The recruitment alarm bells first started ringing loudly for me in August 2015.
Fresh from our play-off triumph and planning an assault on the Premier League, we had a summer of frenzied speculation that amounted to the protracted, time-consuming acquisition of Robbie Brady, making Graham Dorrans loan move permanent, Youssef Mulumbu on a free and season-long loans for Dieumerci Mbokani and Matt Jarvis.
Whilst Brady was of the right age and ability level for an aspiring new entrant to the Premier League, Dorrans had been used sparingly by Neil whilst on loan in the Championship, and Mulumbu and Jarvis were players past their peak but carrying Premier League salaries. Mbokani was, as has been proved since, a man happy to loan around, mercenary-style, in brief episodes to whoever would pay him the highest wages.
This entirely dysfunctional profile of players were the additions to a squad of Championship footballers, which we thought would strengthen us sufficiently to battle relegation from the toughest league in the world.
Of the existing squad, we started the season with only three centre-back options in Seb Bassong, Russell Martin and Ryan Bennett, with Michael Turner having been deemed surplus to requirements and loaned out. One injury to a centre-back and we wouldn’t even be able to have a substitute central defender on the bench. Two injuries and Steven Whittaker would be pressed into service at centre-back. Against Aguero, Kane or Costa.
This was a club failing to prepare and preparing to fail. It was a sign that Alex Neil was out of his depth with top level transfers. A sign that the club had no coherent recruitment strategy. And a sign that David McNally had begun to lose his previously vice-like grip in allowing this mess to occur. We were an accident waiting to happen.
The real low point of the summer for me however was the bizarre episode of Joaquin Larrivey, an Argentinian international striker from Celta Vigo whom the Spanish press announced was on his way to Carrow Road. For once all signs pointed to a smooth and very un-Norwich like transfer. A day later it was all off.
The club made no comment other than they had decided not to move forward. Larrivey’s agent, understandably, wasn’t best pleased. Not only had his client missed out on a big pay-day (and he on his ten per cent cut) but he felt that Norwich had acted unprofessionally.
The opinion of the Norwich faithful appeared to be a collective shrug. These things happen in football, transfers fall through. In truth most people knew little about Larrivey bar a couple of promising YouTube clips, but at 31 years old nobody was expecting the earth anyway.
It was then that the agent revealed that this had gone further than “initial talks”. He stated that not only had terms been agreed, but that the player had also passed a medical, and to demonstrate how far things had gone he provided pictures of Larrivey in the dressing room at Carrow Road being given the tour by player liaison, Phil Lythgoe.
What the exact reasons for the transfer falling through were, we will probably never know but the transfer had come an incredibly long way just to fall at the final hurdle. The agent was at pains to point out that the medical was not an issue, especially as he needed any other potential suitors for his player to remain undeterred.
It wasn’t like it was transfer deadline day and we targeted multiple players at the same position to ensure we got one and called Larrivey off because our first choice worked out and signed. We didn’t sign another striker until Mbokani rolled up later in the month.
Although the club shied away from commenting directly the ‘sources placed close to the club’ that did speak to the press intimated that Alex Neil personally vetoed the deal at the last minute.
If AN didn’t fancy him, why was he here in the first place? Was McNally’s infamous “football board” targeting the signings and only involving the manager at the last possible moment? The Carrow Road code of silence meant that we never found out the answers to these questions.
In fairness, we were still basking in the glow of that glorious day in May and Alex Neil’s stock could not have been higher. Fans belief in the combined abilities of McNally and Neil was bordering on religious. And so an incident that probably should have raised a cacophony of alarm bells was duly pushed to one side with only a murmur or two of concern that was swiftly ignored.
As always with pre-season, a new transfer rumour emerged to attract attention a day or two later. But the whiff of ham-fisted unprofessionalism lingered.
Having underwhelmed in the summer, we went transfer crazy in January, (at least by Norwich standards – by Harry Redknapp standards we were relatively quiet).
We added Ben Godfrey and James Maddison as promising youngsters. We converted Matt Jarvis’s loan to a permanent deal despite his prodigious injury history having been borne out during his six-month loan and limiting him to a handful of promising, appearances in a yellow shirt. And we paid big money for Steven Naismith, Ivo Pinto and, finally, a centre back in Timm Klose.
Revisionist history, as exhibited on Canary Call each week, points to this as a disastrous window but at the time I was personally delighted, as I think most were. We finally had a new centre half after years of plodding along with the same old faces. Maddison and Godfrey were refreshing examples of coveted stars in the making that we’d stolen away from bigger suitors in a very competitive and un-Norwich-like fashion. And Naismith was a big name player at a big club.
Granted I wasn’t sure quite where he fitted into Alex Neil’s strict 4-2-3-1(and never-shall-it-change) formation. But a player as big-time as Naismith had to help, surely?
Fast-forward 15 months and it appears more of a mixed bag. Maddison and Godfrey remain promising but unknown in a club that has stifled rather than developed them. Klose has become a worse player than when he joined through a combination of appalling coaching, shockingly-bad partners at the back, and his game not matching up to the rigours of a more physical league than the one he signed up for.
However he was the right profile in terms of age, experience and ability, which is why he retains some transfer value. Pinto was a win. A player on the up in terms of development, a great attitude, and one nobody regrets signing. Conversely Naismith’s and Jarvis’s contracts remain a millstone around our necks.
So prodigious are Naismith’s wages that even after post-relegation reductions, he was unable to agree terms with Premier League Sunderland on August’s deadline day, despite City having agreed a fee with the Mackems.
A year on, and with Naismith now 31, I would suggest there’s little chance of us being able to move him on this summer. If he’s not motivated by playing at a higher level then, preferring to stay on the money he lucked into here, there’s little chance now that any other club will come close to meeting that salary.
Ditto Jarvis. We’re in very negative equity with both players and will have to factor in their bloated contracts for the remaining year that they run.
I don’t blame either player for this. They have families to take care of and we willingly signed these contracts. But it’s an example of where poor decisions can come back to bite you a year or two down the line.
Thankfully, it appears that Stuart Webber is a man with a plan when it comes to recruitment and squad profile, the initial cull of seven senior pros being a bold and brutal statement.
The bizarre lack of joined-up thinking in the amateurish Larrivey debacle, and the subsequent lack of clarity with supporters as to what happened will hopefully not be replicated on Webber’s watch.
Nor will the lack of balance in the squad with some positions being overstocked, whilst others are devoid of bodies, talent or hunger. While he inherits a host of problems and collective mistakes, the signs are that he recognises this and that he’s prepared to remedy what he can as quickly as he can.
We need to remain patient on that score. Whilst we carry some of the more onerous wages to completion of contract, our hands will remain somewhat tied in terms of outgoing finances.
The players we target this summer may be lower in profile but if they are the right age and ability, with lower wage demands, and see playing for this high-profile Championship club as a challenge they want to fight to meet, we will begin to right some wrongs and see some value for our money.
Stuart Webber will not be short of a To-Do list for the foreseeable future, that’s for sure.