A disclaimer to begin: this is neither an investigative article nor a gossip column.
I’ve no scoop on the reasons behind Steve Stone leaving the club. My speculation would have the same validity as everyone else’s (ie. very little).
However, Steve has been a key part of Norwich City’s journey and changes since 2015. His distinctive style and set of achievements deserve to be recorded – not least because I think he was a force for good in our club.
I was fortunate to get to know Steve, including through the interview I did with him for MFW last year.
The first thing to say, perhaps, is that Steve is an unusual financial guy. Finance directors tend to be isolated and unloved, viewed by senior colleagues as unimaginative bean-counters set on clipping the wings of their spending plans.
Some of that general view is unfair; finance directors are paid to balance the books, while their colleagues often propose irresponsible schemes that need to be curtailed. But some of it is fair, in that many finance directors take a narrow view of the organisation and give little broader thinking to its needs – including its structure and need to communicate.
Not Steve. We’ll come back to communications, but he was a prime mover in the structural changes we made at the end of the 2016-17 season. He’d experienced at first hand the vagaries of two Chief Executives: the mercurial but (by the latter part of his tenure) erratic David McNally and the unmitigated disaster of Jez Moxey.
Steve was convinced by the philosophy of a new structure, with an expert Sporting Director to be a bridge between the Board and the manager/Head Coach, enabling the latter to focus on working with and preparing the team.
I’m not sure all fans fully appreciate the significance of that change; in a few years, I’m convinced it will be the norm and Norwich will be seen as having been pioneers.
I’d say we’re already seeing a tangible benefit in terms of better use of transfer funds.
Above all, though, fans will think of Steve as friendly, accessible and communicative. And quite rightly. Steve could often be found in the pub before games, happy to chat to all fans. He was a regular attender and supporter of social events and engaged keenly with supporter groups, including the Canaries Trust.
He believed it was an important part of his job. In his own words, from the MFW interview:
‘I like to communicate. I want to be open – people might not always agree with what I’m saying, but I’ll try to put a rational argument and I’ll front up to things.
We’ve got to tell our stakeholders – primarily our fans – what we’re doing. If not, suspicions grow. If we can’t come out as a club and say what we’re doing, it’s a pretty poor show.
It’s complicated to get it right, but it’s not complicated to communicate what you’re trying to do.’
It’s encouraging to hear Ben Kensell and Zoe Ward, who are taking over Steve’s role at the club, state their intention to continue Steve’s accessibility and engagement with fans. We know that Stuart Webber “gets it” too. But Steve will be a hard act to follow in his genial interaction with us.
We’ve barely mentioned his most important role, though. Steve took the financial reins after Jez Moxey’s departure in January 2017. With the previous summer’s gamble of retaining Alex Neil and a high-wage Premier League squad clearly failing, the club faced a frightening financial prospect.
During the next eighteen months, income would fall by more than £50 million through the loss of parachute payments. Anyone who’s been involved in a business that’s lost more than half its income will have some understanding of the nightmare.
Thanks to Steve Stone – and to Stuart Webber – we’ve come through that period without going into administration, without a fire sale of our players and without being relegated. We have a more-than-decent playing squad, and we’ll no longer have to start each summer by finding £20-25m to fill a financial hole.
It doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods. There are still big financial challenges in adjusting from where we were to where we are – but remarkable progress has been made in the adjustment.
I’m sorry Steve is going, and we’ll miss him. He may not have been a complete Norwich fan – he made no secret of his lifelong attachment to Coventry – but he did very good things for our club at an exceptionally difficult time.
He deserves our gratitude and affection.