George Best, in his post-playing days as an after-dinner speaker, used to tell a story that always produced a chuckle from the assembled audience.
The gist was that after a successful night at a casino, Best called for room service at the penthouse hotel suite he was in, and the waiter promptly entered the room to deliver champagne to Best and a scantily-clad Miss World, whilst the room and bed was covered in bank notes from the evening’s winnings. After taking in the scene, the waiter looked at Best and asked, “George, where did it all go wrong?”.
I bring this up not just because it’s a) a great anecdote or b) a handy tie-in to the title, but because the point of the story is that success is measured by different people in different ways. While many people looked upon George as a wayward genius who had squandered many of his best years with his playboy lifestyle, his own view was that he was massively winning at life, with the hotel room example being all the evidence he needed.
The Stuart Webber/ Daniel Farke era at Norwich City has not always been a runaway success story, despite our current position in the table. Year One of the “Webberlution” held very few highlights that will live long in the memory, and with a decidedly sluggish end to the season, we drifted to the bottom half of the Championship.
Year Two began in much the same vein with a last-minute equaliser dragging a point away from Birmingham, an error-strewn defeat at home to West Brom, and just-about seeing off Stevenage in the Carabao Cup at Carrow Road. We then had a last-minute defeat to moany Sheffield United, as dismal a home victory against Preston as I’ve seen in many a year, and then a 3-0 stuffing by Sky Sports Leeds.
Many, myself included, were struggling to see where this was going. While some aspects, particularly those off-field under Webber’s control, such as improving Colney through the Bond scheme, and churning the squad and bringing in decent players to replace the likes of Maddison and Murphy, were obviously progressing well, the results and performances on the field remained lacklustre.
Farke, and his reliance on possession, was coming under increasing scrutiny. Nelson Oliviera’s Instagram antics during the World Cup, highlighting possession stats of teams like Germany as they crumbled against opposition that moved the ball far more effectively, began his own exile to the darkest corner of Colney from which he has yet to emerge.
It also raised questions as to how widespread his views were within the City camp. If Oliviera felt this way, maybe so did many others, even if they weren’t militant enough to share that view publicly?
When Year Two began in such a tepid fashion, I for one thought that Farke was starting to look like a good idea that hadn’t really worked out. A nice guy who everyone liked, who was trying to play football the right way, but who couldn’t inject the dynamism required to compete in a physical league.
We were slow, predictable, and our ability to hurt teams with our mundane, metronomic passing was limited to the odd occasion that we could get Onel Hernandez one-on-one with the fullback and utilise the one player with the pace we possessed. He had almost become this year’s Maddison. Our sole focal point and thus easy for the opposition to plan against.
Three days after being thoroughly bludgeoned by a Leeds team oozing with confidence, we made the ridiculously long trip to Cardiff for a League Cup game that, in truth, neither club were entirely enthused about.
Both sides put out what amounted to “B” teams. Norwich gave debuts to Felix Passlack, Max Aarons and the much-heralded Emi Buendia, who started as part of an attacking three with Marco Stiepermann and Todd Cantwell behind Dennis Srbeny, whose brace earned most of the headlines.
Yet, while at the time this was seen as little more than an unexpected morale-booster against a disinterested opposition, the roots of our recovery began, I believe, that night. Aarons’ goalscoring performance at left-back jettisoned him into the starting lineup against Ipswich for the next game – a huge call by Farke. Likewise, Buendia.
Injuries to key men, Grant Hanley and Hernandez then followed in quick succession, but far from being the straw that broke the camel’s back, these injuries galvanised a squad that was bursting with players on the cusp of the team who were dying to be given a chance.
Christoph Zimmermann replacing Hanley was a no-brainer as he and Timm Klose fit together seamlessly, and it’s no coincidence that our best defensive runs of this season and last have come when the two have played together.
Hanley is a fantastic centre-back and captain and we’re extremely fortunate to have him. Individually he’s probably the superior of either Klose or Zimmermann but those two have a chemistry and a way of playing together that just works.
The absence of Hernandez promoted Cantwell to the left side of the attack. I still have no clue what exact position Cantwell plays. He doesn’t fit any traditional mould. What he is, is an all-round modern player.
Despite a slight appearance, he’s ultra-competitive and gives defenders and midfielders no time on the ball. He’s undoubtedly creative, and while the more old-school supporters would file him under the heading “flicks, farts, and fannies”, there is more-often-than-not, an end product to his impudence.
And what Cantwell injects into the team is fluidity. His ability to interchange positions means he naturally drifts in off the left flank in a way that Hernandez doesn’t and can swap places with Stiepermann at will.
Farke also made two key decisions at that time, the first of which was to play Mo Leitner in a deeper role. Up until the Leeds game, he had been employed further forward, effectively playing in a 4-1-4-1 alongside another attacking midfielder, which tended to be Stiepermann or Pukki if he wasn’t playing wide on the right.
The balance clearly wasn’t quite right, and the team were struggling to move the ball from the back in the way they wanted to. Anybody who witnessed 70-minutes of Hanley, Klose, Tettey and Krul playing keep-ball against Preston will testify to that. But with Mo ‘quarterbacking’ and taking the ball and the weight off the defence to find creative ways to progress forward, we suddenly had that much-needed link in the chain.
Farke’s second decisive, and bold, move was to drop Rhodes and play Pukki on his own up front. Rhodes had not started the season badly and was getting goals, but it was clear that Pukki was sharper still, and being played wide-right or as a second striker was unbalancing the attack. With Pukki able to make his intelligent runs off the back of defences instead of coming from deeper, he instantly became more of a threat.
With a fluid three behind Pukki, of Cantwell, Stiepermann and Buendia, all happily interchanging passes and positions, and Leitner feeding into them, City’s tepid Hernandez-focussed attack became suddenly multi-headed and potent. And with the solidity of Klose and Zimmermann in front of an increasingly confident Krul, Aarons and Lewis were free to pound forward and add a layer of width to the attack that was necessary in the absence of Hernandez.
A word too for an evergreen Alex Tettey who’s having his best season for City, and the medical staff who are keeping those knees going game after game.
While the progress from Webber off the pitch has been consistent and apparent throughout, Farke’s success has come in the crystallization of a number of decisions over the past year. But that night in Cardiff, where Aarons impressed, and Cantwell, Stiepermann and Buendia played together for the first time and gave us all a glimpse of what could be, may very well turn out to be our Miss World moment.
And if we’re popping champagne corks and throwing money around at the end of the season, like George, we’ll know we’ve made it.