SOME days, when the planets are aligned, every bounce of the ball suits you.
Last Saturday at Carrow Road, as Norwich City hosted Everton on the opening day of the English Premier League season, Scottish right-back Steven Whittaker could not put a foot wrong. He scored the game’s first goal after driving into space, profiting from a kind ricochet off Leighton Baines and slotting past Tim Howard with his right foot after his first left-footed attempt came back at him off the post. Later in the game his sliced shot landed perfectly on the head of star striker Ricky Van Wolfswinkel, who scored the final goal in a 2-2 draw.
Though Norwich only took a point from their first game, there was a sense after the final whistle that things could progress for the Canaries this season. For Whittaker, the performance could be a sign that now is the time to show what he is really capable of.
“Coming to Norwich two seasons ago, it was the first time I had moved out of Scotland and it did feel like a new adventure,” Whittaker says after a day of analysing the Everton game with his fellow defenders. “My wife was expecting and I did not know too much about the club, but I was getting out of the goldfish bowl of the SPL and I knew I would be playing Premier League football. When I first became a free agent Norwich were so keen and that impressed me, as well as the chance to play against world-class players.
“It was frustrating at first, though. I wanted to repay that keenness and I did a whole pre-season, but in one of the first games I hurt my ankle and almost needed an operation. It took months to come back and the only silver lining was that I got to be at home with my son.”
That time out still weighs on his mind. He skirts round the issues of his departure from Rangers, feeling that more than enough column inches have been dedicated to his former club’s plight, but it was hard for him to fully move on without being able to kick a ball.
The rollercoaster ride that is a stint with half of the Old Firm teaches a player to focus, if also to teach him that winning is everything. So when Whittaker had his chance in the starting line-up with Norwich he was not about to let it go.
“There’s a big difference between the SPL and the Premier League purely because of squad size. In England you know you will be replaced if you put a foot wrong against World Cup winners and Champions League winners. Being at Rangers was a mental test, but in England it is a physical and mental test that may take you a while to recover from if you do not concentrate.
“I suppose I’m getting on a bit now and when you get older you learn to handle pressure better. I am not one to worry to death about it, but the standard of teams you are up against makes it tough and I’m lucky that Norwich are a great bunch.”
If it sounds like he is pragmatic it is because he has learned to act unselfishly. Norwich boss Chris Hughton is one to set out his team to combat whoever is in front of them, only going on the attack if the conditions suit them. Some call that dull, but Whittaker is full of assurances that fans accept the team have to do whatever it takes to survive this season. It means that Whittaker is happy to do shovel work if needs be. However, there must have been something more to the full-back’s decision to go on the attack against Everton? “Instinct,” comes the one-word answer.
This is not a man concerned with personal glory and Player of the Month gongs; he just wants to consolidate his position in a Premier League team and turn in performances he can be proud of. Any suggestion that this is the season that Norwich play “sexy football” is brushed off, with only a ghost of a smile. “I think we can be a bit more expansive because of the quality of players we have and it is all about developing, but it depends on how we want to set out. The manager sets the terms however he sees it and we may have more of a go at Carrow Road. Sure everyone wants to be entertained, but it depends on your opposition.
“I’ve scored a goal already against a tough team under a new manager who likes expansive football. I only got one last year so another one would make me happy, but I’ll only go for it if that’s what the manager wants.”
This afternoon, Norwich face new boys Hull City and Whittaker’s friend Allan McGregor, the Tigers’ goalkeeper. The Scotland number one may not have had the best of luck against Chelsea in his first Premier League match, saving a Frank Lampard penalty only to be bamboozled by the midfielder’s free-kick later in the game, but Whittaker has not given McGregor any advice yet on surviving England’s top division.
The pair were team-mates at Wembley last midweek for Scotland’s friendly defeat by England and they will talk after the game. That is, if they do not meet first as the right-back bears down on goal for the second week in a row.