The timing was perplexing, in each case.
First to go was Daniel Farke, fired by Norwich within hours of the club’s first Premier League win of the season, a 2-1 victory at Brentford.
Next was Dean Smith, who was afforded fewer than 48 hours after overseeing Aston Villa’s 1-0 away loss to Southampton in the top flight.
Despite the points collected against the Bees, Norwich remain rooted to bottom of the table. Farke’s dismissal in itself was therefore not entirely shocking, which cannot be said of the announcement’s immediacy after a win that fans will hope serves as the light to guide the Canaries out of the mine.
When looking at Smith’s exit, the surprise in the timing relates less to the Southampton defeat – the team’s fifth in a row – and more to the coach’s tenure at the club on the whole.
Smith took over at Villa almost exactly three years ago, guiding the team from 14th in the Championship into the Premier League in his first season in charge and breaking the club’s record for longest win streak along the way.
Villa’s first campaign in the top flight under Smith saw them narrowly avoid relegation on the final day of the season, before pushing on significantly in 2020/21 to finish 11th. Prior to that season, Villa strengthened well and they did the same again this summer, bringing in Emi Buendia, Leon Bailey and Danny Ings with the money from their Jack Grealish sale.
While the club’s hierarchy would have therefore wanted more from the early stages of this season than 16th position in early November, time was surely needed to allow new signings to bed in, and one would have expected Smith to be trusted with bringing the group together and pulling them up the table over the course of the campaign.
Now, they have been linked with a trio of former England internationals in Rangers coach Steven Gerrard, ex-Chelsea boss Frank Lampard and former Villa assistant coach John Terry. Joining the old teammates on the list are Belgium manager Roberto Martinez, Denmark coach Kasper Hjulmand, Brighton’s Graham Potter and Nuno Espirito Santo – following the Portuguese’s recent firing at Tottenham.
Whether or not former club defender Terry would return, having left his coaching role at Villa in the summer, it certainly feels as though greater experience is required at this point. Lampard and Gerrard offer that to an extent, though Lampard’s passable season in charge of Derby and season-and-a-half leading Chelsea failed to evidence sufficient nous for what could be a relegation battle to come. In fact, it feels like one is more likely to transpire than be avoided if Lampard is appointed.
Meanwhile, it seems unlikely that Martinez would risk sacrificing his current stock by joining Villa in this position mid-season, and the same applies to Potter, whose Seagulls are soaring in seventh as things stand. Nuno would surely best be served by taking a break after his brief but brutal run with Spurs, which followed an instant switch from Wolves at the end of last season.
That leaves Gerrard and Hjulmand as the most appropriate candidates of those thus far linked to Villa. In his first senior coaching role, it took Gerrard just three seasons to win the Scottish Premiership with Rangers, who enjoyed a record-breaking season last term en route to their first title in a decade. Whether or not that success will suffice for the Liverpool icon, whose side lead the table again, may just be the decisive factor for Gerrard in whether or not he stays in Scotland or takes his next step towards what feels like an inevitable tenure as Liverpool boss.
Rangers fans may try to tout the size of their club as reason enough why Gerrard would not jump ship, but that did not stop Brendan Rodgers from leaving Celtic for Leicester. Hjulmand, meanwhile, has experience at club level, most notably across two three-year spells with Nordsjaelland, but there was not sufficient success to suggest that the Dane would represent much less of a risk than Gerrard.
As such, Gerrard may be left – somewhat surprisingly – as the most suitable candidate.
At Norwich, things are more complicated as the club move on from their four years under Farke. Again, Lampard is believed to be in the running, supposedly up against Bodo/Glimt boss Kjetil Knutsen, the almost-retired Roy Hodgson, recent Newcastle hate figure Steve Bruce, and ex-Norwich defender Russell Martin – who now coaches the Championship’s 12th-placed Swansea.
The factors that would make Lampard a risky appointment at Villa are only augmented at Norwich, though admittedly no coach could guarantee survival for the Canaries in their current state. Bruce has hinted at retirement and it may just be best for the 60-year-old, and the same can be said of Hodgson. There is something about the idea of opting for Knutsen that strangely feels very ‘Norwich’, although German Farke was actually the club’s first head coach from outside of the United Kingdom.
Farke, previously in charge of Borussia Dortmund’s second team, twice won the Championship – most recently last season – as he performed all manner of tricks with yo-yo club Norwich. They were particularly impressive given the club’s stark reluctance to spend money, and if they are to be relegated this season, many fans would have had confidence in Farke to restore the team’s top-flight status next year.
There is no obvious solution in the case of the Canaries. That may sound rather like a Sherlock Holmes title, but even a coach with the fictional sleuth’s level of analytical skills would struggle to figure out how to solve the club’s conundrums. That said, if the Norwich hierarchy accepts that more seasons in the Championship are inevitable in the side’s immediate future, 35-year-old Martin’s knowledge of the club may be worth banking on here.