Part 1 – The Big Bad Wolf
Back in the March of 2013, NCFC announced the signing of Ricky Van Wolfswinkel from Sporting Lisbon on a 4 year deal thought to be worth around 8.5 million and making 'RvW' our record transfer signing in the process. The deal wouldn't officially go through until the re-opening of the transfer window, but the excitement was palpable. It transpired that we had apparently managed to agree a cut-price deal with Lisbon who were allegedly having financial troubles at that time, and that RvW had sought advice from his girlfriends father – none other than Dutch legend Johan Neeskens who urged him to join us feeling it would be a great fit for both club and player.
Come the 1st of July and Ricky was officially a canary, and thus began a somewhat OTT marketing campaign from the the club, with the player modelling the new away shirt whilst in the background is a forest with the luminous eyes of a wolf and the bold tag-line “Be Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf”. It was a decision that would later come back to haunt both club and player, but in truth at the time I absolutely loved it. Here we were with a highly talented goalscorer who'd also earned a couple of international caps with the Netherlands, and who had been scouted by the likes of Man Utd. It seemed like a coup of the highest order (and I still think it was to some extent), but lurking in the distance was a storm cloud that very few of us expected to be coming.
He made his league début in the season opener against Everton, scoring the equalising goal of the game (a 2-2 draw) with a superbly placed header following a mis-hit cross from Steven Whittaker. It looked like the start of something incredible was happening, yet following the opening game, RvW failed to find the net in the next 7 matches, however there was a key incident during this spell that I fully believe had a major impact on the player.
The date is Sept 21st, the opponents are Aston Villa, it's early in the first half when Robert Snodgrass cuts the ball back across the area only for it to be handled by Ciaran Clark. The penalty is awarded and RvW steps up to take it, having been the main penalty taker for each of his previous clubs, having a great conversion record and this being the ideal situation to get him scoring again after drawing blanks in the previous three games. However, despite the manager having pre-agreed that pens should go to RvW, despite everything being right for the player to take it, Robert Snodgrass decided differently, starts an argument with RvW and basically forces him off the ball so that he can take the penalty instead! Well, up steps Snodgrass – and Guzan saves it! Shortly after this, Libor Kozak scores the only goal of the game for Villa and we end up losing 1-0 to a side we should have beaten and at the very least taken the lead against.
Spin forward a month to the end of that barren 7 game period, and whilst RvW hasn't been able to add to his goal tally of that single header on the opening day of the season, the runs and movement have been there (even if the supply to him rarely was) and it's simply looking like 'when' he'll get the goal to start the ball rolling again rather than 'if', but he then collects a serious ankle injury that will keep him out for a month and a half, missing a further 7 games in the process.
Part 2 – From Big Bad Wolf to Dire Wolf
Following his return from Injury, RvW was slowly eased back in, making only sub 30min appearances for the next 3 games and even sitting out the New Years Day match against Crystal Palace on the bench. He was then restored to full duties against Everton on the 11th of Jan (possibly with hopes of another goal like the equaliser almost 5 months earlier), but the goal didn't come, nor did it come in the 2 games after this against Hull and Newcastle respectively.
The cracks had well and truly started to appear, both with Norwich's overall campaign success, and RvW's performances. The key issue being the overly negative tactics employed by manager Chris Hughton, which saw a highly defensive approach, with the majority of our attacking play being funnelled out to Snodgrass on the right side of midfield, who would then slow things down even more, before regularly sending in a cross that was usually nowhere near RvW (nor anywhere he'd like it to be either), or any other Norwich player for that matter.
If I recall correctly, Snodgrass was averaging just 2 accurate crosses for every SEVEN inaccurate ones! What's more, the role that RvW was being asked to play by Hughton simply wasn't his game. RvW is a classic goal poacher, nowhere more at home than in the 6 yard box or running off the shoulder of the last defender onto a good through ball for a quick snapshot finish. Instead he was being asked to play like Andy Carroll, and somehow try to be a big, strong, target man, who wins aerial battles, holds onto the ball with his back to goal and plays others in with this or his headed knock-downs. RvW may well be 6ft1” tall, but he simply didn't (and doesn't) have the physique to play that role, it wasn't a role he was either comfortable or familiar with, and thus combined with the frankly appalling quality of supply and incredibly slow build-up play, it was no surprise to see why the goals had dried up, and yet nobody at the club seemed willing or able to do ANYTHING about it!
By this stage, it was becoming clear that Chris Hughton had no idea how to get the best from the player we'd paid our record transfer fee on, Gary Hooper and Johan Elmander were getting the nod ahead of him, and the idea that we'd stop playing the most diabolical football I've ever seen as a Norwich supporter, was frankly like being in cloud cuckoo land, as we slowly gave up game after game in possibly the worst manner since Derby's ill-fated campaign back in 07/08...
Another 4-5 games passed with RvW either being sat on the subs bench or making little impact before being subbed in the 2nd half of games, and although it was plain to see just how hard the guy was trying to make things happen (possibly trying TOO hard), it just wasn't working and he was very much the 'square peg in a round hole', trying extremely hard to fit into an uncomfortable and unfamiliar system that seemed to invite disaster almost from the kick off, and then came THAT pass.
It's the 12th of April, the opponents are Fulham, RvW runs onto a ball in the area and close to the by-line, he looks up, sees little passing options centrally so decides to play the ball out to the right for the winger/full back to cross in, he does this with a cheeky no-look pass, which sounds all very Ronaldinho-esque until you realise that he's actually passed the ball to absolutely NOBODY. There isn't a player with 5 yards of him, and instead it gets passed virtually straight to a bemused Fulham player who quickly turns round and looks to begin a counter-attack!
If ever there was a moment that encapsulated his season, that was probably it. He simply wasn't on the same wavelength as the midfielders behind him, he'd make the runs – they'd ignore them, he'd be ready for a header at the near post – it'd be crossed 10 yards behind him instead, he'd hit a fantastic first time shot – the opposing keeper would pull off a 'worldie' to deny him.
After drawing further blanks against Liverpool and Man Utd, RvW was benched for the final 2 games of the season, and little did we know at that point, that the Man Utd game would be his penultimate, official match for the club, having played just 1400 minutes of football since joining...
Part 3 – The Loan (sic) Wolf
Following his disastrous first season in the Premier league (which ended in relegation for the club), it was hoped that the player could return fit and ready for a long campaign in the Championship, what's more, with former manager Chris Hughton having been dismissed towards the end of the previous campaign, surely more chances would come about under his replacement – former Norwich winger Neil Adams, a man who surely wouldn't be looking to take the same defensive approach that Hughton had done and who could set the team up to provide RvW with the right sort of ammunition to get him firing on all cylinders again.
Instead of this, the decision was made to allow the player to leave on a season long loan to French Ligue 1 side St.Etienne.
Maybe Neil Adams didn't think that he'd suit playing in the more physical Championship when he'd struggled with that side of the game in the Premier League, maybe he didn't think that the player would be committed enough and that he was 'too good' to be playing at that level (it certainly appeared that RvW's agent felt that was the case even if we didn't get confirmation of this from the player himself), or maybe he simply didn't want to play the type of system and style of play that RvW really needs to perform at his best, whatever the reason was, he was allowed to go on loan with a clause in the loan allowing St.Etienne to make the move permanent for around 4.75mil (thus with the club taking a near 4 million pound loss in just over a year).
Van Wolfswinkel duly went over to France, and then found himself in a very familiar and frankly disappointing situation. St.Etienne were also playing a lone striker system (much like how Hughton had done), and whilst it clearly wasn't a system as reliant on a big, target man, it still wasn't a system designed to get the best from an old-school goalpoacher, which lead to a season of rotation between RvW and Turkish international Mevlut Erdinc.
Much like how in his first season with us, RvW was similarly limited in his minutes played at St.Etienne as well, with just 1600 mins chalked up due to the rotation with Erdinc. By the end of the season, he'd scored only 5 league goals and 4 assists (and a goal in the Europa League), but if we extrapolate this over a full season, then he'd have potentially got 11 goals with 8 assists – hardly an awful return considering that yet again it wasn't a system designed to get the best from him and as it had been at Norwich, with the focus being on playing through a winger (Snodgrass at Norwich, Gradel at St.Etienne) rather than more centrally with through balls, or with crosses into the 6yd box for him to finish.
St.Etienne decided against making the loan move permanent and Ricky was all set to return to Norwich ready for yet another Premiership campaign following the successful promotion at the first time of asking under new manager Alex Neil, who had taken over from Neil Adams (who gracefully resigned) in the January and lead us on an incredible run losing only 3 games (and drawing 4) out of his first 22 games in charge, which took us not only into the play-offs, but to a play-off final victory against Middlesbrough!
However, yet again fate decided to conspire against him, with Alex Neil ALSO preferring to focus on using a lone striker (either a big 'target man' striker like Cameron Jerome, or a pacy player who would work the channels such as Lewis Grabban), thus again leaving RvW as being seen as simply not fitting into the way the manager wanted to play. After being benched or left out of the squad for the first few games, he was given a chance to impress in a league cup match against Rotherham, where he duly scored (he actually scored twice but one was incorrectly flagged as offside), was again left unused on the bench for the league game against Southampton, and then the news was revealed that he'd be leaving on ANOTHER season long loan – this time to Real Betis.
I'm sure at some point around this time, the player must have been thinking that he'd killed a nest of robins or something, and wondering how he'd gone from being scouted by Man Utd, scoring bucket loads for Lisbon and Utrecht, and having been signed by us for a record fee, to being misplayed, mis-used and loaned out left, right and centre instead of being allowed to do what he does best. I also wonder if there were a few choice conversations between the player and both Neeskens and Van Persie (who had also encouraged him to join us), asking WTF was going on and why was he being treated so shabbily?
Whatever the case may be, off he went to Betis and found himself competing for a starting place with Betis top scorer Ruben Castro, and experienced forward Jorge Molina. Minutes were difficult to come by, it was obvious that Castro was the 'main man' at Betis, and indeed Castro racked up more minutes that season than any other Betis player (including the keeper!), thus badly limiting the time and opportunities Ricky had to impress.
Truthfully though it was a poor season for the Wolf, he struggled to make his chances count, never got a run of full games under his belt to show any possible consistency, and finished the season with a mere 600 minutes to show for his troubles, a Betis side that like St.Etienne the year before had decided against making the loan permanent, and was now facing another return to Norwich who were still being managed by Alex Neil, albeit this time it would be back in the Championship again following our relegation (talk about yo-yo clubs!).
Part 4 – Back to the pack
Ricky returned to the club over the summer ready for pre-season training and willing to give 100% to show that he wasn't a flop, that he CAN score goals and perform consistently, but the issue was still there – he still didn't fit the system that Alex Neil wants to play, he's still one of our top earners and the manager still didn't appear to favour him, with a clear message apparently being sent out to other clubs that he was available for transfer ASAP.
Despite news reports linking Birmingham City with yet another season long loan deal, it was announced yesterday (28/07/16), that a permanent deal had been agreed with Vitesse Arnhem (Ricky's first club as a youth), for an undisclosed fee (not likely to be too high either), and that the Wolf's torrid time at Norwich was finally over.
Part 5 – Musings of the Author
I personally wish Ricky well in his career, I fervently hope that he regains his confidence and goalscoring ability with Vitesse and shows (albeit in a somewhat weaker league) that he isn't the flop that he's been made out to be, and to thank him for his professionalism and commitment to our club despite some truly trying situations and frustrations.
I also firmly believe that the defensive focused and frequently negative approach applied by former manager Chris Hughton was the beginning of the end, as pretty much EVERY striker who played under that same system also struggled for goals, including Hall of Fame member Grant Holt, who's 15 goal haul the previous year under Paul Lambert being virtually halved to 8 under Hughton, and with Gary Hooper, Johan Elmander and Luciano Becchio ALL suffering in this respect despite previous high goal tallies (Becchio for example had already hit 16 in 26 the season before at Leeds before a Jan move to us).
Do I think he could have done a job for us this season – yes
Do I think that Alex Neil would have made the necessary change in system needed to facilitate this – not a chance
Do I think that the move to Vitesse is the best option for both parties – probably, but I'll always wonder what could have been if we'd been willing to focus our play more to this strengths and let that natural goalpoacher have his fun with a selection of through balls, well placed crosses and more intricate passing in the area, rather than lumping the ball towards him and hoping he can hold play up against the usual burly centre halves that his physique was never going to compete against.
There will always be those who are unwilling to accept that there are numerous mitigating circumstances as to why his move here just didn't work out (and it's somewhat difficult to argue too strongly against this if we just look at nothing more than pure goal tallies), but a more in-depth analysis shows how little we actually did to get the best from him, that his time in France wasn't actually that bad, and that although his loan to Betis was pretty awful, that was more to do with being unable to displace one of their clubs star players whilst not being given the minutes to prove otherwise, and the knock on effort the past 2 seasons had taken on his confidence.
In closing, the 'Big Bad Wolf' may have stayed in disguise as Grandma for too long, but he now has the chance to truly change this, to knock the hell out of defences back in the Dutch League, to get his stalled career back on track, and show the rest of the world what he can do if given the correct ammunition.
Good luck Ricky, and again, thanks for your respect, professionalism and endeavour whilst at our club – even through genuinely difficult situations and circumstances that could easily have lead to negative comments that other players in the same boat would have been all too happy to throw around...