It was just a pub meal: a group of colleagues dining together, along with two of their partners and a couple of friends. Norwich fans who saw the happy group at the big table at The Crabtree, in Fulham on Saturday night, took very little notice. But every Fulham supporter who walked past did a double-take. Beer was spilled as astonishment stopped them in their tracks.
Delia Smith and Michael Wynn Jones, City’s majority shareholders, were enjoying pub grub with a group which included managing director Steve Stone, sporting director Stuart Webber, finance director Ben Dack and director Tom Smith.
If you take the Rob Butler view — that my opinions and inside-knowledge can be dismissed because I’m too close to the Norwich City board — well, read something else. I’m weary of being confronted about friendships for which I refuse to apologise.
If you’ve got an open mind about the club we all care about, you might share my belief that there was a real significance in the reaction of the rival sets of fans to the table of diners at The Crabtree.
Seeing Delia, Michael and the rest was no big deal for Norwich supporters. They are used to the idea that their club’s decision-makers join them in pubs before or after games several times a season. Many of them know how much the heads of the City hierarchy have taken the admirable Norwich City Fans Social Club to their hearts. Delia was cajoled into playing a game of Giant Jenga at one NCFSC gathering, Tom and his wife, Alice, are regulars at NCFSC quiz nights. Stuart and Steve — the newish key personnel at our club — have been to an informal NCFSC night and taken part in a discussion forum at another NCFSC event.
At Fulham on Saturday, the group of City people with a table booked at The Crabtree said their goodbyes at Craven Cottage as early as politeness allowed and strolled to the pub 40 minutes or so before the table was due to be ready. As is always the case on matchdays, The Crabtree was heaving. Stuart kept slipping away to make and take calls on his mobile — there was work to be done — but Delia and the others were perfectly happy to just stand and chat to anyone who wanted to natter.
It was a completely unremarkable scene — if you are a Norwich City follower. After all, why shouldn’t directors mix with paying punters? But as I saw one Fulham fan after another nudge a mate and point in wonder at our club’s owners I was struck by a thought.
In 40 years of writing and broadcasting about football, during which I worked at games in four continents, I never saw this sort of thing happen with the kingpins of any club other than Norwich. I can recall a few occasions when nervous chairmen held uneasy talks with fans groups. I can think of club owners whose security details might let a token supporter through now and then. But directors ambling into a pub for a chinwag after a game? Nah. It’s a Norwich thing. It’s a Delia and Michael thing. It’s a blooming fine thing.
It also says a lot about the Webberlution. Let me explain.
It was Delia, in particular, who was determined that there should be a complete reorganisation of the club’s structure after Jez Moxey was given his P45. Some around the boardroom table voiced caution and Delia usually accepts the majority view. But this time she said, “It’s my name the fans shout when things go wrong. They chant, ‘Delia, Delia, sort it out’. So I am going to. I have to”.
That determination was driven by hurt she felt that club staff had become fearful and unhappy in recent years. So she got all the staff together and told them she was going to change things — that good people on the payroll would be empowered rather than cowed.
Moxey’s appointment had been overseen by head-hunters. So the board already had a detailed list of other potential chief executives but had already discounted everyone once.
On the other hand, there was the capable and popular Steve Stone. He had showed he could lead the business side of the club with aplomb but admitted he had limited experience of football.
Thus the idea of splitting the business and the football into separate “silos” was born. And among the key criteria for the a sporting director was that he should get on well with Steve. There could be no more “them and us” attitudes in the relationships between Colney and Carrow Road. So Stuart’s final interview for his critical job wasn’t an interview at all. It was a couple of days spent with Steve to see if they could work together.
Next, Joe Ferrari, the Head of Communications, who definitely bleeds yellow and green, set about opening new channels with fans groups and blog sites and everywhere you looked you could see a coming together, a repairing of the Norwich City community.
And at a pub on the bank of the Thames on Saturday, I watched as Stuart, Steve, Ben, Tom, Delia and Michael laughed and joked at the heart of that community.
I finished editing volume three of Tales From The City this week. In the very first chapter Simon Lappin talks about the surge up the divisions under Paul Lambert, and says this, “It felt that the whole club, the whole city and all of Norfolk were part of the same incredible mission”. At Fulham, in The Crabtree, it felt that we were, at the very least, all on the same side again.
There will be disappointments and perhaps some despair this season. It’s football, after all. But I haven’t felt so positive for a long time. Which brings me back to dear old Rob Butler.
After the pre-season victory at Charlton, BBC Rob said on Twitter, “Quite why Alex Neil didn’t pick Maddison is beyond me. Could have saved the fella his job.” At roughly the same time, another Norwich fan said to me, “Looks like sending Maddison out on loan has done the trick”.
All opinions about Norwich are valid, but the first instinct of some is to see a flaw, to carp and quibble. Others always see a positive. It’s the old glass half full or half empty conflict. As I saw beer spilled in The Crabtree by startled Fulham fans, my glass, as usual, was definitely half full.