I desperately wanted the announcement of the announcement to be made via some billowing white smoke from the air vents of the Lion & Castle but instead, the Club chose to go route one to announce the pending arrival of Ben Knapper as its new Sporting Director.
A lengthy and painstaking process that has been ongoing (so we are told) since March was distilled into a 346-word statement on their website in which the Club welcomed Arsenal’s current ‘loans and pathway manager’ to the role of overseeing our entire football operation.
A big leap for sure but while Knapper arrives (or will arrive) with a relatively light CV, he also comes with a burgeoning reputation and some very warm words from the Gunners’ own Sporting Director, Edu, who referenced his departure in a message to all staff members at the Emirates and London Colney.
“We are so proud that Ben has been appointed Sporting Director at Norwich City … He has been a huge asset to us during his career at Arsenal, where he has developed through our performance analysis teams to become our highly successful Loans and Pathway Manager.
“Ben has played a key role in the positive development of so many of our men’s players over the years, where he has driven a part of our football strategy to give our players the best possible experience, to ensure they return to us with enhanced qualities to continue their careers with us or elsewhere.
“We are proud to have given Ben the opportunities to develop his own career too, and we wish him all the best in his next chapter with Norwich City.”
Whether a stellar but fledgling career in player development can translate into one as a stellar sporting director will only be revealed over the next few seasons but for for 36-year-old Knapper to emerge successfully from what was clearly an exhaustive process says something about him.
In fairness to the Club on this occasion, they have steered clear of the safe, more traditional option, which would probably have been Rob Newman or Leigh Bromby – both names mentioned in dispatches but neither of whom (according to Connor in the Pink Un) made it to the short-list of six.
But who the heck is Ben Knapper? And why Ben Knapper?
Well, thanks to the good old Internet we can track his career progress from the time he studied Sports Coaching & Performance at the University of Hull through to his goodbyes to colleagues at London Colney.
Whether he played football at any decent level along the way is not clear but what we do know is that in his final two years at Hull Uni – where he earned a 2:1 degree – he was also employed as a first-team performance analyst at Scunthorpe United Football Club.
Upon completing his degree he was immediately snapped up by Prozone – the first and most well-known name in sports performance analysis – where he worked as an analyst for three months before being assigned, still as a Prozone employee, to Arsenal.
As it transpired, he spent just a year in his hybrid role before, in July 2010, moving permanently to the Gunners in the role of football analyst – a role he carried out for five seasons.
During that time, he was part of a team that provided information on player performance, team structures etc for teams in the Arsenal academy through to the first team.
In July 2015, he was appointed to the role of lead football analyst – heading up the team of which he was previously part – before, in February 2019, having the duties of loans and pathway manager added to his wider role at London Colney.
In that position, he performed the role made famous in these parts by Neil Adams, which was to arrange and oversee the loans, both in and out, and monitor the performance of those players during those loan spells.
As pointed out by MFW’s ‘Man in the Stands’, Don Harold, in that role Master Knapper will have liaised with his Norwich equivalent to arrange the ill-fated loan move of Marquinhos – one that ticked rather more Arsenal boxes than it did City ones.
Along the way, between 2018 and 2021, Knapper also found time to complete another degree, this time in Sporting Directorship at the Manchester Metropolitan University – something that no doubt figured highly in his ‘sell’ to, among others, Delia Smith, Michael Wynn-Jones, Mark Attanasio and David Wagner.
Whether the name ‘Marquinhos’ cropped up during the interview process we’ll never know but it’s clear that whatever else was discussed was sufficient to see him emerge from what we’re told was a high-quality shortlist of six that was whittled down to three prior to the final decision.
So, the upshot is we finally have a successor to Stuart Webber, albeit that successor doesn’t start for another six weeks and then will be hand-held by Webber for a period yet to be determined but which looks likely to extend to the January transfer window.
In true Norwich City tradition, the process moves with the speed and agility of the Titanic’s turning circle. But what did we expect?
If it’s going to take three years for Mark Attanasio to be permitted even the prospect of making a decision on his own, then we can’t expect Ben Knapper to go in all guns blazing from November 27.
(In truth, a handover period in this instance makes a bit of sense).
What we must hope for is that, once he is settled, Knapper is allowed to do it his way. Webber was given licence to do it and his successor should be permitted that same freedom. If that means keeping a lower profile and going about the job quietly, I don’t think there will be too many complaints.
But there’s no doubt that Knapper’s knowledge of the data-driven side of the game ties in perfectly with the Attanasio ethos and how things are driven within the Milwaukee Brewers’ organisation. That particular crossover makes perfect sense, as does the fact that Colney’s near-complete transformation will enable our new SD to concentrate on footballing rather than infrastructural matters.
Here’s hoping anyway.
Either way, once Webber has finally departed a new era can begin but until then we’ll be in this weird hinterland that Norwich City so often manages to find itself.
For example, if the current decline continues into early December and a decision has to be made on the future (or otherwise) of Wagner, who makes that call?
And the prep for the January transfer window, which as things stand looks likely to be a crucial month for the club. Who leads that piece of work?
As ever, there are more questions than answers but we can perhaps all agree on the fact that it is a bold appointment and, as mentioned earlier, has seen them veer away from the safer options.
The decision-making in our football club has been, let’s say, indifferent over the last three seasons. Let’s hope they have got this one right.
Welcome, Ben Knapper.