Right, let’s cut straight to the chase this week. No long preambles, no references to making tanks on the kitchen table or any of that nonsense, no dewy eyed nostalgia of footballing eras long gone and past players and memories of same. It’s time to dive straight in, put our cards on table and place our hands firmly and ever loyally over that Canary badge that sits proudly over our hearts. It’s time to walk the walk.
What’s been happening this summer and what, as far as the bigger picture is concerned, does it mean for our club and its players?
And what, realistically, can we achieve in the 2013/14 season and those that immediately follow? Where or what are the limitations, how far can the club progress before the reality of economics kicks in and we reach our own glass ceiling, doomed never to rise above it but always be destined to look up through that unbreakable glass at what those above and beyond us are achieving.
Or is there one? Should we thrown away the notion of there being limitations, and, to paraphrase Star Trek, seek out new footballing experiences, boldly go where no Norwich City side has been before?
As Jean Luc Picard would say, “let’s see what’s out there.”
One thing that has become immediately and very obviously clear over the course of the summer is the sheer quality of the players we have been brining into the club – and at no little expense either, in terms of transfer fees or, I would imagine, wages – raising, in the process, an eyebrow or two at Villa Park perhaps? I’d like to think so.
Anyway. That positive and very aggressive recruitment policy has, apart from bringing in the type of players we have long waited to see here, also underlined something else, something broader, and, for me, more exciting than any or all of those names we have been getting familiar with over the last few weeks. That is the very real, clear and emphatic statement of intent the club is making with each and every one of these new signings.
So yes, whilst the arrival of van Wolfswinkel, Redmond, Fer and Hooper at al have delighted me, what has really excited and pleased me this summer is that statement of intent that lies behind it.
It’s not an ambiguous one. It says we’re ambitious and that, as a club, as a (*slight shudder*) brand we want to grow. And that the Premier League is where we want to be – and for the long term. And, from the interviews given by our platoon of new players, we won’t be regarding a 17th place finish next season as a sign of continued success.
We want more – so never mind what has gone before, disregard what the club may have achieved in the past and what its goals might have been then, stated or perceived. And, importantly, disregard the advances that might be coming from those clubs that are piling on the old “look at our history” line. Come here and help make new history. Be part of that.
It works for me.
OK, I’m biased, we all are. But, if you can, for one moment, look at the club’s intent, that clear ambition, the way we have set ourselves up to make progress, sorry, to continue to make progress, into next season and beyond, wouldn’t it tick a good few of your boxes if you were pondering you next career move?
It clearly has as far as all of our new signings are concerned – whatever it is they were told, whatever our big selling point to them was as they opened their talks with the club, they were convinced. And if you are a player of the ability, presence and very real, huge quality and potential that, for example, is Leroy Fer, then you can probably, if you and your agent put the effort in, have clubs all over Europe intent on signing you – yet he, very obviously and very clearly, wanted to come here.
So whatever is the club telling these new signings to convince them to sign for us with such conviction and, once all the paperwork is signed and they have posed with the shirt, show such clear delight and pleasure in doing so?
Ricky van Wolfswinkel has spoken of playing his part in “taking Norwich to the next level”, adding that this is the “perfect move for me”, whilst Fer has spoken of how he wants to “help the club and for the club to help me become a better player.” Gary Hooper meanwhile, has spoken of how he hopes his move to Norwich will help him in his quest to be considered for England and to even make a late claim for a squad place in next year’s World Cup finals (should England qualify) in Brazil – indeed, there is already talk of Hooper getting a call up from Roy Hodgson in time for the next England match, the friendly against Scotland on 14 August.
Now think on. Hooper moved to Norwich, from Celtic, because he felt his chances of playing for England would be better served by playing for us. For Norwich. For Norwich City and England. It isn’t entirely unfeasible, therefore, that, for the first for nearly a quarter of a century, Norwich might have two players in an England squad at the same time – Hooper and John Ruddy. Plus, more to the point, if he was selected and got his first cap, Hooper would become only the eighth Norwich player to represent England and our first outfield player to have that honour since the formation of the Premier League.
Thus it gets you thinking. If players join us because they want to push on with their already very respectable careers as well as further establishing their international credentials whilst they are with us – then someone, somewhere, is doing a very good job at outlining how spending some time with us will help them achieve just that. But it’s not just our own people who are making a good job of ‘selling’ Norwich City FC. Take van Wolfswinkel for example. No less a name than Johan Neeskens helped the Canary cause there. Neeskens is a world football legend. Three times a European Cup winner and twice a World Cup finalist, one of the greatest names in Dutch, indeed, European football – and he advised van Wolfswinkle to join us.
Bear in mind also that this is no lazy or uninformed recommendation. Neeskens is going to be, in all probability, van Wolfswinkel’s future father-in-law, so he has a vested interest in him and his career. He isn’t going to give such advice lightly or with little thought or prior knowledge on the club – he knows what he is talking about. And he will have done his research on us.
We have become therefore, and in just a few short years, a very attractive proposition to any ambitious professional footballer. We are a template club for those that want to improve their game and make real progress in their careers. No tired old journeymen coming to Norwich for a last pay day or a few years at Costa del Colney.
Perish the thought.
These players have clearly joined us because they can see something good is happening at Carrow Road, that we are a club on the up and very much one making progress – off the field yes, as has been for some time now, but, critically beyond compare, on it as well. We’re not going to get a Fer or a Redmond if we have a £20 Million new stand and upgraded training facilities with its own in-situ Nando’s but a club that’s going to be playing in the Championship next season. They want the Premier League. We can deliver.
So, with that in mind, what should our ambitions for next season be?
As far as I am concerned there should be no limits to your ambitions – no matter how unrealistic or preposterous they may seem. I’ve got a little quotation pinned up on my wall near to where I work; it’s by the 20th century Dutch artist (rather like two of our new signings) Maurits Escher and reads as follows: “Only those who attempt the absurd will achieve the impossible.”
Now, without going all Paul McVeigh on you – besides, he’d explain it a whole lot better than I could – on the power of positive thought and ambition, I have to say I agree with Escher’s reasoning entirely. I rather suspect that the club has adopted that way of thinking as well.
We’re clearly ambitious. But we haven’t just stated that for a fact, we’ve been prepared to back it with a massive investment programme, not only on these new signings and their salaries but on, player by player, improving those contracts of those already at the club. And that costs a lot of money. Committing, for example, a weekly salary of £28,000 to a player over a new three year deal means a potential future outlay of nearly £4.5 million – and that’s without performance and other bonuses. In other words, getting a player to agree to, and sign a new contract is the same as, finances wise, as signing a new one.
And it doesn’t stop there. Look at the investment that the club has chosen to make, financially and logistically, into the Academy. Category 1 status, the highest of all the new Academy rankings is quite a commitment for any club – it requires a minimum of 18 full time coaches and an operational budget of £2.5 Million per year – it will also be subject to a full audit every two years and can be, if it isn’t seen to be performing, be compulsorily downgraded.
In other words, it’s something that you have to consider very very carefully before you take it on – it may be the most obvious option as it means the removal of that ninety minute rule that has held us back so much in previous years – but it is far from the simplest one, financially or logistically. Yet it is the one the club chose to take.
Ambition at all levels – with the players coming in now as well as those that we would hope to see coming through and into the first team in three, five, seven, even ten years’ time – a commitment that will, over a ten year period cost the club nearly £30 million in terms of yearly operational budgets.
So, even at that level, we’re thinking big time. Progression on all counts. ‘Prudence with ambition’? Well, there’s prudence. And there’s ambition. This is ambition.
There are the facts then. A club on the up. A club that thinks ahead and is progressive, ambitious and hungry to achieve. Previously it could be said that we were reactive as a club, now it seems fairly evident that we are a proactive one.
Signing Dean Ashton for example. Did that signify ambition? Well, yes and no. Yes, it meant that, at the time, we’d broken our existing transfer record but were clearly reactive in the circumstances leading to his signature. We were a struggling club that had not anticipated the need for a player like Ashton before the 2004/05 season began and who, as a consequence, paid the price for that lack of foresight, reacting to what had already befallen us rather than anticipating the future.
To have been proactive would have seen us purchasing Ashton the previous summer – just as we have been proactive in our dealings this summer; anticipating the circumstances that we will find ourselves in a more competitive Premier League than ever before, and dealing with it accordingly. The collective quality and breadth of our new signings is proof of that. Proactive not reactive. That’s the “new” Norwich City.
So what should we be looking to achieve next season?
Well, we’ve set our stall out. Shortly it will be time to deliver, to make good that ambition. The club’s standards are now exceptionally high, as are its expectation. We’ve signed some very good – in some cases exceptionally good – players. Those who have already signed did not succumb to the lure of a promise that, “with you in the team, we hope to avoid relegation next season”, because if that had been our unique selling point, they wouldn’t have signed. So, clearly, we’re aiming for more.
Realistically, that is a top ten finish, And, with it, a push – just maybe – for a place in next season’s Europa League – either via our league finish or by winning one of the two cups. Now, that seems a very reasonable and realistic ambition for next season and one which is not beyond us. Fans will believe it possible, as will the manager and his staff. And, most of all, the players will see it as being possible. This is that “new level” that van Wolfswinkel has spoken about.
But, as much as I am looking forward to next season and all that it promises, there is just, at the back of my mind, the tiniest of accompanying worries, and a small cloud of concern in an otherwise peerless blue sky. Well there would be, wouldn’t there? I’m a Norwich fan.
It surrounds where we would aim to go after next season. Is a top ten finish and a good run in one of the cups the final frontier as far as the Canaries are concerned? Is that as far as it gets? The final stop, all change please. Is that the end of our Universe? That yellow and green glass ceiling I mentioned earlier?
Will that be our avowed intent for 2014/15 too? And 2015/16. 2016/17 as well. And so on. Or can we still aim for more? Can we, in the seasons that lie further ahead, look to push our ambitions ever higher? Top six? Champions League qualification? Premier League winners even?
Of course not – now that is truly absurd isn’t it!?
After all, didn’t it sound just as absurd when, not that long after our capitulation into League One and that embarrassing 1-7 defeat at home to Colchester United, our then still newly appointed chief executive, David McNally made the very clear and very determined vow that it was his, and the club’s, intent to return to the Premier League within the next seven years?
How crazy was that? Escher would have been proud of him. Because David McNally was looking to achieve that impossible – which is exactly what it seemed to be at the time. Yet he and the club did just that – and in some style, regaining its place in the Premier League just two years after that defeat to Colchester and all that followed. It’s a good job he didn’t promise it would happen within two years mind – else he might have been certified and declared unfit for office!
Norwich City, it seems, gets what Norwich City wants.
So if I was Leroy Fer or Gary Hooper and my new chief executive told me that the club’s ambitions over the next three seasons or so culminated in finishing in the top four of the Premier League, I’d tend to believe him. Because, believe me, he and the club have attempted the absurd in order to achieve the impossible once already. I wouldn’t put it past them to do it again. It’s called a track record. And it is, at the moment, peerless.
So – Norwich City finishing in the top four of the Premier League* at the end of the 2014/15 season anyone? I agree, it looks and sounds ridiculous. But it certainly won’t be for the want of trying
*It’s not as if we haven’t done it before either!