Stuart Webber insists Norwich City are determined to achieve a long spell in the Premier League.
At a time when some supporters are asking: “What is the point of winning promotion if the club is going to ‘yo-yo’ back down again?”, City’s Sporting Director asserts that he is focussed on breaking that cycle by staying up.
That vow can be heard in a podcast – a fact which tells its own tale of his continued estrangement from the local, Norwich media. But it is a wide-ranging, fascinating and stirring statement of intent.
On the BT Sport podcast “Michael Calvin’s Football People”, Webber talks candidly to Calvin, the author of several award-winning sports books.
Webber nails the lie that anyone at Norwich was in any sense happy last season when, for the second successive time, winning the Football League was followed immediately by finishing bottom of the Premier League.
He maintains that the “ultimate objective” must be a prolonged spell in the top tier. He accepts that it is his job to lead the club to that objective. He details new ways in which the club is striving to work “hard, differently and smarter” than rivals. And he talks about trying to reach another summit – his plan to conquer Mount Everest.
It was that Everest plan, and the suggestion that it would mean Webber only being able to give 90 per cent of his time to the football club, which led the Norwich Evening News to produce a front-page headline “Do you really want this job Mr Webber?”
That headline fractured the club’s relationship with the local media, made Webber seriously contemplate resignation and provoked a demonstration against him outside Carrow Road.
But he stresses in the podcast that he has continued working even when out of the country training and practising for Everest. “For instance, when we signed Isaac Hayden, I was 4,000 metres above sea-level, talking to (Newcastle Sporting Director) Dan Ashworth while I was away on an acclimatisation trip.”
He says that the “yo-yo club” tag is a blessing and a curse.
“It’s a bit of both. It is a blessing because there are probably 70 clubs who would swap places with us, to have two of the last three seasons in the Premier League, the biggest league in the world. I think we could all name a lot of clubs who would give a lot for that.
“But it is also a curse as well, because, as happened last time, as soon as you get promoted we were written off and that becomes a real tough ‘noise’ to deal with: a real tough psychology to get everyone’s head round.
“But that is up to us. We are the ones who have to change that. And so we have to keep working hard and working differently and smarter to try to achieve that ultimate objective.’
He says the second relegation of his tenure in East Anglia was crushing.
“It’s tough. Dealing with it is horrible. It is the closest thing to having a death in the family. I know people will think that is a bit dramatic, but when you are working in this industry and when you do this (job), it means that much to you.
“People say, ‘It is just a game’ or ‘it doesn’t matter’, but no, you dedicate your life to your craft and your industry and then when relegation happens it is horrific. You walk around thinking that you have let people down. People look at you differently.
“I remember having a conversation with Eddie Jones about this – he was Australia (rugby union) coach, and he lost the World Cup final. He said he was walking to the shops and people were looking at him as if he had killed someone. I had the same feeling. I was walking through the car park at the stadium and people were almost, like, avoiding me. And I was thinking: ‘What? Have I killed someone?’ ”
“It is super tough to deal with. It makes you more resilient. But what we have to do is, once you get over that initial – let’s call it mourning – stage of it happening, you analyse ‘Why did it happen? What can we learn from it? How can we get better?’
“We need to work out a way within our constraints which we’ve got – which are different to other clubs, and some people don’t like to hear that, but it is a fact – we have to keep working out a way of how do we become more successful with this model and sustain ourselves in the Premier League?
“Not just for one year, because you can do a lot of damage staying for one year and then getting relegated. We want to stay for a number of years and be able to grow.
“I always talk about Southampton, who have been a great model of that. I think Burnley were a great model of that under Sean (Dyche). Obviously, they fell out (of the Premier League) this year, which was unfortunate for them, but they were (an example of) a great way of doing what we are trying to do.”
But Webber accepts that there is a football version of gravity, and that what goes up will almost certainly come down again at some stage.
“I think if you spoke to any of the bottom 10 or 11 clubs in the Premier League I reckon every season their first objective would be to try to stay up. If you look at the squads at Palace, Southampton, even Wolves – these sort of clubs – they are only two bad injuries away from their squad being not great.
“And you are only some bad decisions away from getting relegated: a change of coach, signing the wrong player, selling the wrong player. The league is so difficult.
“I think people lose sight of how good the Premier League is. There is a reason why at the final stages of European football, it is always English clubs who are there. The reason for that is that the quality of the league is outstanding.
“We were able to sign players last year, with the smallest budget, that clubs in the top six of Spain and Germany couldn’t sign because we could afford more than they can.
“We have the best league in the world. The best coaches want to come here. The best players want to come here. That means it is incredibly tough to get into in the first place and then tough to stay there and keep staying there.”
And to stay there, he says, Norwich City must take risks.
“Whether that be with our recruitment, whether that’s our player development, whether that’s young players … whatever it is, we have to take risks.”
And there must be new ideas and methods.
“A year ago we started a data and innovation department. We want to not take the normal route of (using) data about how many kilometres does a player run or whatever, because everyone has got that information now
“So it is about what you do with it. Now we are looking at things like: can we look ahead at trends five years ahead in the game? Can we tell via data about a player’s behaviour on the pitch whether he is a leader or not? Can we learn from data about coaches? What work is being done to make these players better?
“These are the things we need to be doing better than anyone else. Because if we do the same as everyone else, with the greatest respect to ourselves, we’d be about thirtieth in the country, because that is probably about where our size is.”
Webber explains the value of working out future trends in the game.
“The game is going to get quicker. The evidence says it is going to be the players who can make a quicker decision and who can see things quicker (who will prosper).
“So that affects our recruitment when we are thinking of the type of player we want in two, three four transfer windows ahead. And there will be a knock-on effect of how we coach in our academy. If we know now that in five years’ time the game will be physically quicker, and players will be making quicker decisions – well that is going to be players who are 13 now and we need them to be starting that journey now.”
Other innovations include having position-specific scouts, “so that, instead of a scout spending all his time in say, Holland, he is going to different countries or areas but looking at, perhaps just the four fullbacks in the game he is watching.”
And the introduction this season of set-piece coach Allan Russell (who formerly worked with England teams) was prompted by looking at last season.
“In the Premier League, we were 20 points short and probably 20 goals short. If you take Brentford last season, they scored 16 goals from set pieces. We scored two.
“If we can close that gap – if we can score 10 more goals from set pieces – that might be 15 of the (missing) points right there. If we can score 15 goals from set pieces, that is the same as signing a £30m striker.”
Podcast host Calvin – a friend of mine (we have been colleagues and he once got a job I went for!) – took part as a crew member in a round-the-world yacht race in the 1980s and clearly empathises with Webber’s determination to climb Everest and admires him for it. But Calvin concedes: “Football people just won’t get it, will they?”
Webber gives a long answer and, given that the Everest mission led to that headline, a demo and continued discontent among the fan base, it is an important answer.
Webber was brought up by a working, single mum. He says: “Everest has been a dream since I was a child. I was brought up in the countryside in mid-Wales and so I looked at a mountain through my bedroom window every day.
“I’ve got big calves. Everyone laughs at the size of my calves. It’s like ’Yeah, because to get the bus was a mile up a hill every day from the age of six, with my sister, who I usually had to drag. It’s me. Being outside and in the world is me.
“One of the reasons I’ve been criticised for it is that people didn’t know, but I have come out to publicly talk about it, which wouldn’t be normal (for me). You will find out very little about my private life because I don’t talk about it. But I’ve chosen to talk about this.
“I’ve been doing this for a very long time. It’s a bit like people who go on holiday to Dubai. If you don’t put the snaps out, people don’t’ know you go on holiday.
“I get up at 5 every morning. That’s my routine every day, even at weekends. So that is when I fit in my training.
“I did Cotopaxi in Ecuador in June. Since then to transfer deadline day, I haven’t done another climb, but I have trained every single day. But that is training when most people are asleep.
“I knew that wouldn’t affect my work. And when I had a very honest conversation with the owners, and the rest of the board, and the people I work with – because that was important as well – I didn’t want the people I work with every day to think that suddenly I was ‘tossing it off’ – they all said: ‘You give so much to the place that if you are going to have the odd day off to go climbing, good luck to you’.”
He goes on: “What has been nice is the amount of people in the game, emails, people I’ve bumped into, who have said, ‘Wow. I wish I could have the commitment to do something like that.’
“What people miss is, when you are doing these expeditions, you can get a lot of work done. You go out, have an adaptation walk and you come back. You can be sat about in hotels relaxing for eight hours getting used to the altitude.
“I went to Brazil for a week for work, but the work didn’t stop at the football club, yet I was much further away and much less contactable than some of the climbs I have done.”
Calvin asks whether being aware of the power of nature and understanding man’s insignificance is part of the appeal.
Webber says: “It’s also escapism. It is very hard when you do a job like mine to be alone, but I like to be alone with my thoughts. It is partly the physical challenge; I like to suffer a bit and find how far I can be pushed.
“It is not just Everest. It is the ‘journey’. I am learning lots of new things. I enjoy being guided rather than being the guide. You are on a rope following someone, and your life is in their hands as opposed to being the one at the front with people hanging off you. That’s like a day off for me and so that has been quite nice.
“This (need to do something extreme) is either in you or it is not. And I do get that. I have very close friends and family who have tried to talk me out of it and cannot get their heads around it. I fully understand that. But at the same time, I am like ‘You just don’t get it’.”
Calvin and Webber discuss “decompression”: what it will be like trying to be motivated by Colney after being at the top of the world.
Webber says: “I would not be prepared to come back into Norwich, if I am still here, and let people down, because that is not what I am about. I am very grateful for what I have had here.
“In the same way, I have always been very open to Delia and Michael that if I ever feel it (the training) is getting in the way, don’t worry, I will leave.”
That last quotation is another hostage to fortune, almost exactly like that “90 per cent” comment. So, before the Evening News constructs more faux outrage, let me explain for Webber.
He has never thought Everest would impact his work, but if it turns out that it does, he would not hold the club to the contract he has. The “90 per cent” comment was not a threat, it was a promise of fealty to owners who have supported him and his lifetime’s ambition.
And he still and definitely shares our ambition – the thing we all want – to scale English football’s highest peak and stay there.
The full podcast is here…