head coach who trusts him to start games, still looks the best bet to ease the burden on Pukki.
The raw material is there, and that goalscoring instinct evident now at the highest level with a landmark strike against Everton. If Smith and Craig Shakespeare can smooth the rough edges, fine tune the physical and technical attributes to the Irishman’s game, there is a player who could well take a leap forward next season.
O’Hare is not the answer but it is midfield which appears the stand out area in need of external reinforcement; over and above the requirement to handle any departures that stack up for financial or footballing reasons.
But in assessing whether it is revolution or revision, one is best to view the strategy when Norwich last departed the Premier League in 2020. Farke may no longer be around but Webber remains the figurehead.
City opted to recruit a streetwise domestic pairing in Jordan Hugill and Gibson, initially on a season long loan from Burnley. But they also harvested the likes of unproven options in Jacob Sorensen, Przemyslaw Placheta and Bali Mumba. Kieran Dowell sat somewhere in the middle of that spectrum.
One recalls Farke at the time bracketing the signings of Mumba, Sebastian Soto and Danel Sinani as ones for the future. Not the here and now.
That proved to be the case for their Championship title defence, bar some first team cameos from Mumba. But it was targeted, it was tailored and in essence it was a show of faith in the majority of a squad who had originally hauled Norwich out of the Championship, only to slip back at the first attempt.
Coventry’s O’Hare is one name you can already put a red line through. But there will be many more between now and the window officially opening. That is the nature of the beast, when those on the outside see a relegated squad in need of a major revamp.
Discussions between Smith and Webber are on going, set against the backdrop of a self-funded model that will again frame the ambition. Yet the biggest factor in play may well be whether Smith decides it is fine detail rather than broad brush strokes required to reshape his existing roster.