The impala doesn’t really stand much of a chance in the African savannah, writes Dan Brigham. Living a life constantly in fear of bigger beasts, they are hunted by lions, leopards, and cheetahs. Not much of a chance for the little guy, right?
Unfortunately, before we start to feel too sorry for them, the impala doesn’t help itself. Because, when it does manage to defy the odds and escape a mauling, the impala celebrates by… returning to the exact same spot it was attacked. Unfortunately for our impala, the lion knows this, so patiently waits for its lunch to stroll right back into view.
So, yes, you’ve guessed it, in this tortuous analogy the impala is Norwich City, and here we are, having walked right back to where we were in April 2017, when Stuart Webber arrived, took a look at the training ground, at the squad, and rightly – and famously – decided the club had pissed their Premier League money up the wall. So he set about doing the unlikely and plotted a way to survive among the big beasts. For a while, it worked, and it was wonderful, and we will never forget it.
Yet, six years on, Norwich City are furtively sloping back to the scene where they first got attacked. Sure, the place looks nicer, the facilities have been spruced up, and there are some absolutely cracking motivational quotes on the wall, but we’ve returned to where we were: also-rans in the Championship. Second-tier detritus. A tale of what-ifs and what-could-have-beens and are-you-kidding-mes.
It’s tough out there. Competing with the oil states, the billionaire Americans, the greedy agents; the constant thirst for success means a club of Norwich’s stature has to be smarter than smart to survive. It has to not repeat the mistakes of its past, it has to learn from its errors, it has to ensure there is accountability at the highest levels, it has to get far more decisions right than wrong. Only then will it be in the best possible position to take advantage of the luck it needs to survive – and potentially thrive – among the big beasts.
So where can Norwich be less impala, and act smarter?
The role of the sporting director is to oversee the continuity of philosophy across the whole footballing side of a club. This includes appointing the head coach, who should fit the playing squad, not the other way around. That is, of course, easier said than done, but it is what we were promised and with good reason: it allows first-team recruitment and the academy to be joined up in the type of player a club is looking for and producing, which allows medium-term and long-term strategic planning, rather than stumbling through short-term fixes.
This hasn’t happened, though. The first rule of Sporting Director Club has been broken.
Dean Smith is a very different coach to Daniel Farke, and David Wagner is a very different coach to Smith and Farke. This meant that Smith’s style suits a different profile of player to Farke, and Wagner’s style suits a different profile of player to Smith. Whoever ends up replacing Wagner is likely to find themselves in the same position because Wagner’s system requires a quite specific type of player to be a success.
The result? We’re stuck in an endless short-term loop.
We all know where first-team recruitment has gone right and where it’s gone wrong. For every Teemu Pukki, there’s a Ben Marshall hiding in the bushes. Currently, the misses outweigh the hits, and that must change this summer.
However, one area that often gets overlooked is academy recruitment, and the academy as a whole. The successes of recent years – Ben Godfrey, Jamal Lewis, Max Aarons, Todd Cantwell, Josh and Jacob Murphy, and, now, Carlton Morris – were all either brought through the age groups or recruited into the academy by previous regimes.
Since the current regime entered Colney in 2017, the much-vaunted academy has yet to produce a genuine, key regular starter for the club. This can take time, and hopefully, some or all of Bali Mumba, Liam Gibbs, Adam Idah, and Andrew Omobamidele will become successful first-team regulars at Norwich – or attract large fees. If not, serious questions will have to be asked about how well the academy has functioned over the last six years.
Simply, without a successful academy, a club of Norwich’s size has no chance of punching above its weight.
Zoe Webber is incredibly experienced in football, having worked in key positions at Liverpool and Fulham. Stuart Webber is also very experienced, having had success at Huddersfield Town, and held important roles at Liverpool, QPR, and Wolves.
Whatever your current view of them, their CVs are excellent and many football clubs would consider them assets. However, long-term success is possible only in a culture of accountability. And when Zoe Webber was appointed to Norwich’s board of directors in March 2022, that accountability was put in the bin.
No matter how welcome it is to have someone with a strong, experienced background in football on the board, it is entirely unserious that one of the very few people who has a direct and defining say in the sporting director’s future is a close family member. No serious business would allow such a clear conflict of interest. It is not a grown-up way to run a football club.
Which leads us to culture. Now, football is not a pleasant place. The egos are large, the money is terrifying, and the pressure is real. So any attempt to build a genuine, positive culture in that environment should be lauded.
However, a good culture doesn’t just happen by choosing some verbs and nouns and sticking them on a lanyard. Reading ‘The Barcelona Way’ isn’t enough.
A good culture has to be lived; it comes with internal accountability, it comes with actually being open and honest rather than saying you will be open and honest, it comes with remembering that the football club is for its fans and not its custodians, and it comes with choosing to communicate as effectively and as widely as possible with those fans, at all times, no matter the on-pitch situation. It is difficult, and very few clubs manage it, but that is no reason to not want – and expect – it from Norwich.
Being Norwich City is hard. Running Norwich City is really hard. We are an impala surrounded by predators. The club gets an awful lot of things right, and much of that can get lost when things aren’t going well on the pitch. Success for Norwich will always be underpinned by a large degree of luck, but that luck can be made to go further when the club works smarter.
They managed it in 2017, all too fleetingly, but the lions are licking their lips, and closing in again.
Dan Brigham is a freelance copywriter and former head of content at Norwich City.