It was one year ago that Alex Neil got the heave-ho.
In the face of a barrage of supporter unrest and awful performances over a concerted period, the affable Scotsman had, to the shock of nearly everyone, seemed certain to remain in the hot seat.
So much so, that the day before his dismissal, I wrote this article, stating how I’d like to see the football club move forward, regardless of whether Neil stayed.
Completely out of the blue and by sheer coincidence, the club hierarchy suddenly shared a similar vision to the one I’d been banging on about for nearly a decade.
A more continental outlook, key roles would be split into multiple positions to allow for higher speciality and skill sets.
Rebuilding a team is always a tough ask. However, revamping an entire club ethos from top to bottom whilst continuously being tested to the limit by ever-more demanding financial constraints is as bold and scary as it gets.
But that is what Stuart Webber, Steve Stone and Daniel Farke were tasked with.
Perhaps I feel as though I have a little more invested in this setup than others might as it was something I wanted to see happen
So how is it all going? Am I impressed? Disappointed? Indifferent?
It’s been a mixed bag. I think they’ve made a ‘reasonable’ start.
‘Start’ being the key word though.
I think the strategy is spot on, but the style of play perhaps isn’t quite tickling everyone’s fancy just yet. Given time and patience, I suspect it’ll evolve and so too will fans perceptions.
We were told from the early days of Webber’s reign that this would be a long-term project. “Four or five transfer windows,” he said, “to see serious progress.” I can’t see any reason to disbelieve that still isn’t the case.
Off the pitch we’ve definitely made bigger strides than on it.
The wage bill is still higher than would be deemed ideal, but the finances are now largely under control thanks to some big sales, shrewd signings and valuable assets.
The ball has been set rolling on making the academy state of the art thanks to the recently announced Bond Scheme, something that I was shocked to read so many negative opinions about the other day. It appears a very clever idea to me, even if I won’t be participating in the offer myself.
On the pitch we have undoubtedly lacked momentum, mainly due to our inability to score goals. We’ve struggled to break teams down but generally been far more solid at the back. There has been a couple of good runs and a couple of bad ones – nothing unexpected there, given the circumstances.
There were roughly 50 personnel changes at the club within six months. That is staggering – but it was completely necessary.
As I say, this is just the start of what could be a lengthy period of disruption, frustration and adaptation – but hopefully the final destination will be more pleasing.
Like a second-rate singer on a reality TV karaoke competition, ‘we’re on a journey’.
Let’s put it this way: Imagine we’re driving from Nelson’s County to the beautiful Lake District.
We’ve planned it all and everyone is excited about getting there. We’ll climb above Ullswater, trek the Old Man of Coniston and have a picnic overlooking Windermere. Whichever way we turn there’ll be views to take our breath away.
But for now, we find ourselves stuck behind a rusty old tractor doing 20mph near Sutton Bridge.
The drive is a tedious one and the kids in the back are getting restless.
“Are we nearly there yet?”
“Afraid not. We’re not even half way. We’re in The Fens.”
“But it’s sooo boring! I can see for miles and miles and there’s nothing to see!”
“I know. But the landscape will become a bit more exciting once we progress a little further.”
To bring this back to the topic, that’s where we’re at as a club – the footballing equivalent of The Fens.
Desolate. Bleak. Stark. Flat.
Yes, The Fens. And yes, our football at times this season.
“Are we nearly there yet?” yell the kids in the Snakepit?
“Afraid not. We’re not even halfway to creating our new club philosophy.”
“But it’s sooo boring!”
“I know. But the landscape will become a bit more exciting once we progress a little further.”
“I need a wee.”
“Just go. It’s not like you’ll miss anything exciting.”
What I’m saying is that we can’t just teleport to the summit of Scafell Pike! We have to endure the odd bit of nothingness throughout the journey. Once we get on to the Snakes Pass, we’ll all enjoy the views.
So let’s get a little perspective. We’re in transition, after all.
Except, aren’t all teams constantly in ‘transition’?
It’s not like you ever get to see a ‘finished article’. Even Manchester Citeh will try to build on what they’re achieving. Perfection never arrives in this game.
From Norwich City’s point of view though, it’s not just the stuff happening on grass that is radically altering. The whole club is effectively starting again from a new blueprint that all future head coaches will abide by.
The concept is comparable to Southampton. Buy low, sell high – but I think a better example is probably Swansea City, given the nature of the style of play that has been introduced.
A little over a decade ago they decided to do exactly what we’re attempting now.
In a rut on the pitch with no money off it, they made the bold move to completely reshape and remodel the entire club, with one key factor: to remain loyal to their chosen philosophy – possession football.
It worked. A major trophy was complemented by successfully staying in the Premier League since 2011. They have their flaws but generally we’d all have been happy with their lot.
There’ll be times when we want to tear our teeth out at what we’re watching, but long-term plans should never be ripped up because of a little unrest in the early stages.
So am I enjoying this season?
No, not really. But then I didn’t enjoy last season either – nor the season before that. Most seasons following a club such as Norwich are pretty mediocre at best, but it makes the great seasons feel even greater.
The difference here is that this season was inevitably going to be one of enormous upheaval and as a result, inconsistency and frustration.
And much of that frustration is borne from ‘what could have been’. What if we’d had this model in the Premier League?
My guess is that we’d be in significantly better shape. Whether our fans would have been content trying something like this rather than spending big in an attempt to survive is another matter! Hindsight is a marvellous thing.
But now is as good a time as any to try it. Each time we’ve been promoted recently there’s been a feeling of hurriedness about it.
It was either so rapid that we barely had time to draw breath or it was based on Championship stalwarts who had previously failed at the higher level and were too expensive to replace.
There has to be some form of strategy involved or you’ll quickly run into trouble. And we did.
We always clung to the slimmest of hopes that everything would click straight away this season, but that would have taken some serious luck.
In any given season there will be highs and lows, but this is no Paul Lambert-inspired Nemesis rollercoaster. This has been more like the snail ride on Yarmouth seafront.
Getting things right off the pitch is arguably more important than anything happening on it at the moment.
As fans, we want to be entertained and see wins, but I just wanted to see a sense of direction; a club that knew what it wanted and where it was going. I feel I’m getting that but in very small doses at the moment. There’s an awful lot of work still to be done.
Of course, you’ll never please everybody. I recall fans moaning that we were ‘too cavalier’ when Mike Walker nearly won the league title in 1993. They were correct to be fair!
If you don’t enjoy the style of football, tough doo-doo! It’s not what I personally would chose to play either, but this is our philosophy now, so stop getting wound up and instead, try to enjoy the fact that we are attempting to be more composed than our peers.
It’s not as though it won’t be adapted when the personnel changes.
Moving forward, I would like to see more urgency around our opponents box. I’m not saying ‘cross after cross’ or ‘mix it up’, but it is possible to play neat, attractive football and move the ball creatively at speed.
I’ve no issue with possession football, nor passing it patiently around at the back – I see the sense in that, even if some don’t. I certainly don’t want to see us aimlessly booting it forward to the big lad up top.
The biggest problem we have is that we don’t quite have the right mix of players yet. We urgently need a striker who can play off the shoulder. Some may say, ‘why didn’t they sort that out in the summer or January?’
Well I’m sure they tried. Perhaps the player they wanted wasn’t available at that time. Every penny is precious – there’ll be no overpaying from now on. Patience is the name of the game, both on and off the pitch.
The team will be built around young lads – hopefully a few will be through the academy system. They will be tremendously fit and technical on the ball. I can’t see a problem with that vision – every fan should buy into that.
The shining light of this campaign has been James Maddison. A young, prodigious talent, who will outgrow the club rapidly – if he hasn’t already (though I wouldn’t be quite so sure he won’t still be here next season).
If you cut him open – and many Championship defenders have literally tried to – he’ll have ‘England International’ written right through him. The best young player I’ve ever seen at the club.
One thing is for sure, by the time Webber has made some serious progress in towards our long-term aim, the midfield maestro will be long gone – and you can expect a high turnover of players for at least two more windows.
Bar Madders and the odd interloper, this season has been a bit of a chore, particularly at Carrow Road – and home form tends to set the barometer for fan sanity.
Our away form has generally stood up pretty well. Had we combined that with our usual good home form, we’d be sitting in the play off spots.
It’s fine margins between success and failure and our inability to break down poor teams on home soil is an annoyance. Convert four of those draws to wins and there’s a different feeling around the place.
I like Daniel Farke. He’s been a tad naive at times, but I think that was inevitable when hiring a young coach who is still familiarising himself with the rigours of second tier English football – and there’s more experienced guys than him who have struggled with far greater resources.
I like us with three at the back but feel we are often too narrow and slow to take advantage of opportunities. There are glaring deficiencies but hopefully these will be ironed out over time.
The really pleasing thing is that I hear the young players absolutely love working for him, and some of our approach play has been wonderful to watch. There are certainly a few chinks of light.
You could probably argue that bar the inspired addition of Grant Hanley, the most disappointing purchases were the proven Championship players.
You’ll never get all transfers spot on – the key is to get the majority right.
We have some highly technical players at our disposal. It’s now about developing the style further and adding to that.
There’ll be more high-profile outs and low-profile ins – that’s just the way it’ll be from now on. The hideous errors of previous regimes, both on and off the field, will continue to haunt us for a while yet.
Huge financial fails in the transfer market combined with losing parachute money could have lead to a very messy crash landing.
I feel our best progress has been the way we’ve managed to steady ourselves. We should land with a bump rather than disintegrate into the dust now. Not very aspirational admittedly, but things could have turned really sour.
I still hanker for new owners but that isn’t going to happen. We will have to continue to contend with having, on paper at least, the poorest owners in the Championship. It is impossible in this day and age for that lack of financial muscle not to hinder us on all fronts.
But aside from that, I’m pleased we’re driving down the current road. In my opinion, it’s the only route that gives us any chance of success without wealthier backers. I hope to see a greater scale of progress next season though.
Our owners pay people around them to run the club. They put their faith (perhaps too much) in those people.
If it goes well, those guys get the credit; if it doesn’t, Smith ‘n’ Jones will get the pelters. That’s football.
They’ve been in the game longer than most. They are vastly experienced owners and ultimately, if you take out a small handful of seasons, they have a fairly poor track record, spending the majority outside the top flight.
I think Steve Stone is doing a fine job. The jury will be out on Stuart Webber for a while yet, but I think overall he has also done fairly well. He certainly has a clear and positive vision for the club – one that in general, I share and respect.
I know it’s boring to hear but it will take time. Everyone will need to be very patient.
There was never going to be a quick fix. At least we are now being given more insight than ever before into the plans the club has and I think we should all appreciate that.
One last thing.
As I mentioned a year ago, I’d like to see Tom Smith come to the forefront.
I’m reliably informed that the decision to bring a new club ethos and continental setup was driven passionately by Tom. I’m also told he was a leading factor in the Academy Bond Scheme – and he definitely was in The Nest plans.
He’s clearly a very intelligent and driven young man. Let’s hear more from him – he is, after all, destined to control our club for the foreseeable future.
We’ve set ourselves up for a fresh start – let’s do the same at the very top. I want to see him handed control now. And not just because that’ll tick all the boxes of my plan from a year ago!