I said a few weeks ago that Stuart Webber would test our faith by letting some of our favourite players go.
Little did I realize the test would come so soon and so personally. My favourite player, Jonny Howson, seems destined to be gone before we see our team in action again.
In fairness, this one seems to be a reluctant decision. Jonny has apparently turned down a contract extension we offered him and if he doesn’t see his long-term future at Norwich, it makes sense for the club to cash in now; he’s worth much more as a 29-year-old with two contract years left than as a 30-year-old entering his final year.
It’s been fairly pointed out, too, that a box-to-box midfielder isn’t the hardest player to replace. I’d be more worried if we were selling Pritchard, a rarer talent (and five years younger than Jonny).
If we accept losing Jonny Howson, much the same can be said about another likely departure, Graham Dorrans. I like him, but he’s 30 and perhaps not the dynamic kind of player being prioritised by Stuart Webber and Daniel Farke for next season’s challenge.
I also said that we should keep faith with Stuart Webber as he made changes, even when those changes were of the eyebrow-raising kind.
He’s always been clear that he saw a need for significant change in the City squad, and wasn’t fazed by the idea of the change being large-scale.
I’ve no doubt that our team next season will be more dynamic, more resilient, more like a Paul Lambert team. I suspect our acquisitions between now and August will be relatively low-cost, and clearly better value than we’ve had in the last few years. It will be a refreshing change.
We’ll see a group of players who are more motivated and less highly paid than those we watched last season. The financial side is necessary – for reasons I’ll come to in a moment – while we can all see why an injection of hunger is needed.
My concern is whether we can bring in sufficient quality. Plenty of Championship teams have commitment and energy. When we matched that commitment last year, or when our opponents were short of it, we won out because of our superior quality.
In raising the energy and commitments levels of the squad, can we still maintain that edge of quality which marks out a promotion team?
In the good games last season, it was a joy to see Howson and Dorrans controlling midfield with their technical skills. They provided Wes and/or Pritchard with the possession and time to weave their magic.
Let’s not be surprised if the quality gap is filled, at least in part, with loan signings from the Premier League. Watching Huddersfield in the play-offs, two things were striking:
First, their Premier League loanees – Aaron Mooy, Izzy Brown, goalkeeper Danny Ward – played a key role. As Stuart Webber had told us, they enabled Huddersfield to have a better team than the club could naturally afford.
Second, those loanees were just as excited at the team’s success as the permanent players. Anyone who believes loan players can’t feel the same commitment as permanent ones might have a re-think if they were watching.
As we’ve said before, one or two of City’s high earners may be difficult to move on. Should Steven Naismith be one of those, I personally won’t be too unhappy. His attitude and contribution in the latter part of last season suggested he has the requisite commitment and could be a major positive factor – even if we didn’t plan it that way – in a promotion push this time round.
I always shudder at the thought of some fans’ reaction when financial figures are published.
In this case we’ve just learned specifics about the parachute payments of last season and next.
From the different elements of the parachute payment system, Norwich received some £40m last season; it will fall by around £12m this time.
That’s a lot of money, surely? A major advantage over most of our Championship rivals? And surely it means we can go out and buy some new players without needing to sell?
The bitter truth is that the money, and our advantage over rivals, is entirely swallowed up by our wage bill. In effect we kept a Premier League squad together after relegation. The only financial change was the effect of relegation clauses; they saved us a considerable amount, but only a fraction of the drop in income from going down to the Championship.
We kept a wage bill far in excess of most Championship clubs, taking a chance that we’d be able to bounce straight back. Last season’s failure has left us a challenging situation, where we have to juggle giving next season our best shot with putting the club on a more sustainable financial footing.
In short, our wage bill needs to be reduced sharply this summer, even if we’re still taking a risk. The drop in parachute income is a real squeeze for us.
On the positive side, our much-derided good housekeeping and low debt mean we can still plan and, within reason, spend. Apparently it’s been a rude shock to Steve Bruce to realize that Villa’s overspending has pushed them to the brink of infringing Financial Fair Play rules, and he won’t have his expected millions to throw around this summer.
The financial adjustment is a painful one for us. With Stuart Webber, Steve Stone and Daniel Farke at the helm, though, I have much greater confidence that we can steer our way through it.
As a passing thought, two of the three teams just promoted – including the one directed by Stuart Webber – had no parachute payments at all.
PS. Interesting to see fan reaction to the news that Mitchell Dijks won’t be coming back and the pending arrival of Angus Gunn. Some predictable outrage, but also a lot of realism and appreciation that the Dijks deal assumed a context of our being promoted. In our current circumstances it’s disproportionate for any individual signing, particularly a full-back, and by the same score to sign the England Under-21 keeper is in keeping with the new model.