Episode 22/23 – The Rise Of Stuwebber


Nathan Hill on the words again, dissecting Stuart Webber's recent round of media interviews. As always, we're a little late to the party.....

Well, around 18 months in the making, Pandora’s box has been opened.

Whenever Stuart Webber does speak, it’s always a compelling listen. In a rather sobering sitrep, the central message being communicated was the continuation of the ‘infinite game’ that Norwich are and have been playing. What many of us had hoped to hear was that we would be choosing to play it slightly differently. 

Webber, and the club, still speak of their desire to one day punch permanently above their weight – but the only true way of joining the heavy hitters in the modern game is to genuinely put on the necessary pounds and become one yourselves. From the way Webber spoke here, you suspect he knows this. Norwich, in recent seasons, have been swinging punches at their bulkier opponents but barely leaving a bruise – but have then patted themselves on the back for just having gotten into the ring and tried. 

Perhaps that partly explains how finishing in a lowly 13th place in the Championship, which is much closer to our true weight division, didn’t receive quite the brutal assessment you’d expect. Instead, Webber chose to congratulate players and staff, many of whom will have been part of one or both of the recent title wins, for essentially becoming victims of their own success – whereby anything less than dominating the second tier is now deemed a failure. A failure though it is and that should be the overriding point.

It’s an alarmingly reminiscent take to that of Delia Smith who was dumbfounded as to why there was so much discontent in 2016/17 as Alex Neil’s team began their slide down the standings – one of many parallels between that season and this one just finished. Back then, and now, you have to wonder, while the hunger and determination for this football club to reach the next level is there, if falling short of getting there is treated with the same level of seriousness. Jamal Lewis, just weeks after leaving for Newcastle in 2020, pointed out the differences in culture and how individual defeats and bad runs are received up there compared to here. Here, we hold our hands up, accept our shortcomings, and go again – whereas, on Tyneside, postmortems are much more forensic.

Webber was holding his hands up for many things – for errors in recruitment, for focusing more on results than the process (since bringing Farkeball to an abrupt end) and for devaluing the Carrow Road atmosphere and connectivity with fans. Much of it, however, is quickly caveated with a reminder as to the wafer-thin margin of error he has when calculating almost any decision at this football club. The parameters and the circumstances of self-funding are regimentally repeated every year in these season-ending recaps so as to entrench the idea that running the ship this way should grant him and the board more leeway should the waters become choppy.

With regard to accountability and the chain of command at Carrow Road, Webber will feel he’s sufficiently debunked the myth of him being bulletproof. He and his wife Zoe report to the board independently. He did, however, also say that no one puts more pressure on his shoulders than he does, and that no one needs to tell him when targets haven’t been met. While that can of course simply mean he’s his own biggest critic, it could also translate another way. Perhaps, to reinforce all of the above points, not enough soul searching goes on in the corridors of power in general? 

The narrative of not wanting to risk the club’s future creates something of a safety net for when they opt against making the more popular decisions, and creates an environment where there’s never a sense of real failure. We keep getting relegated from the Premier League because to spend even slightly more liberally is potentially suicidal, so we don’t and thus what did you expect? There is no expectation. Self-funding has also now allowed for a little too much self-congratulating around Carrow Road. When the promotions stop, all we are is just another Championship club making life much harder for ourselves than others.

This summer, the way forward will be to strip the squad down with the auctioning off of any and all luxuries. That’s the reality of an extended stay in the Championship for any side, as players will seek moves higher up once they outgrow their current surroundings. For Norwich though with no benefactor(s) pumping money in, garnering high transfer fees in sales is portrayed as vital for our survival. We now know, if it wasn’t obvious enough already, who the most saleable assets are – Gabriel Sara and academy pair Max Aarons and Andrew Omobamidele. It very much sounds as if one, two, or possibly all three have played their last games in yellow and green and will be used to fund the latest squad rebuild. The would-be buyers are certainly out there. Omobamidele has already been subject of a bid greater than that which we accepted for Ben Godfrey back in 2021 – staggering really how a self-funded club walked away from that. 

Deals for new arrivals will once again need to be “creative.” A word that, in this context, now sends shivers down the spine. Ashley Barnes is already signed and sealed of course, with a couple more “of that ilk” to come to meet the need of toughening up and becoming more streetwise. Thank goodness for that. Hopefully this can be achieved without drastically increasing the average age of the squad. Overall though, this transfer window looks to be the most challenging of Webber’s tenure, on paper. It’s also the most critical for him to get right. If it doesn’t all come together a la summer of 2018 though, you can already envisage the sort of mental gymnastics that’d be employed for the next end-of-season analysis.

Meanwhile, Mark Attanasio and family’s involvement remains minimal. While it wouldn’t be wise or professional to disclose details of a potential future business transaction in public, it does feel that expectations of what the relationship might or might not become were further tempered here. Surely Attanasio hasn’t bought a minority stake in the club just to exchange Microsoft Excel tidbits and ideas about data analysis? Webber did speak of the importance of the off-field infrastructural work in attracting theoretical investors down the road but it felt rather surface-level and didn’t suggest anything imminent.

It does feel like, deep down, he wants that further transitioning of shares to take place and for Attanasio to become the majority stakeholder. The current model means whoever holds the role of sporting director has to be a miracle worker, and even that might only be enough to keep the club where it is. And who wouldn’t want a bigger war chest? To establish Norwich in the Premier League one day, and that is still the aim, it’s going to be essential. A few recently promoted clubs have (rightly) been put on pedestals as examples of how to ‘get it right’ – but none have been working on shoestrings.

As Webber said, what have our owners put in? Zero. While it wasn’t his only blunt remark, it felt the most deliberate.


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