During Monday’s Colney presser, when David Wagner was formally introduced to the local and national press, Stuart Webber directly answered questions asked of him by Paddy Davitt and Michael Bailey.
I’d like to think of it as a sign of a minor thaw in the spat between the Club and the local press. We’ll see. Maybe I’m just a dreamer.
But for now, I’ll focus on that, as opposed to Webber’s barely-disguised spikiness when pushed on his (non-existent) relationship with the Norwich City fanbase.
The old Webber – the 2018 version – is still in there somewhere, and can be seen in the Club’s video of Wagner’s first day at Colney, but it still feels as if the 2023 version is unable to forgive the fans for, among other things, using their collective voice to scupper the BK8 sponsorship deal.
As it transpires, the £3 million-ish that it cost the Club would have been nowhere near enough to give us a chance of survival in 2021-22 but it clearly still irks, as does Bedsheetgate – when he decided to confront a group of fans who had gatherted outside the back of the City Stand, armed with said bedsheet, with the intention of telling the Club what they thought of its feeble attempt at Premier League survival.
Those two events together with questions being asked of his ’90 per cent’ comment have clearly got under his skin and there now appears even less chance of him giving the supporters the time of day than of him meeting Paddy and Michael for tea and sandwiches.
The trouble is, with every scowl, sigh, and furrowed brow he’s making that dividing wall between him and Yellow Army one layer of bricks higher. And he appears cool with that.
More problematic is that all of this flies in the face of the togetherness espoused by Wagner in his rallying cry – the one intended to unite the Club from the very top to the very bottom. With the most key of key components missing from that unity, then there is, and will remain, a problem.
For someone who claims not to read nor give a monkey’s about what media and supporters have to say about him, Webber doesn’t half come across as thin-skinned. As one who admits to being overly thin-skinned, I know all about that and how, in trying to appear not so, every blink, twitch and grimmace gives the game away .
He does care how he is perceived in the wider footballing community and he cares what we as a fan base think of him.
But, unlike some, I’m not sure this ever-shrinking corner in which Webber finds himself is all of his own making. And, believe it or not, there are parts of his remit over which I have varying degrees of sympathy.
What started as a successful recruitment process in 2018 and has veered into unsuccessful territory in 2023, was, of course, partly down to him and those he put in place to recruit, but we should also recognise the very narrow parameters within which he has always had to work.
And it’s not of his choosing that, along the way, the books have had to be continually balanced by him having to sell every saleable asset that we have.
Instead. that’s the product of the Club declaring itself ‘self-funded’. Except that in itself is something of a misnomer.
It’s not really self-funding because it relies on intermittent promotions to the Premier League and, as mentioned, the selling of every asset that becomes saleable. But let’s run with ‘self-funding’ for now.
And it’s not as if this is a model specifically developed as a two-fingered salute to the Premier League and the clubs within it who have brazenly skewed the football playing field so much that to now be successful you have to be funded by an oil-rich state.
In fact, it wasn’t a strategy at all.
It was the only option available to the current owners without them having to delve into the murky waters of seeking external funding. If they wanted to retain total control, it was that way or the highway.
So it has been that way. For 26 years.
You can only admire their endurance and determination, no question about that, and they remain the rarity of supporters-turned-owners – so their love of Norwich City seems clear – but has their doggedness and refusal to budge on the question of additional funding for the Club always been in its best interests?
Tasking Webber with turning Norwich City from a middling Championship version to one that can survive at least one season in the Premier League on a budget of peanuts was never destined to work.
So many things have to go right and so much luck is needed for it to happen, it’s virtually impossible. Even teams who have spent lavishly have failed, so to do so armed with (in the summer of 2019) the smallest Premier League budget known to Man was doing so on a wing and a prayer.
And while we spent more in the summer of 2021, let’s not pretend it wasn’t funded mostly by the sale of our best player – Emi Buendia.
So I find it hard to lay all of the blame for those Premier League horror shows at the door of our sporting director. For sure, some horrors emerged in the form of signings designed to help us survive, but they were almost all either sizeable gambles, cheap options or both.
Almost all were players who had no other Premier League options on the table and on the odd occasion when we did find ourselves in direct competition with another PL club – Kristoffer Ajer for example – we’d lose out.
For me, if there is one mistake for which he is solely responsible, it’s the appointment of Dean Smith, when he veered away from the thrust of the young, hungry, and with something-to-prove model. Smith was of the on-the-rebound envelope.
But again, the constraints were there, just as they were with the appointment of Wagner.
The expensive prospect of acquiring a head coach who’s already in employment is off the table. Had that not been the case in the autumn of 2021, perhaps we’d have landed one Kjetil Knutsen and not been in the reboot phase we currently find ourselves.
All conjecture, I get that, but it’s not conjecture to say that Webber, throughout his six years, has had his hands tied when it comes to putting a squad together for the head coach of the day.
But the odd thing is, if we’d gone all-in on self-funding and *really* done it differently, I reckon most of us would have been onboard and stayed onboard.
If we had gone down that route, been transparent about it, and been the Premier League’s enfant terrible at every turn then there’d have been little not to like. If we’d refused to play the corporate game and had challenged the Premier League status quo to make clear our view on its sickening direction of travel, that would have made quite the statement.
For an infinitely better description of what I’m trying to say, have a read of the final three paragraphs of this fine piece from ACN’s Nick Hayhoe, written after last season’s 3-0 hammering by Newcastle. He nails it. I’d have been well up for us going full St Pauli.
We’d have likely ended up back where we are now, but it’d have meant something.
But we didn’t and it didn’t. We tried to act like a Premier League club. We played at being a Premier League club. We kowtowed to the big boys like the small kid in the playground sucking up to the bullies. And we went along with it all even though we knew were stricken and doomed.
While I’ve been assured that our owners were unhappy with that existence, they were clearly happy enough to let it roll and do nothing about it.
Not until Michael Foulger decided the time was right to sell his stake in our club did Delia and Michael give serious consideration to someone else, with deeper pockets, coming in. And then it felt like a decision that was forced upon them rather than one made willingly.
The question now is, for how long will Mark Attanasio and his people be content to stay in the shadows? While it all may appear cordial and cozy right now, will there reach a point where they will either demand a greater say or take their funding elsewhere along with their £10 million?
Again, conjecture on my part, but I’m guessing they’ll want to see at least a sniff of an opportunity at some point in the not-too-distant future. Otherwise… why?
So, for all the perceived evils of Stuart Webber – and I’m no lover of his continued stance towards the fans and local media – it’s not been an easy gig. Let’s not pretend otherwise. And perhaps the landscape will change if our American friends are permitted a greater share of the action.
It feels no longer just about the money. As things stand, new ideas and renewed impetus from on high are equally as important. It’s not just on the pitch where the Club has stagnated.
In the meantime, I’m up for brokering that afternoon tea date for Stuart, Paddy, and Michael.