Knowing the cultural sophistication of MFW readers, I’m sure many of you will be familiar with the story of Swan Lake.
Walking in the woods, the Prince comes across a group of swans and – as you do – falls in love with the pure white swan/girl Odette. Outraged at this challenge to his authority, the swans’ controller takes action. At the palace, he gatecrashes the Prince’s party with his daughter, the lookalike black swan Odile.
Odile dances seductively before the Prince. Believing her to be Odette, the Prince is lured into declaring his love and eternal commitment to her. At that moment the deception is revealed, setting in train the inevitable tragic denouement.
Some fundamental psychological truths here, of course (not least, that a woman in a skimpy black outfit can be in a strong negotiating position) but what’s it got to do with football, and in particular the issues facing Norwich City?
It’s all about temptation. Look at the reward if we just go a little further; make a little extra commitment without asking too many questions…
Here’s where we have to try to get to grips with balance. The mantra of the Neil Doncaster era “prudence with ambition” is widely discredited among City fans, on the basis – fairly or unfairly – that in practice it was more prudence than ambition.
Football is littered with examples, from Leeds and Portsmouth to Bolton and QPR, of clubs over-stretching and setting themselves back years. Because many of our fans seem oblivious to those dangers, some of us are tempted to keep reminding them. We sound, I know, like spoilsports who’ll settle for less than the best for Norwich.
It’s important to acknowledge that too much caution is a fault, just like too little. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” has some truth, though it’s equally true that reckless venturing – much as it’ll be applauded by fans at the time – is a path to disaster.
Everyone should be aware of the Leeds story. In 1998-2001 they were on a high, finishing every year in the top five and reaching European semi-finals. At that point they took on large loans against future TV and sponsorship income from the Champions League. Except that they failed to qualify; the income didn’t materialize, the club’s finances collapsed, players were sold, they were relegated from the Premier League in 2004 and haven’t returned since.
Despite being a much ‘smaller’ club, Norwich remain far better placed than Leeds and more likely to be promoted this season.
Painful as it is, let’s take a quick look back at last summer before coming up-to-date. City fans filled the message boards with “We’ve now got £120m – let’s spend it”. Well, we didn’t have £120m – that’s paid in tranches over three years, and much of our first tranche was already committed to paying promotion bonuses and deferred wages.
Of course though we should have spent more last summer than we did. If we’d landed a quality central defender, we might well be now looking at a fixture list of Arsenal and Man United rather than Rotherham and Burton.
I’m not privy to exactly what happened, beyond that we did submit big bids and were prepared to borrow from the bank to fund them. But were the targets realistic, and were we really committed to spending large amounts? I can’t answer that; the bottom line is that we didn’t strengthen as we should have done.
Some fans remain astonishingly naïve. I’ve seen on City forums that we now shouldn’t sell any of our players, while shelling out on new acquisitions in all areas. “I’ll settle for McCormack, Assombalonga, Pritchard and Caulker” said one, clearly thinking it was a reasonable proposition and apparently oblivious to our income having just dropped by 60 per cent.
Yet the other extreme would be miserable and defeatist. If we can do it in a way that’s short of reckless, the huge riches on offer for Premier League clubs under the new TV deal clearly warrant pushing the boat out. Risk management is about management, but it’s also about taking risk.
If you have a strong squad going into the Championship season with just the exception of a second proven goalscorer, then it makes sense to pay the going rate to get one.
Unlike most other Championship clubs, City can be in a position to buy a McCormack or Assombalonga. That’s because our club is well enough managed for the parachute payments to help (unlike say QPR, where all they do is marginally lighten the debt load), because of automatic wage reductions, and because we have assets we can choose to sell. Redmond and Brady can be the Fer and Snodgrass of two years ago.
So, take your pick as to what constitutes risk. A Woody Allen film of a few years ago featured a split-screen of a couple’s discussions with their therapist. One is saying “we have constant sex – about three times a week” while the other’s saying “we hardly ever have sex – about three times a week”.
One man’s Odette is another man’s Odile.