Someone recently said to me: “You must really be happy – City top of the league, and you predicted it all”.
They were referring to an article I wrote here on 5 September after the 1-1 draw at Portman Road. In it, I argued for patience with Daniel Farke, saying that I saw some signs of improvement in the first six games of the season. A tentative suggestion, nothing more.
That didn’t stop some robust replies:
‘Farke is a nice guy but he won’t get City promoted, no matter how many games you give him’
‘He’s clueless – maybe better if he went back to coaching the youngsters’
‘There’s no progress. We’re in a relegation battle’
‘Another propaganda piece from a happy clapper member of the Delia cult’
At least I was a bit more accurate than them, but I can’t claim much else. If I’d predicted we’d be top of the league, that Teemu Pukki would have scored 23 goals, that he’d be contending with Max Aarons and Marco Stiepermann as early POTS candidates – if I’d predicted all that, I might be in full “told you so” mode and naming-and-shaming the above commenters.
None of us could foresee how the season has transpired – all the more credit to Daniel Farke and his staff. I’m not one for hyperbole, but if they get City promoted this year from the hand they were dealt, Webber and Farke will have delivered the greatest achievement in the 50 years I’ve been supporting the Canaries.
And with a style of football that’s a joy and a privilege to watch.
While we’re focussed on the next two-and-a-half months, it’s perhaps worth casting a quick look over our shoulders at the past decade.
For some clubs – including Forest, Derby and of course our good friends down the road – it’s been an uneventful decade of Championship fare.
Not for us.
A decade ago, in the summer of 2009, our club was in greater trouble than most fans realised. On the field, we’d sunk ignominiously into League 1 with a bunch of mediocre and uncommitted loan players. Off it, the club was a dangerous mess. If our finances are fragile now, they were much worse then – and the creditors were coming for their money.
Delia and Michael took counsel from a wise friend, a certain Roy Hodgson, who recommended we hire David McNally as Chief Executive. The rest is history: McNally acquired Grant Holt, brought in Paul Lambert (with Ian Culverhouse and Gary Karsa, of course) and a sense of purpose returned.
Just as important, the new Chief Exec grabbed every aspect of the club’s operation and made it the effective machine it needed to be for our survival. If McNally’s micro-management later became a source of frustration and humour, in 2009 and the following years it saved our club. That’s not an exaggeration.
Two successive promotions followed, then two mid-table seasons in the Premier League (as I speak, I can feel the waves of envy flowing up from Suffolk).
An interesting tangent is that we tend to remember the first one under Lambert, forgetting the second under Chris Hughton. If I mention that we beat Arsenal and both Manchester clubs, most fans will tend to assume it was under the swashbuckling approach of Paul Lambert. All three were actually under Hughton.
Then we had the sour relegation season under Hughton (and Neil Adams – no time to go into that one now), followed by the glorious charge and sensational Wembley triumph under Alex Neil.
A disappointing 2015-16 saw us relegated, having failed to strengthen the squad as we needed to. The worst and most damaging season – at least in my view – followed in 2016-17. Over the years we’ve been used to seeing other clubs with over-paid and under-performing squads; now it was Norwich City.
The failure of that season left us in a pile of brown stuff. We had a squad in need of fundamental overhaul, and a gaping financial hole to fill while we tried to do it.
At that point, our Board took the bold step – to patronising tut-tutting from down the road and elsewhere – of restructuring the club and appointing a Sporting Director to work with a Head Coach. I’m convinced it’s the way of the future, but we were among the pioneers.
Against the background of such fundamental change – including a whole coaching staff and set of players new to the Championship – last season’s performances left the jury firmly out. The negative reaction to losses at the start of this season wasn’t surprising and is hard to condemn (hence my not naming-and-shaming earlier).
It’s turned around, though, and in the most spectacular fashion. Even if we don’t go up in May, it should be remembered as a very special season.
But, of course, we want more. If we get it, it will be the sweetest of some pretty sweet moments during the past decade.
Totally agree Stewart. I sit a few rows up in the River End and Rhodes was so close to equalising against Leeds, but a defender got a fortunate block in and all we got was a corner. Minutes later, Leeds scored a 2nd and that was virtually ‘game over’.
As you say, MANY were calling for DF/SW to be replaced after that game, but they said at the outset that it would take 3 or 4 transfer windows to get the players they wanted.
How right they were and how times have changed – the signing of Pukki, Buendia and Hernandez; along with the promotion of Aarons, Godfrey and Cantwell has to be applauded.
We are all eagerly awaiting the ‘puff of white smoke from NR1’ as Martin said earlier in the week, to confirm that DF has agreed to extend his contract
Julian Roberts says
Cracking article Stewart i too was labelled a happy clapper at the time. Fans are too quick to want to get rid of a manager not giving him or her anytime to get their ideas across. Im particularly pleased Farke has turned things round as he has has a great personality and genuinely seems to have feelings for our club OTBC
Good read Mr L.– I was a great deal unsure if Farke was the guy, the Birmingham seemed to start a little sway in my Mind , results were not brillian, mistakes still being made in crucial places on the pitch, but something was changing. I can remember writing in comment to a Mr Penney article, that 10 games would be my point, of decision, no change at that point, then perhaps a more serious thought should b given to his position. But we all know what happened over that period.
As to the Sporting Director & Coach, I am sure others have tried and failed Newcastle sticks in my mind, but then what actually has worked at there ?
Not all will be like our partnership, it is like picking a manager, still a gamble (those down the road know all to well. but they do it once and quickly follow that with another, they would have been better to hire Ian Culverhouse but Linnet followers will lynch me for that) . The working and personal relationship must tight, which we do have, our choices have been spot on. But knowing this country and the deep rooted attitudes change will be slow.
Just a little addition, it would appear that Webber held the main drive at Huddersfield, Wagner on his own looked to have struggled massively until the inevitable parting of the ways. Wonder how Master Pritchard feels now ?
Jill Waters says
I remember saying after each match last season ‘It’s a transition, everyone said it would be like this’, but tbh I’m not sure I really believed it. With Lambert there was a kind of alchemy that he has never been able to replicate, with Alex Neil it was his ability to organise his team for specific opponents but now…well we’re playing such amazing football that I look forward to matches again. Long may it last!
Colin M says
Jill sums it all up perfectly “but now…well we’re playing such amazing football that I look forward to matches again. Long may it last!”
Canary fans have just had the best 10 years possible, what a roller coaster ride it’s been and can’t see it ending anytime soon.
A very good read Stewart.
I can well remember when we “shocked” the football establishment under a certain Mr Ron Saunders to win promotion to the old First Division. However, football was a very different beast then, and there was a much more level financial playing field.
What has happened here over the past 6 months has been little short of incredible given the financial outlay allowed to SW and DF. The “best” players a la Maddison, Pritchard and Murphy were sold on to keep the club solvent, and I’m sure no one can deny that last season was little short of purgatory.
Even after the draw at 1p5wich I can recall reading that it was played out by two of the prime relegation candidates. Following that performance, if you’d told someone that with 13 games to go City would be clear at the top of the table, then I’m pretty sure that the men in white coats would have been called for.
I cannot recall a season when I’ve been so excited awaiting our next match, nor when I’ve actually felt so deflated when West Brom score a last minute winner at QPR.
If the players can keep their heads, and so far there’s no sign of anything but, then I’m sure that the open top bus will be needed!
Our biggest problem will be to pick a player of the season, although given the togetherness of this group they will probably insist on it going to the whole squad!
O T B C
Colin M says
Yes, gutted last evening when the baggies got that last minute winner. OPR play Leeds soon where are Messrs Bowles, Marsh and Francis when the Super Hoops need them?
Funny isn’t it how we now become temporary fans of clubs playing Leeds, Shef Utd and WBA.
Consider this, look away now if you want, but The Binners play all three and finish, would we believe, against Shef Utd then Leeds. I wont go into the nightmare scenario my mind is playing out but they will be gone by then and we would never wipe the smile off a certain Scotsman’s face were those results pivotal
Gary Wenn says
The reason we forget “Hootun’s” 1st year in the premier league is because he was so defensive it became boring. Despite beating those 3 clubs you mentioned, we were only truly safe from relegation with 2 games to go. Much like Farke, the true colours came out in the 2nd season when Hootun lead us to a totally unnecessary relegation.
martin penney says
Excellent stuff Stew.
Nobody has ever called me a happy clapper and I doubt anyone ever will – I am probably most closely aligned with our MFW commenter Chris, especially when it comes to Club politics.
But I’ve always believed in both “speak as you find” and “give credit where credit is due” and I have not to my knowledge made any criticism of SW and DF.
I have no right or need to. Whether we go up or not it has been an exhilarating season.
You hinted previously that there is more about Tom Smith than meets the eye. Even if it’s limited to encouraging Auntie D to sit back and leave it to the experts that’s an insightful contribution on its own.
I cannot accurately say for sure but possibly Ed Balls originated the recruitment of Stuart Webber? Probably the finest decision this Club has ever made, whoever instigated it.
A great read.
Yes Martin, I was also led to believe that it was thanks to Ed and Tom that NCFC embarked on the Sporting Director/Head Coach option, despite the howls of derision from elsewhere.
I wonder if we may see other clubs attempt replicating our success in pursuing ‘our way??’
Stewart Lewis says
I think that’s right. Steve Stone was also an advocate for the new structure.
Just to clarify, the howls of derision were from outside the club – not from the rest of the Board!
As others have said above, after two/three years of mostly mediocre fayre, this season has surpassed my wildest dreams and for the first time since 2015 I now look forward to going to games again.
Whatever the outcome on Saturday (can’t wait) or in any of our remaining games, watching this team has been a pleasure and I know in pretty much every game we’ll create enough chances to always be in with a shout.
All successful teams have a balance about them and right now we certainly fall into that category thanks to astute buys, focus on youth and a polished way of playing – long may it continue!
David Bowers says
Poor Jez, wiped from NCFC history.
Stewart Lewis says
We can only hope…
I tend to agree, if and its stiill a big if, we can end the season with an open top bus tour, then it would be the most satisfying of seasons.
I make no bones about my misgivings surrounding the Webber/Farke project. I was unnerved by Webbers initial public utterances and although I found Farke an engaging and intelligent presence on the touchline I feared he had bitten off more than he could chew.
Being honest, nobody could say for certain they foresaw this upturn. Simple blind faith is not insight, these are the same people who loudly approved the likes of Gunn and Adams, to name a couple.
What is clear, is that somebody exercised some pretty sound judgment and 18 months down the line we have a team to be proud of and players we can all enjoy watching. Credit where it is due, not only to Webber, who has spun some pure gold from unlikely sources, Farke, who has a reputation growing by the week and his assorted staff, but also to the Smiths, yes, the Smiths, who somewhere during this process were involved in the decision making and sanctioning of the new direction.
Whatever the outcome of this season, I would like Farke and Webber to continue in their work, namely rebuilding the club from scratch and producing winning football teams that we can be proud of. Let us all hope their work will not be dismantled in the summer and that they can regroup and aim even higher.
As I said, credit should always be given where it is due and the whole club from top to bottom is very much in credit at the moment.
I suspect that Martin amongst many others including myself will soon hold the club or individuals to account if they let things slide from here!
Stewart Lewis says
Chris: very fair and spot-on comments.
If those who call me a Happy Clapper trawled back through my articles, they might be surprised at the bluntness of my criticism of the club in 2016-17. In pre-MFW days, I was also blunt about Gunn (great guy, terrible choice as manager).
No point in being blindly supportive of any organisation or person (as I occasionally suggest to Jeremy Corbyn’s fans….)