There is some symmetry at least. Stuart Webber enraged Norwich City supporters with an interview in The Times and now he is so upset by an Eastern Evening News front page that he has stopped talking to reporters from the Archant group.
But let’s be clear: he hasn’t banned them. Archant will, of course, attend all the normal media conferences with head coach Dean Smith and selected players and can ask whatever questions they like.
In the first version of this column, I said that until this spat, City’s Sporting Director used to regularly take calls from Paddy Davitt, Archant’s Group Football Editor, and there were lunches held for the local media.
Paddy has since assured me that he hadn’t initiated a work-related conversation with Webber via phone or any online medium since November. So I apologise for saying otherwise.
But there was a relatively cordial relationship and an easy access which the club had introduced and which is very rare in football. Now, for the moment, all that has stopped. Webber will not engage with Davitt and Co.
Personally, I think that’s a shame and a mistake. But Webber is hurting and most senior figures at the club seem to be thinking: “Whatever we say is misinterpreted, put under a sensationalist headline and used to ferment more discontent. So, at the moment, it’s best to say very little.”
I’ve seen it all before, many, many times at countless clubs. My entire career was punctuated by rows about newspaper coverage.
As soon as I moved from news to sport at the organisation which was to become Archant, the then City manager, John Bond, telephoned my boss, swore rather a lot and demanded I should be sacked.
When I worked for The Sun, Alan Mullery (then QPR manager) insisted that his club complained to the Press Council (the forerunner of the Press Complaints Commission) because my story said he was going to buy Michael Robinson from Liverpool for £200,000. By the time the case was heard, my position was strengthened a tad by the fact that Mullery had bought Robinson for £200,000.
As an executive at the (London) Evening Standard, I had to placate Harry Redknapp when he was West Ham manager after we said there was a drinking culture at his club. I took him for a drink.
Gerry Francis said he was going to sue for defamation when one of our columnists said his haircut made him look ridiculous. I explained that, in a libel case, it would be up to him to prove that he didn’t look ridiculous. We heard no more.
As a columnist at the Daily Express Iso angered Chelsea fans by Tweeting something (true but unhelpful) about Jose Mourinho that they started a Change.org petition to get me banned from Stamford Bridge. Chelsea – somewhat duplicitously I felt – said they would no longer allow me to do one-on-one interviews with anyone at the club: something I’d never sought, because interviews were not my role.
So, my sympathies are with Paddy, but I do, absolutely, understand the club’s frustration and anger at that incendiary front page. Let me try to set out all the circumstances.
No, I haven’t been asked to write this piece by Webber. I haven’t spoken to him for months. No, I haven’t been asked to write this piece by City’s majority shareholders. I haven’t spoken to them for months either. But, yes, I am their friend and admirer and of course that colours what I think about them. I’ve never hidden or disputed that. If you think that disqualifies me from having opinions about the club I pay to watch home and away, cheerio.
If you’re still here, let’s look at Webber’s interview by Henry Winter in The Times. It’s done more harm than any interview since, er, Henry’s last big Norwich interview – when he quoted Delia Smith as saying she and Michael Wynn Jones don’t even listen to anyone who wants to buy the club.
Henry is a lovely, hugely talented guy. But when I did big interviews, if the subject said something that I realised would be inflammatory, I’d ask them to elaborate and perhaps clarify, so that there was context and no room for misunderstanding. Henry just put the quotes in his pieces and, inevitably, sub-editors picked them out for the headlines. So, years later in the case of the Delia interview, the quote has become the distorting lens through which Delia is seen by many supporters.
Similarly, Webber will now always be regarded as the bloke who said he’d only give 90 per cent of himself to Norwich City and didn’t see any need to appease the fans.
Here, though, is the context Henry didn’t provide.
Delia and Michael have had so many charlatans propose ludicrously unsafe “investment” plans for Norwich City during their 25 years at the helm that they no longer talk to those people themselves. But others do the “due diligence” for them.
The club is not on the market, but there is nothing to stop anyone making an approach. If there is a proposal and it seems to stack up, Delia and Michael would put it to a vote of supporters. That idea is fraught with its own problems but, whatever some believe to the contrary, D & M genuinely have always, and will always put what they believe are the long-term best interests of the club first.
And, although it shouldn’t be necessary to say this, they are crushed by the hurt of watching this season meander to its dismal end. Someone posted a picture on that cursed Facebook fans’ page of Delia smiling at Villa Park. She is a polite lady, and I suspect she was responding to something pleasant that someone had called out to her. Her real mood though, and that of her husband, was accurately portrayed on Match Of The Day, which showed them sitting in forlorn despair as relegation was confirmed.
There are some other terrible tropes about, the silliest of which are that D & M have no ambition and are content with our club yo-yoing between the divisions. There have even been innumerate suggestions that going down and getting a parachute payment is “good business”. The clue is in the name: “parachute”. They were introduced because falling out of the Premier League is a financial calamity. The parachute reduces the impact – but still means income falls by about 60 per cent.
And “no ambition”?
Season after season for 25 years Delia and Michael have laboured away trying to get Norwich into the top division and stay there. That ambition led to paying too much for too long to Steven Naismith, for instance, and to at least two occasions when City hovered far too close to administration.
So, Delia and Michael sought another way: to try and remain self-funding and sustainable while making assaults on the Premier League. That is the most ambitious current project in the English game.
At the front and centre of that bold desire is Stuart Webber.
He has now built three teams who have won promotion to the Premier League in three attempts. The first was at Huddersfield. You remember the other two: one was that joyous, improbable, swashbuckling romp in which City played gorgeous Farkeball with “all the Germans”. The last was different but more impressive: the defence was solid, we didn’t concede goals from set-pieces but we could still pass teams to death.
Huddersfield stayed up for two seasons (after Webber left). Norwich couldn’t manage one. And this season has been a very, very tough watch.
Folk want to blame someone. Because that’s what football supporters do. If you can find a pantomime villain to blame, then that exorcises the pain a bit and makes you think that the problem has been solved.
Step forward Webber and that interview. Giving it to Henry upset Archant and the glib headlines could not have painted a worse picture. But, but, but … if there is anyone left who is interested in context and truth, here goes.
After the glories of our second Football League title in three seasons, Webber was mentally and physically exhausted, because his all-encompassing role is more demanding than even that of the head coach. I have witnessed Webber’s almost manic commitment to keeping on top of everything and striving always to improve everything. I’ve also witnessed his brusque manner and the un-nuanced way in which he talks about things. Both the work ethic and the in-your-face talking reveal a man who doesn’t do compromise.
With a young son at home and a restless need to always be achieving, Webber decided he would leave Norwich City at the end of this season and tackle the next stage of his life.
For the City board, planning for the 2021-22 season in the Premier League, the prospect of Daniel Farke and Webber both leaving at the end of it, come what may, filled them with dread. And so the conversation went something like this, I imagine.
Webber: “I want to climb Everest. It is literally the toughest thing I can think of doing. And I really want to do it.”
Delia and Michael: “Can you take a sort of staggered sabbatical and to it? But stay working for us?”
Webber: “Err. Perhaps. I could certainly do all the preparatory trips at times when others could take over at Colney. And, of course I would do the actual climb when Norwich aren’t playing at all.”
The next conversation Webber had was with his wife, Zoe Ward, the very impressive, legally trained, hugely admired within football, latest Norwich City director – who happens to be married to Webber. Hers was the idea to turn his Everest adventure into a force for good by establishing a charity: The Summit Foundation, to help Norfolk youngsters fulfil their potential.
To publicise the foundation a dinner for Norfolk’s great and good was held, and Webber addressed everyone. Then he made some of the same points – needing a new challenge, wanting to fit it in around still striving for Norwich City – in an interview with Henry.
That “90 percent” comment is ambivalent. In the context of the preceding and subsequent remarks it seems to mean that Webber told Delia and Michael he will be completely focussed on Norwich City except for those weeks when he is preparing for Everest, and if the board were not happy with that arrangement, he’d understand and finish his contract this July as planned. But the board were anxious for him to stay.
The “not my job to appease the fans” quote is not that at all. He actually said, “My life isn’t to appease Norwich fans,” and he goes on to explain that he needs other things in his life – specifically, he wants to climb that blooming mountain.
No head coach or manager can only worry about appeasing supporters. Which ones should he pacify?
The guy at Anfield at the Carabao Cup game who was in a screaming rage before kick-off, howling abuse about the team at the empty pitch? Or the bloke at Villa last weekend who was in a frenzy of fury because Dean Smith returned the applause of home fans? Or the ones who make their mind up about a player and never change it? The ones who are still convinced Grant Hanley is a donkey, even when he has been our best defender?
Yet if it is impossible for a manager to appease all fans all the time, a Sporting Director certainly can’t spend an inordinate amount of time and energy responding to this week’s complaints. He must take a long-term, strategic view.
But a better advised Sporting Director would not phrase his words quite as candidly as did Webber.
Those words made him the scapegoat: a target for supporters overwhelmed by the abject failures on the pitch this season. But Webber did not deliberately confront the knot of unhappy protestors outside Carrow Road after the defeat by Newcastle. Webber and Ward had to hurry off, but a group of protestors had gathered outside.
The exact tone, content and order of what happened next is disputed. Webber certainly tried to talk with the protestors. One supporter who says he just happened to be passing, certainly swore at Webber. Ward pushed Webber back inside (much like my wife, Sarah, tries to stop me arguing with referee-abusers at games).
Mobile phone footage of part of the clash went viral. Days later the supporter told Archant: “I’m not proud of the swear words that I used. I provoked him a little bit and he provoked us. I didn’t insult him as a person, just for the job that he has done.”
Right. Well having been on the receiving end more than once, I can confidently assert that it is always very personal.
Webber decided – perhaps on advice, I don’t know – to not say anything more to anyone until the season is over. No more explosive headlines. No more quotes without context or explanation.
That didn’t suit Richard Porritt, fairly recently promoted from business and politics editor at Archant to editor of the Evening News. He either designed or okayed a front page which asked: “Do you really want this job Mr Webber?” – thus obeying a saying in journalism that any headline with a question mark can be answered: “Yes”.
It was the sub-deck headline which really gave the game away though: “Anger grows as City director dodges row.”
If Webber talks to a national newspaper the headlines cause furore. If he tries to talk to protestors, he is accused of seeking a confrontation. But if he keeps schtum he is “dodging” the issues.
I understand how newspapers work. I understand what sells them. Similar headlines and tactics paid off my mortgage, so I can’t be hypocritical. But I’d also say that it is no part of the job description of the Norwich City Sporting Director to help sell the Evening News.
So, what now? As always, sacking someone or driving him or her out would be the easy bit. It is what would come next that should scare those of us who worry more about our football club than the circulation of the local paper (under 5,000 I believe).
If Webber walks, the entire structure of the football operation would be rudderless at a critical time. If Delia jacks it in … no, that’s not going to happen, because she just wouldn’t.
Of course, the recruitment last summer failed. The most accurate appraisal of last summer’s purchases will be made after Tzolis, Sargent and Co have had a season in the Championship, but last summer was supposed to enable survival in the Premier League. It didn’t.
Nobody will be more aware of that and more pained by it than Webber. But the two horrid seasons in the Premier League must be put in the balance against two titles, achieved with some of the best football I’ve ever seen in the second tier. And the recruitment misses must be weighed against Emi, Teemu, Krul, Skipp …
To discuss the season in full, though, I’d have to quote huge tracts of Michael Bailey’s masterful autopsy on The Athletic site, and I admire it too much to plagiarise it. An inadequate precis is that we needed everything to go right, and not much of it did. So, as they say on Love Island, it is what it is. And as they say in football, we go again.
One of Webber’s clear strengths is his negotiating skills. The prices he has got other clubs to pay for our players have driven the Webberlution and transformed the club from where it was when he arrived in 2017.
The expensive revamp of Colney – much needed if we are to attract good kids and better senior players – is a symbol of the reconstruction of the whole club. Even a £30m Covid hit, which would surely have devastated the pre-2017 club, has been managed and survived.
Realistically, I think we might need two seasons to be truly competitive in the Championship. I might be wrong. Dean Smith’s 4-2-3-1 in recent games has suggested a way forward at last.
Meanwhile, we’ve just got to see this wretched season out.
If you think writing “Delia out” on a bedsheet, or swearing at Webber, will help, I’d agree – it might well help you deal with your anger.
It won’t help the club you care about, though. We have a mountain to climb. Again.