Heads dejectedly in their hands, City’s deflated players trudge back towards the tunnel, the boos from the travelling Canaries fans echoing in their ears.
It’s Saturday 4th March 2017, the squad with a wage bill in excess of £50 million has just lost 5-1 to Sheffield Wednesday, all but confirming that they will miss out on the 2016/17 playoffs. With player wages through the roof, parachute payments about to end and promotion now looking off the cards, the club’s financial future is in jeopardy.
Just two years, two months and two days later on 6th May 2019, thousands of yellow and green fans swarm City Hall as a new Norwich City team constructed on a shoestring budget triumphantly thrusts the Championship trophy into the air.
The club has been rejuvenated top to bottom and is now financially self-sufficient. The atmosphere at Carrow Road is the best in recent history and they have secured promotion to the Premier League by playing free-flowing possession-based football and scoring 93 Championship goals in the process.
Norwich City’s remarkable turn of fortunes is not a story of luck or big outside investment, but of local owners, outside of the box thinking and going Deutsch.
In the wake of the sacking of manager Alex Neil, shortly after the defeat to Sheffield Wednesday, it was evident that appointing another manager from the Championship merry-go-round would not suffice to remedy City’s deep-rooted problems. The board would have to take drastic measures if they wanted to avoid financial ruin.
They did, moving away from the traditional English club structure, Norwich City removed the role of chief-executive and opted for a European approach by dividing the position between a ‘sporting director’ and ‘managing director’.
Stuart Webber was then head-hunted from a Huddersfield team, which he had just guided to the brink of the playoffs, and partnered with finance-savvy managing director Steve Stone. Together, the pair set about ruthlessly dismantling years of stagnating departments, removing the heads of all but three, and getting rid of a core of players, of whom most, had been at the club for over half a decade.
Having cut off the dead-wood, Webber brought in the then manager of the Borussia Dortmund II team, Daniel Farke, to be City’s new first-team coach; the same team Webber had acquired David Wagner from during his time at Huddersfield.
With Farke at the helm, Norwich laid out a clear recruitment plan: to replace experience, with players hungry for success. The close working relationship between Webber and Farke has meant that all the players brought into Norwich have been hand-picked by the manager, with many having played under him previously.
Norwich have looked past the competitive and overpriced English leagues and their recruitment has come mainly from the cheap lower German tiers. Shrewd and extensive scouting has enabled the Canaries to pick up quality players who had often been overlooked elsewhere due to injuries or ill-fortune.
Centre-back Christoph Zimmermann, who has captained the side for most of the season, was facing the prospect of having to give up his football altogether after not being able to break out of the Dortmund second team.
Ball-winning midfielder Tom Trybull meanwhile had been so hampered by injuries that before coming to Norwich he had only once managed more than 23 appearances in a season. Teemu Pukki who has scored 30 goals this season came on a free-transfer, being ignored by many championship clubs due to a bad season with Celtic back in 2014-15.
There have been so many success stories that it is difficult to keep track, however, the recurring theme is that players including the likes of Emi Buendia, Marco Stiepermann, Mario Vrancic and Onel Hernandez, who for whatever reason had been overlooked by other clubs, were spotted for their quality by Farke and Webber and nurtured into top championship footballers.
Marginal gains and the holistic approach
Despite astute recruitment, the plan did not bring immediate success. Although City dominated possession statistics in the 2017-18 season, such a huge rebuilding project required time and the club ended up finishing a lacklustre 14th.
Without the breakthrough season of James Maddison they would have been much lower, and in the summer which followed, financial necessity compelled the Canaries to sell Maddison along with star winger Josh Murphy for a combined £32.76M.
Whilst some supporters grumbled, many recognised that there was a long-term plan in place. From the owners down had come a new culture to Norwich City: a holistic approach focussed on marginal gains, youth development and shrewd recruitment.
The training facilities at Colney witnessed a huge renovation. Bit-piece temporary measures, which had become permanent fixtures at the training ground, such as a gym in a conservatory, were replaced with modern purpose-built replacements.
This was coupled with an enhanced focus on sports science and a harsh fitness regime. Sports scientist Chris Domogalla and assistant coach Edmund Riemer were brought in from Dortmund and Stuart Webber vowed that during his tenure the team “would never be outworked.”
In the gyms, inspirational quotes and pictures of successful Norwich teams were painted on the walls, phones were banned and a wheel of fortune was introduced to make light of players fines – one of the more memorable consequences of the wheel of fortune was Marco Stiepermann having to wash the manager’s car.
In the spirit of gaining every advantage possible, the club even painted the away dressing room pink in an attempt to lower the testosterone levels of visiting players.
Youth development has played a major role in Norwich’s revival and Daniel Farke’s bravery in giving so many young players a chance has been greatly rewarded. Jamal Lewis, Ben Godfrey and Championship Young Player of the Season Max Aarons have all made the jump from the academy and given the yellows a youthful and dynamic back four, with Todd Cantwell showing glimpses of brilliance further up the pitch.
The holistic club culture has been prominent within the academy too, with players not only being developed as footballers but as people as well. The club has held workshops and brought in motivational speakers to talk to young players about issues like gambling addictions, social media obsessions and mental health problems amongst footballers. All of which have contributed to an overwhelming sense of care and togetherness at the club.
Sliding under the radar to success
Attractive football and a team brimming with desire and energy have induced a new connect between the fans and the team. A resurgence in atmosphere at Carrow Road has been led by independent fan initiatives such as the ‘Barclay End Projekt’ and ‘Along Come Norwich’ which have helped turn the Barclay stand into East Anglia’s answer to Dortmund’s Yellow Wall.
Before each match flags litter the stand and the stadium-wide roar of On the Ball City, the oldest song in football history, is deafening. After each home victory, manager Daniel Farke gleefully approaches the Barclay, hands out to either side shaking them as the crowd “ohhhhhhhhhs” in anticipation, as this reaches its climax Farke then throws both hands up to the roar of “WHEYYYY.”
This ritual is a portrait of the togetherness of the fans, team, manager and club, a symbiosis of the yellow and green ecosystem which has grown so much since 2017.
Norwich City don’t have billionaire owners, but something far more valuable: owners and a board who care deeply about the club.
Without big investment, Delia Smith and Michael Wynn-Jones have transformed the club by thinking outside the box, making marginal gains, investing in youth and going Deutsch. An example which every Championship club should aspire to.