Towards the end of City’s humiliating defeat at Hillsborough on the last day of the season, a group of lads in the away end attempted to start up a chant of “We want Webber out”.
I’m pleased to say that no-one joined in and a number of people did take the trouble to point out that it wasn’t, in fact, the club’s sporting director who had failed to perform on the pitch.
However, it’s fair to say that are still many people for whom the jury is still out on Stuart Webber, and not just the small minority for whom the club’s failure and resultant chance to say “I told you so” is much more attractive than any sort of resurgence under Daniel Farke.
As has been pointed out elsewhere, his signings haven’t always come off, with Marley Watkins (interestingly brought in before Farke and clearly incapable of adapting to the German’s system despite a good track record elsewhere) Marcel Franke and James Husband the prime examples.
While I would challenge anyone to show me a sporting director or head of recruitment with a 100 per cent success record, the fact that Watkins was a free agent and Husband and Franke cost around £1m each meant that very little damage was done to the club’s financial position when they failed to produce the goods. It’s hardly on a par with Manchester United spending £90m to watch Paul Pogba strolling disinterestedly through most of his games last season.
However, the smart use of loans to bring in Harrison Reed, Moritz Leitner and Angus Gunn along with the talent spotting that gave us Tom Trybull, Christophe Zimmermann, Mario Vrancic, Grant Hanley and Onel Hernandez suggested that Webber had his ear to the ground and was able to find talent without breaking the bank.
Of course, there will be those who argue that the club were lucky that James Maddison emerged as a star of the future last season and, while that is undeniable, no team can be carried by a single player for any length of time (look at Argentina’s consistent failures despite having Lionel Messi as an example), something that Maddison himself would be the first to admit.
I remember the game at Ashton Gate just after Christmas where Maddison got all the headlines for a brilliant late goal, but City’s win was sealed firstly by a magnificent full body block by Zimmermann and then an incredible double-save by Gunn. And, in terms of influencing the game, there were strong arguments that Vrancic was at least as influential as Maddison in opening up Bristol’s highly-rated defence.
Nevertheless, with Maddison and the mis-firing Josh Murphy sold for big fees the real test for Webber is this next season and so far, on paper at least, he appears to have played a blinder.
With the money for Maddison and Murphy plugging the black hole resulting from the loss of parachute payments, he appears to have got the club back to an even financial keel, which should mean the emphasis will now be on cautious building rather than cost cutting. Let’s not forget, there are still savings to be made with several senior players clearly surplus to requirements and a potential source of fees as well as wage bill savings.
However, it’s the incomings, both in terms of numbers and quality, that have impressed. Getting Leitner on a permanent is a great achievement, as is the acquisition of Felix Passlack – a player that Dortmund rate highly on a season long loan – but the early pre-season games are already suggesting that Kenny McLean might be a fantastic signing, and perhaps the nearest to Maddison in terms of a goal scoring threat from midfield. He is likely to take over as set piece specialist too.
Ben Marshall also comes with glowing reviews, as does Emiliano Buendia – we will all learn more about both in the coming two or three weeks – while Teemu Pukki and Jordan Rhodes are both proven goal scorers and may both prosper in what looks like it might be a more attacking formation, at least if the early warm up games are anything to go by.
What may ultimately prove to be Webber’s biggest legacy, however, is the Academy which is increasingly being stocked with promising players, and also the proactive approach to the development of these young players – with loans to a better standard of football than they would get at under-23 level, not just in the UK, but also on the continent.
Of course, it’s still early days and we can only speculate on how successful the club will be this season, but for the first time in years I can see .
This might just be the start of something rather exciting if Webber is given the time to develop it.