I’ve contributed less than usual to this forum over the last few weeks.
Unfortunately, I’ve been occupied by the serious illness – in one case terminal – of my mum and brother. I mention that not for sympathy (it’s a rare blip in a happy and fortunate life), but because it gives you some different perspectives. One of those, at least, relates to Norwich City.
We love a quick fix: the computer that rights itself with one press of a button, the pill that cures the headache, the Christmas lights that respond to a little twist (or a sharp kick). More than in any area, we cry out for it in football – if we just sign that one player, sack the manager, get a new investor….
Sometimes it works. More often, it doesn’t. And there are times, in life and football, when it’s just not an option.
Our club has faced that kind of situation a few times in its history, including in 2009 with relegation to League One. If we’d had attractive assets like Pritchard at that time – as opposed to the collection of random loanees and journeymen that we’d actually accumulated – we’d have had to sell them.
We had to re-build, starting with the handover of power to David McNally and his appointment of Paul Lambert. A far-reaching change that turned around the club’s fortunes.
In a way, the need – and chance – to start again was clearer in 2009 than now. League One highlighted the crisis we were in, but also gave us an opportunity to start the recovery quickly.
To re-cap on where we are now. We got relegated in 2016, despite big spending in that January window. Many of us believe that slightly better use of our money that season might have allowed us to survive.
So, we had the prospect of a couple of years of parachute payments. For a highly-indebted club like QPR or Bolton, those parachute payments don’t help the playing side; all the money goes to debt servicing and they can’t avoid a fire-sale of their best players.
Norwich have managed their affairs differently, as we know, with minimal debt. Thus, the parachute payments gave us a choice last season. Either we made prudent cuts and sales, preparing for the possibility of a longer Championship stay – or we went for the quick fix, using the payments to spend way beyond our means on the squad and gambling on a successful challenge for promotion.
We opted for the latter. One of the 90+ responses to Martin Penney’s recent tirade of frustration stated, “Pritchard wanted Premier League football; the club didn’t”; I think the facts say otherwise.
It’s the failure of that gamble which left us in a bad place. We could have carried on with the same structure as before, replacing Alex Neil with Alan Irvine or another usual suspect; with the impending cuts, though, the likelihood is surely that it would have led us into the kind of stagnation (or worse) that we witnessed before. That may be good enough for Ipswich, but it’s not for us.
Instead, we changed course with the creation of a Sporting Director/Head Coach structure, bringing in Stuart Webber then his choice, Daniel Farke. As Stuart explained to MFW among others, part of the rationale for that structure is to get away from the kind of pressure on managers which makes every decision an attempted quick fix, and try to create a longer-term view.
Of course we’d try to be a promotion challenger this season – but we’d also put a financial and strategic plan in place to be able to be strong in future seasons too. That means for instance proper individual development plans for our young talent. Daniel Farke was known in Germany for improving and developing individual players, especially young ones – surely an important qualification for improving the output of our Academy.
Martin Penney’s article, and the response it triggered, illustrate the dilemma of being a football fan. Martin’s too intelligent and experienced to call for Farke’s head or the unravelling of the new structure. To spend such a financially critical season in mid-table, though, with as many downs as ups, is a huge test of our patience. Even recognising the degree of change, we hoped for better.
We ignore the quick-fix merchants like Birmingham and Forest who fail, and instead look enviously at the one or two – notably Wolves – where it seems to be working.
‘How can Huddersfield be doing so much better than Norwich that they’re buying Pritchard from us?’ I see on social media. Well, they didn’t have a Wolves-like injection of cash. They made the same structural change as we’ve done, brought in Stuart Webber, accepted David Wagner finishing 19th in his first season, and took off from there.
With thoughts turning to two transfer windows – the current one and next summer – it’s again worth looking back to what Stuart Webber told us. He made no attempt to hide that failure to be promoted this season would require significant further cuts in the playing budget (ie transfer fees and wages). We’ll try to keep important players who want to be here, prioritising for sale those who either aren’t contributing or who want away.
He also talked about recruitment, emphasising that it’s about getting the right players for the Head Coach’s way of playing. Looking at the present squad, it’s clear that we have Farke’s choices in the spine of defence and midfield: Zimmermann, Hanley, Trybull, Vrancic, Maddison (who, contrary to conventional wisdom, never started a game before Farke’s arrival).
The positions where we don’t have ‘Farke players’ are right-back, the wings and – especially – up front. Given Stuart’s clarity of thinking, I’ll be surprised if those aren’t our priority areas for extra recruitment, starting now.
Webber also, as many have noted, talked about 2-3 windows to assemble the kind of squad he and Farke are looking for. It’s a longer horizon than we’re used to seeing from the management team at Norwich, and takes a bit of adjustment on our part too.
In short, Martin’s piece struck a chord and I understand why. But perhaps it’s worth us taking a deep breath. The failure of 2015-16, and especially of last season, condemned us to a period of retrenchment – including a reduction in the value and profile of our squad. It’s not fun.
The question is how we’ll come out on the other side of it. A group of haphazard loanees and has-beens, as in 2008? Or perhaps an exciting team of younger, less famous but galvanised talent, proud to play for Norwich?
The jury’s still out on the Webber/Farke team, of course. Changes and new situations are painful and don’t settle overnight. It just might, though, be the path to a better future.