I’ve been pondering a mystery.
No – not why I’m still overweight and unfit. Little mystery about that, I’m afraid.
The mystery is this. City are bottom of the table, with 3 wins out of 22, and relegation is all-but-certain. I’m disappointed, of course – but why am I not angry?
I know some readers will say that it’s Stewart’s way, that he’s always a loyalist/happy clapper.
But that isn’t true. Three years ago I was distinctly angry, and expressing it both privately and publicly. Our squad of self-important players enjoying Premier League wages, but giving us pusillanimous performances in the Championship, wasn’t to my taste or satisfaction; MFW was one of the places I said so.
My feelings are very different now. By April 2017 our club was in serious difficulty. We’d kept together that high-wage squad and gambled on it bouncing back to the Premier League. From early in the season, though, it was apparent that it lacked the attitude to do so. I thought the Board waited too long to act.
When it acted, though, it did so with purpose. To the disdain of our friends at Ipswich – worth remembering they were in the same division with us at the time – we changed the structure of the club and brought in a dynamic young Sporting Director, who in turn brought in a dynamic young Head Coach.
Their hands were tied financially: the only way out of the hole was to develop and sell a couple of key assets (notably James Maddison), then to assemble a team comprising academy products plus talent from elsewhere that Stuart Webber could identify and purchase on a shoestring budget.
The achievement last year was phenomenal, and clearly ahead of the schedule mapped out by Webber and Farke. Promotion transformed our finances, in that we no longer had to sell. It didn’t transform them, though, in terms of money available to spend on new players.
Much of the initial tranche of Premier League money was earmarked to meet a variety of obligations, including promotion bonuses, new contracts and overdue upgrading of our facilities. Those obligations, combined with our lack of deep-pocketed owners, left us at a clear disadvantage to everyone else in the Premier League.
Yes, we’ve produced some sub-par performances – I was at Brighton, soaked to the skin and watching from almost pitchside, so I don’t need reminding – and some of the Head Coach’s game management is open to questioning. But I feel none of the general sense of resentment I felt three years ago.
I’ll come back to the issue of style at the end, but for now I’ll just say: I’ve genuinely enjoyed the commitment and quality of football we’ve seen from our team in much of this season.
Our self-financing model can be debated, of course, especially when it may appear we’re fatalistic about going down. But I believe that appearance is deceptive. No, we’re not going to jeopardise the club’s viability with wild spending that might – or more likely wouldn’t – keep us in the PL. I’m firmly convinced, though, that we have ambition.
The closest model of recent years is Burnley. After their first promotion, Burnley came straight down in 2015. They were working to a plan, though; they kept Sean Dyche and his approach, got promoted again and established themselves in the top flight. Like Norwich, they were financially much stronger after the second promotion, used the learning from their first time at the top, and achieved their aim.
No-one can or should assume we’ll bounce straight back, of course. Let’s not forget, though, what we did last season. If we find ourselves this summer facing a season of Championship football, we’ll be doing it with a far stronger base than in summer 2018.
We may sell some of our high-value assets. Don’t forget, though, that they’re only high-value because Webber and Farke have made them so. I very much doubt Webber has run out of targets, and he’ll have much greater financial leeway than before to land them. I very much doubt Farke has lost his ability to turn raw talent into effective first-team players.
As Robin Sainty said in his recent EDP column: “Given the miracles Webber was able to work with next to nothing, I would certainly have faith in him to use a decent budget effectively”.
A final word about style – and here I’ll hold my hand up to a charge of inconsistency. As my Twitter followers are no doubt sick of hearing, in politics it’s all about winning. I’m not so sure in football.
Of course I want to win; I’m still to be avoided for a couple of hours after we lose. Even in some of our defeats, though, I’ve had real pleasure watching Farkeball. The suggestion that we replace Daniel Farke with a more pragmatic (ie defensive) traditional manager makes my heart sink.
I don’t think we will; I desperately hope we don’t.