He shouldn’t have said it. But I certainly understand why Dean Smith felt relieved that Norwich City’s next game is away from home. I said the same to my wife as we trooped out of Carrow Road on Saturday after the defeat by Blackburn.
But before I elaborate – and attempt to put the case for Smith and the club’s hierarchy – I plead for two ground rules.
The first is that readers concede that I accept every single person who supports the great club in the Fine City has an unconditional right to express a strident opinion.
The second is that I’d like that right extended to me, without the abuse I sometimes get for my opinions about the club we all care about and without the canard that I am a stooge for the board.
I am friendly with our majority shareholders, but not beholden to them. I happen to have concluded, after 40 years of striving to gain a professional understanding of the inner workings of many different football clubs, that ours is exceptionally well run by good folk.
Of course, they make mistakes. Sometimes they are undone by their good intentions. Sometimes they are defeated by the unmanageable vagaries of the beautiful game.
But they are not in it for the money – they’d be a lot better off if they hadn’t put Norwich City first so often – and they are never happy with mediocrity. They instruct new employees that they want every aspect of Norwich City to be the best it can possibly be.
So why is it all a bit sh*t at the moment? I’m going to advocate a different perspective: that it really isn’t.
Warning: this will be a long read. I don’t think I’ve attempted a more important piece on MyFootballWriter in the 17 years I have been contributing to this site. It can’t be done with a few glib assertions.
So… I think some people are conflating to things: the disconnect between supporters and club and the performances on the pitch.
I am reminded of my very first conversation with Delia Smith, a quarter of a century ago. Local media were critical of her attempts to generate income for the club by overhauling catering and hospitality. The décor at what became the Top Of The Terrace was an irritant to the EDP, who described it as a “minimalist, London, chic” and complained about the absence of tablecloths.
Delia asked me why there was such antipathy. I replied: “The football’s not very good at the mo. Win matches and they’ll forget the tablecloths. But if you don’t win matches, they’ll complain about everything.”
That is always the way, at every single club; winning football matches makes other issues seem much less important – and losing matches magnifies every other complaint, real or imagined.
I do not argue that there is no “disconnect”. If people are convinced there is one, then, by definition, there is one. But, but, but …
Kathy Blake, whom I like very much, wrote on this site that some good people who used to be involved in fan engagement, have left the club. I know Ipswich came poaching, but isn’t that a tribute to the work that had been done by the current regime to improve things?
And what about the engagement efforts still being made?
There are regular, structured meetings with the Supporters’ Trust. There is the new fans’ consultation group and much-improved in-house media content (easily among the best in the Championship). There have been guided tours of Colney for groups of fans. There is the support for, and involvement with, the brilliant Community Sports Foundation.
The club’s relationship with the CSF is the best it has been since I became involved as a trustee nearly a decade ago. Things became particularly strained when Steve Stone was NCFC managing director because, I think, it seemed to him that the CSF’s desire to build The Nest meant chasing sponsors who might otherwise have funded the club’s academy. Now main board directors Zoe Webber and Tom Smith are both very active, committed trustees of the CSF, who (under the chairmanship of Jake Humphrey) are doing more and more wonderful things for the fanbase and wider community.
Have a look at this video about the truly marvellous “Duncan’s club” for folk with dementia.
Another great deed by the club is that they liaised with Duncan Forbes’ family about commemorating him and unveiled a huge mural last week. I shall gaze at it with both smiles and sadness every time I approach “my” turnstile at Carrow Road.
It really is Duncan’s club still, and for ever.
Another example of new engagement is the way the club have facilitated two revelatory interviews by Talk Norwich City: with Mark and Mike Attanasio and then with Kenny McLean.
But the enabling of “new media” has come at a time when there is a lack of liaison with Archant (now Newsquest) and with Michael Bailey of the Athletic. They’re not banned though. They attend every media conference where they can ask any question they wish. What’s happened is just that private briefings have stopped and so the situation is much like it is at most clubs in the land.
If Delia had asked me, I’d have counselled against stopping the briefings. A relationship needs trust on both sides, though, and the takeover by Newsquest led to the departure of some very good people and the appointment of the bullish Richard Porritt as “regional editor”.
I honestly think the Porritt-led coverage of “Everest-gate” – the plan by sporting director Stuart Webber to climb the highest mountain above sea level – was framed in such a way that it was certain to destroy the relationship with the football club.
Yet by talking to others – The Times, the Sunday Times and my mate Michael Calvin in a really interesting podcast – Webber made it unlikely that many City fans heard his admissions, explanations, arguments, and plans.
If you care about Norwich City, and are open-minded enough to be surprised by what the club are attempting under Webber, search for “Michael Calvin’s football people” wherever you listen to podcasts.
Sadly, I fear many of you won’t bother. I’ve had some private, confidential discussions with people who have been declaiming the “disconnect” and it seems minds are made up, and closed.
A lot of the angst seems to be about Webber and his perceived lack of openness.
But that is comparing the current Webber to the one everyone loved when he was explaining why promotion as glorious champions in 2018-19 was followed by a feeble relegation in 2019-20.
Why was there no similar set of apologies and admissions when, after becoming Championship champs again, there was another abject relegation?
Well, let’s imagine Webber thinks appointing Dean Smith was a mistake and/or the recruitment for the 2020-21 Premier League campaign was a disaster. Our director of football could not go public with criticism of a coach or players whom we wanted to be on top of their game this season.
On the other hand, if (as I am sure is the case) he thinks Smith and Craig Shakespeare (almost universally revered for their coaching within the game) were sound appointments, and that Norman, Rashica, Sarge and the rest were mostly decent signings then, again, there would be no apology forthcoming.
So, there is no scenario in which Webber would issue the mea culpa some seem to think was a pre-requisite for giving him any tolerance, let alone support, this season. And, incidentally, I have not been able to discover any evidence of public apologies from anyone in a similar position at any other club.
Anyway, as I said was always the case 25 years ago, I believe it is this season’s performances and results which are the real cause of all the current angst. The performances, particularly at home, have led to widespread frustration which has fermented into anger.
We have reached a situation where some fans seem, perhaps unconsciously, resolutely determined to find fault with anything and everything. Some see their jaundiced view of the club confirmed in everything anyone at the club says or does.
I know it’s mad and unhealthy to gauge anything by what is said on Facebook, but as I write this, I am not sure whether to laugh or cry about the guy on one of the pages there today who has taken the after-match interview with Grant Hanley – in which one of this season’s successes said he understood the fans’ frustrations – as evidence that the players all hate Smith. Deary me.
So, let’s look at what we expected from this season, because we can surely all agree that is at the kernel of the despair.
I believe (other views are available) that the many supporters who expected another romp were gulled by what we achieved in 2020-21 – when City put aside the disappointment of relegation to attack the Championship with verve and success.
But that was the outlier, not the norm.
What Webber did in the summer after the first of his relegations was remarkable. He told the players to go away and get the relegation out of their system because he was “going to build a squad to win the Championship again”.
When the players, old and new, reported back to Colney, all negativity was banned. Nobody was allowed to even say they’d had a bad journey to “work”. But the single greatest thing Webber did that summer was to persuade Emi Buendia and his representatives that he should stay for one more season.
And so, a fabulous season unfolded. But a dangerous fable was constructed: that Norwich City could always bounce back.
It’s true that we have a parachute payment. But there’s a clue in the word ‘parachute’. It’s designed to stop a financial crashing to earth after relegation. It’s not a usually an ascent aid.
I honestly expected us to struggle this season. Because … football. Because … the Championship.
It is unquestionably true, though, that Smith has not yet coaxed or coached the best out of every individual or from the collective. There haven’t been enough good, close-range shooting chances created. There is an inability to pass through the two lines of defence rival teams deploy against us.
Yet, again, I can’t say I am surprised. There are a lot of new faces and, as Nigel Worthington for one discovered (with the rebuild for the 2004-05 season) a much-changed squad can find it difficult to gel.
I suspect, though, that Smith’s biggest failing is one that he cannot help or alter: he is not Daniel Farke.
Many fans have forgotten that they turned against Daniel in the Prem. Others have forgotten that he abandoned Farkeball in the Prem (telling Timmy Krul to hoof, using Rachica as an out-ball). And, on the evidence of Saturday, very many both mourn Daniel’s departure yet boo any pass back to the goalkeeper.
Passing to the goalkeeper, and passing along the backline, was the basis of Farkeball. It is what eight of every 10 clubs in the known universe do to reset. But Carrow Road jeered it, while folk told each other, “It was better under Daniel”. I don’t get that at all.
Some very close friends and one member of my own family are convinced Smith was always “a bad fit”. I suspect that anyone would have been.
I’ve reported the same at many clubs: a revered manager leaves and the next guy is instinctively and instantly disliked. It happened, for instance, when Lou Macari followed John Lyall at West Ham, when Frank O’Farrell succeeded Matt Busby at Manchester United, and again when David Moyes took over at Old Trafford after Alex Ferguson.
Two of Daniel’s five seasons at Norwich were astoundingly good. We don’t know what he’d have done with Norwich this campaign, but many are utterly convinced that Smith is not the right man to follow him. That bemuses the rest of football, but there we are.
Yet, even if it were possible somehow to prove without a scintilla for doubt that Smith was and is the wrong man for the job, the level of vitriol poured upon him is intemperate, unreasonable and ruinous.
Saturday was toxic. So, yes, thank goodness it’s away at Luton next.
Perhaps there is no way back for Smith for uttering that unforgiveable truth. Perhaps there will have to be a change, sooner or later.
But handing the reins to someone else will not necessarily bring more consistent, more effective performances. Because football. Because the Championship.
I last booed Norwich at Molineux on 22 September, 2007. Peter Grant’s assorted Scottish signings were dreadful that day, two City players were sent off and Wolves strolled to a 2-0 win with a breezy confidence to which I could only respond with anger against the team I supported.
Not for the first or last time in our long marriage, Mrs Dennis asked me pertinent questions about my behaviour: did booing help me or anyone else and was it a sane response at a sporting event?
We’ll both be at Luton on Boxing Day. It’s 100 miles closer to our home than Carrow Road is. We won’t boo.
Would a Norwich win change anything?
It would help us keep our place in the play-offs, which I fervently believe would be a real achievement this season. Because football. Because the Championship. It was only 2017-18, under Daniel, when we’d have killed to be as poor as people think we are now.
But I fear winning at Luton might not stop a decent, hugely respected guy being traduced when we all gather again at the Carra.