However poorly timed, ill-judged and bloody annoying this international break may be – and it’s all of those things – it does permit those of us who write about the club the chance to draw breath, take a step back and survey the lie of the land ahead of the run-in.
The Wednesday-Saturday relentlessness of any given Championship season is world-renowned but the intensity of this concertinaed season has been something else. From an editor’s perspective, the thought pieces that follow the Saturday game, for example, are still live and attracting comments way beyond the posting of the preview piece for the next game.
The community that is MFW’s readership can (almost) always be relied upon to discuss with grace and courtesy, the talking points of the day; those points being brought to them by a team of great writers that I’m lucky enough to have at my disposal.
I’ll try my best to spare their blushes but in terms of regular contributors, Martin Penney and Samuel Seaman currently make my job a very easy one; Martin with his own, very personal, beautifully observed take on proceedings and Sam with his analytical eye for the nuances of Farkeball that belie his tender years.
In addition, Andy Head’s headteacher reports and match previews – in which he does actual research – and Chris Sadler’s well-researched and, occasionally, quizzical contributions help, add to what, hopefully, is a variety of NCFC views expressed in different styles and in different voices.
And so, with apologies to anyone I may have missed, I also need to thank Allan Kemp, James Colman, Kathy Blake, James Eddy, Dave Cole, Cat Prior-Holt, Ed Couzens-Lake, Stewart Lewis, Mike Taylor, Mick Dennis, Alfie Britcher and Thom Belk; all of whom have contributed to MFW in 2021 in their own inimitable way.
A string of erudite and entertaining guest bloggers also should be mentioned – guest blogs being an important part from my perspective – alongside the two men without whom I, or none of us, would be here at all: Rick Waghorn and Stuart Bartram, between them, are to me what Michael Wynn-Jones and Delia Smith are to Norwich City Football Club and what Grant Hanley and Ben Gibson have been to the City team.
(Sorry about all the thank yous… but as we never [quite rightly] win any awards, I never get the chance 🙂 )
But I digress. What I really intended to do today, under the guise of the ‘lie of the NCFC land’, was to have a quick look at the transformation this club has undergone since the arrival of one Mr. Stuart Webber.
Only by taking a step back does the magnitude of the change, and in such a short time, become clear (to me anyway).
It was on April 6, 2017, that a statement from then-chairman Ed Balls unveiled Webber as our sporting director. His was seen as a pivotal appointment in a “new footballing and executive structure”, one that at that time included Alan Irvine (Caretaker Manager), Ricky Martin (Technical Director), and Richard Money (Academy Manager).
At the time, we didn’t know exactly what this brave new world would look like but we did know one was needed. The end of the Alex Neil era was a miserable time with a group of under-performing players who were stuck in a similar-sized rut as the one in which the club found itself.
In the midst of a poorly-worded and not-very-good MFW rant following City’s implosion away at Rotherham in the final throes of the Neil era, I somehow stumbled upon a line that, I think, possibly summed up the club at that time.
“In the age of super-fast broadband and digital downloads, Norwich City persists with dial-up and vinyl.”
The rest of the rant, if you’re interested, is here:
The direction of travel was of an Ipswich Town hue but behind the scenes, unbeknown to most of us, plans were afoot to not just tinker with the status quo but to rip it up and start again… at least from below boardroom level.
The story of how Stuart Webber was identified is not completely clear but the change in structure and ethos was reportedly first mooted when a replacement was being sought for David McNally. Following discussions with former Liverpool director of football Damien Comolli, a sporting director type model was discussed but was met with resistance at that time from Alex Neil. Instead of a new model, we ended up with the old one with one Jez Moxey as the CEO.
Luckily for everyone, Moxey and Norwich City were unhappy bedfellows and once he and Alex Neil had departed, the coast was clear for Balls and co, with Delia and Michael’s blessing, to deliver their plan. And with Delia and Michael going nowhere, it was a new structure and ethos that was always going to have to be cost-neutral, and which to work would realistically need regular injections of Premier League money.
That Stuart Webber has been able to deliver said dollops of Premier League cash while overseeing a transformation on and off the pitch and, most crucially of all, to the collective mindset, has been an achievement of gargantuan proportions. Against a financial backdrop of penny-pinching and cost-saving, to have achieved what he has will, literally, go down in the annals of this football club.
The legacy of which he speaks is already in place. Whatever happens in the short, medium and long term, the direction of travel is clear. There is now a ‘Norwich City way’, and it’s one to be proud of; a golden thread that runs through from the youngest academy teams to the first XI. The style is distinctive. Ours.
Pre-Webber, we spoke of it but I couldn’t, hand on heart, tell you what style of football we were aiming for. With every new manager came a different style and within that manager’s era, the style flipped and flopped depending on the situation and the opposition.
Not any more.
But while Webber quite rightly gets the plaudits, it still relies on outstanding recruitment to enact the plan and which is why in the early years of the Webberlution there were casualties aplenty. Hard decisions had to be made; sometimes due to the cutting of the cloth, other times due to there being no room for non-believers. Never was there (and is there) a greater need for everyone to be pulling in the same direction.
Having the right person with the right qualities in the right post with the appropriate level of freedom of expression goes way beyond just the playing staff. For this to work, especially within said constraints, recruitment is King. And taking of kings… just how good does the appointment of Borussia Dortmund II’s coach look now? Is there another head coach in the world we would swap him with?
And the infrastructure. Wow.
Anyone who’s been lucky enough to see Colney in its current form, will know exactly what I mean. From a few pitches of varying quality, a ‘clubhouse’, a makeshift gym and a network of Portakabins to a futuristic-looking arena fit to house and hone elite 21st-century athletes. And the eye for detail is astounding.
Few stones are left unturned at the Lotus Training Centre.
And so here we are. In the space of just under four years we find ourselves with a club completely transformed and on the cusp of our second crack at the richest league in the world. As many around us flounder, both on and off the pitch, even our failures feel like part of a journey that’s every bit as important as the ultimate destination.
The coming weeks may bring some glory, should bring some in fact, but even if the unlikeliest of implosions were to occur, there will remain a football club that is now comfortable in its own skin, being run by people whose raison dêtre is to ensure it is the very best it can possibly be. And as supporters, that’s all we ask.
That two of those people have contracts that expire in June 2022 is another discussion for another day.