Jon Punt sat down for a one-on-one chat with new Sporting Director Stuart Webber. Stuart spoke at length about his thoughts on what he found at Colney, his plans for next season and the atmosphere at Carrow Road.
In the cold, modern, minimalist décor of Norwich City’s corporate hospitality box, Stuart Webber cuts a contrastingly warm and affable demeanour. He oozes confidence, from the reassuringly purposeful tone of his voice to his engaging and knowledgeable answers, it’s perhaps obvious why Norwich sought to appoint him.
This is a real football man, someone who possesses the sporting acumen and expertise many have stated has been missing from the club for some time. Webber was gracious enough to give Along Come Norwich his full time and attention and the offer of a 10 minute chat quickly turned into a much longer conversation, such was the depth of the answers he wanted to convey.
It’s clear in his two short weeks at the club he’s settled well and is pleased with what he’s seen so far, yet he’s under no illusions about the task in hand:
“It’s been a good two weeks, people at the club have been good to me. The infrastructure is decent and there’s loads to work with. At Huddersfield we had nothing in terms of infrastructure really, it was like a League One club in the Championship, that’s not to disrespect them, that’s what it is. Here there’s lots more infrastructure – in fact in some areas too much, I look at some things and think ‘do we need that much really?’ Maybe we got a little bit lost in the Premier League.
I’ve been hugely impressed, but at the same time some areas have surprised as well….
The squad wage bill is higher than I’d probably imagined and maybe some of the salaries are a bit higher than what I would have expected.
One thing I would say it’s that’s never the players’ fault, they get paid what they get paid and no doubt some of them would have earned it, as a general thing though we need to trim that a little bit to be able to grow the squad again. That’s a bigger job than I probably originally anticipated but at the same time a challenge and something to get stuck into.
Apart from that there’s not really been any real surprises, I knew what I was coming into and Steve (Stone) did a good job in telling me what it is and he’s been very accurate with the assessment. There’s not been any nasty surprises, but at the same time there’s maybe some bigger challenges than I originally thought, especially around the first-team squad.”
In Webber’s short time at the club he’s confident he’s built up an accurate idea of the playing staff he has at his disposal and what now needs to happen to reinvigorate a team that’s, by their own high standards, failed this season:
“I’m very clear on that, even before I entered the door in truth, and now I’ve had time to observe three games really closely, observe training sessions closely, observe people around the training ground closely; staff and players, I’ve got a real clear picture now and fortunately there’s still two weeks to go, so certainly by the time we wrap up against QPR it will be nailed clearly. I’m really close now, but by then there’ll be nothing which isn’t known.
There’s definitely a really good base, I look at some of the players in the squad and think they’re really good players. There’s some really good young players, exciting players, players that I think any team in the top 8 of this league would take.
Then I look at some glaring holes, this is a club where we don’t own a left back at first team level. We’ve got a number of number 10's but we don’t own a left back, that’s not me speaking out of turn or criticising anyone. Everyone can see if you write out the squad list that we’ve got alot of that, loads of them, but not many in these areas. So I think it’s clear, it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, we know we need to strengthen areas, but there’s some real positives.
If I look at the three games I’ve been here we’ve scored 11 goals, that takes some going, and yet we could have scored 15, 16, even 17, its been unbelievable. So I think there’s some real quality, and some glaring holes and I think that’s been pretty well publicised.
A lot of the decisions to make are easy ones, whoever was sat in my chair or the head coach’s chair, I’d be gobsmacked if the decisions we end up making were different, within reason everyone would come to the same conclusion. I don’t think there’s going to be many surprises.”
When pressed on the left back situation and Mitchell Dijks, Webber was unsurprisingly non-committal about the Dutchman’s future:
“We have to consider that it’s all well and good people wanting to stay, but does it fit them financially and for us? I’m sure people wouldn’t want to stay if it wasn’t within a financial framework that wasn’t right for them.
Mitchell’s done well on his loan. Has he smashed it? I wouldn’t go that far. He’s done reasonably well and I’m sure if we can get to a deal we’ll try and get to a deal, but at the same time its where he comes in in terms of being realistic with the finances, because going forward it will ultimately come down to money. It’s not about the level of player because we know we’d like him, he’d want to stay, but it’s what it looks like financially.”
The former Huddersfield was also clear he has an abundance of riches at the top end of the pitch, and that may prove to be a difficult juggling act in the coming weeks and months. This may mean a waiting game for the likes of James Maddison:
“I think there’ll be exits all through the squad. I think that’s natural. The squad needs freshening up, everyone can see that, we are heavy in certain areas so for example James Maddison, if he isn’t in the team next year he can’t have another year of a loan which was far from perfect in my opinion and then come back into a club where so far he’s played fourteen minutes of football for the first team. That can’t happen again, because before you know it James Maddison will be 21, 22 and we’ll be going ‘how many games has he played?’
We have to get a clear plan for James – whether that be in our team next season or whether that’s maybe he needs to go and gain more experience to wait for his chance, because Naismith, Hoolahan and Pritchard are top players. So he’s got top players in his way, it’s not like he’s got someone in the way who’s easy to dislodge. In that case we’ve got to do what’s best for James and what’s best for the club.
I’ve had a couple of conversations with him and his agent and we need to work out over the course of pre-season where does he fit in. He can’t be stuck in no-man’s land. I think that’s what kills young players is when they’re stuck in that in-between where they’re not playing but they’re doing a bit with the first team, young players can lose a year, two years of their career where other players of the same age are playing game after game and suddenly they’ve got a hundred games under their belt; we’ve got to make sure that doesn’t happen. If you can’t get them in your team but you can get them first team football in a good club, with a good manager that’s important. We can’t have them going somewhere where they have three days off a week and they’re not fit, we need them to go to a loan club which will have a similar schedule and the way that we do it, otherwise that might not develop them.
Josh (Murphy) was at MK Dons with Karl Robinson – a great move in my opinion, and Jacob went to Coventry which was a great time in terms of different pressures that the club was under. I think both of them would say that was unbelievably beneficial to them and has proven beneficial to Norwich. There’s been some great practice with those two, and we have to do more of that.”
However, loans for Norwich’s talented pool of youngsters may not be the only way in which fans see them develop in the next few months and years.
“If someone sends me an 18 year old they don’t have to go straight on loan, it might be that we drip them in with the first team. It will be very much myself sitting with Richard Money to talk about the career progression for these guys.
With our best 17 year old, what is our plan to get him in our first team? It might be, that he goes straight from under 18s, under 23s to first team, some people go on that path. Some people go on the path of under 18s, to 23s then loan to the first team. At Liverpool we had Raheem Sterling, straight into the first team as a 17 year old, he didn’t need a loan. I think each one will have their different plan and that’s what’s important is we sit down and I’ve had a meeting with Richard this week about identifying who they are, and we get their career path right to ultimately get them in our first team. Otherwise there’s no point having an academy. “
Webber was candid enough to admit the youth academy hadn’t been his first priority during his short time at Carrow Road, although he still has been impressed with what he has seen so far and this might mean changes for the make-up of the first team squad down the line:
“On the outside it looks good. Have I delved deep into it? No I haven’t, because there’s probably other priorities, I’m sure the fans wouldn’t thank me for looking at the academy and would ask ‘What about the Head Coach?’ What I have witnessed is maybe there’s not been a great connection between the academy and the first team, which is incredible really when they’re on the same site. A big part of my job will be to connect that up. For me, if we’re looking for a new player, the first thought has got to be ‘What have we got in our academy?’ If the answers yes, but he’s a year away from being ready to help us, then maybe we’ll bring a loan in to cover that until the one we’ve got is ready.
If we’ve got an academy that we invest alot of money into we have to use it, and we have to give it the best chance. Then in the first team squad, we have to create room for the academy to breathe. You can’t stock it with so many senior players because you can only have a squad of 18, so we don’t need 25 first team experienced players because 7 of them aren’t getting in the squad every week. So we need to have a squad which is a little bit more streamlined which then gives room for the best academy products to breathe, and if we haven’t got those products then we need to buy younger ones in and sort of, bridge the gap.
I think a big part of my remit and role is to help connect that, because you can help take some of the pressure off the Head Coach, so you can help give him support that we’re making this decision as a club.”
Given the cultural shift, Webber was keen the club is transparent about how they go about transitioning towards a younger squad:
“You’ve got to communicate that to people, so if we haven't got two 28 year old right backs lets communicate the reasons why to supporters, so they know that actually we can’t afford to have two experienced right backs and we think this young lad who might act as back up has got some talent. Then people know, they hear the message; if you communicate and you’re honest, even if people don’t agree with it at least they can see the method. I think that’s the key bit we have to put across better as a club in my opinion, although I’ve only been here two weeks.
When I was doing my research on the club, it appeared maybe we haven’t communicated our messages enough to people. So, we’re not asking everyone to agree, but at least they can understand. I think the worst thing is when you see stuff, and its baffling as to why ‘they’re doing this, this and this’.
Listen, we’re never going to give away the crown secrets, we’re not going to tell people about the method of how we appoint a Head Coach or how we do our recruitment, we can skim over it, but we’re not going to give the detail behind it.”
Webber was also confident in what his new Head Coach’s remit will be, how this will fit into the club’s football structure and how views are changing towards football management and governance.
“In terms of recruitment, they’ll always have the final say, but not the only say. That’s key, because what happens is if they have the only say they end up getting sacked.
The right person will bring in an assistant with him straight away, because that’s important, you need your man who understands your method. As you work through it, especially here as we’ll probably change the culture a bit, in terms of the footballing culture at Colney and the change of demands on people for sure, it will become a little bit harder work than maybe it has been. Some of the staff might not want to get on board with that, so of course, the Head Coach on a day to day is going to have strong dealings with the physio, the sports scientist, the goalkeeping coach, the groundsman. That’s important and he’ll have a say in who he works with, but not the only say.
We’re becoming more educated in our country, when you look at Southampton who have sustained unbelievable success for a number of years, and keep doing it. I think people now believe the model works. On the continent they’ve done it for years with success, and they laugh at us because we don’t have it. Hopefully the model at Huddersfield proved it can work if you have good people. If I’m not the right person, or the Head Coach isn’t the right person, it doesn’t work. It works when you get the right people in place, the structure is one thing but actually the people are the most important and then also there can’t be any ego in it. Its important in my role you don’t want to coach a team, don’t want to pick the team, don’t want to be in the media all the time – I can’t wait to have a Head Coach so he can speak to the media and I don’t have to.”
The appointment of Webber’s preferred man is also high on his list of priorities after the season ends at home to Queens Park Rangers, although the decision to wait was a calculated and logical one. The timescale around the appointment is perhaps quicker than some may have thought:
“It’s difficult – I think within two or three weeks after QPR. I think it will depend on the situation they’re in at their respective clubs, and then when their season is finished, how quickly we can make it work in terms of the club that they’re at, either in this country or abroad. I know it’s a little bit frustrating but that is what it is. In the background all the work’s going on in terms of the squad, cleansing it a little bit and getting to know each player.
One advantage of me coming early is, as much as it was difficult to deal with Huddersfield, is it gives me 6 weeks to really assess the club, from the players to the staff that are at the training ground, the facilities, to everything. So when a Head Coach comes, its not like two new people trying to work it out, I can give them a real clear picture of which player wants to leave, which players are desperate to stay, we’re going to offer this one a new contract and we’ve got a loan set up for this one. It becomes a real easy transition.
The other thing I was always conscious of is because the season unfortunately petered out, probably after Huddersfield away, I didn’t think, even if that Head Coach was available, to bring him in straight away, to potentially lose 4 or 5 of the last 8 games – all of a sudden he could start next season and lose the first 2 and he’s under pressure straight away. I thought let’s protect him from that, because why put him into pressure that he doesn’t need to be in. If there’s issues or challenges I can sort them out, so that when someone comes in it’s a miles better starting place than it was two months ago. That was the idea.”
When Webber was asked how much of a difference supporters can make on match day, he was hugely positive about everyone pulling in the same direction, while recognising the understandable supporter apathy this year:
“It’s huge, I remember when we came to Carrow Road this year with Huddersfield and I was here for the Barnsley, Fulham and Reading games. With the exception of the Reading game, after about twenty minutes when we were 3 up and all four sides were enjoying themselves, I’ve actually found the atmosphere disappointing, at times non-existent. I think when there’s 27,000 in here I don’t see how that’s possible really. We shouldn’t hear 500 Huddersfield fans being louder than 26,500 Norwich fans.
I appreciate on the pitch we need to give them something to sing about, I get that, but the fans sometimes need to help pick the players up, especially if we end up having a slightly younger team, which we will have, because we probably need to. There was one game here where Jacob Murphy had a shot and it went almost out for a throw-in or something, and the whole crowd were almost taking the mick and laughing. That’s a young player, one of your own players by the way, not some overpaid mercenary that you might think exists, and I thought that’s a bit crap – get behind the kid.
I would ask, and the Head Coach hopefully when he’s here will be the one to bang the drum a lot more than me, that we need the support, we’re going to have younger players and they’re going to need help. We’re going to have a slightly different style of play, there’s will be times when clubs will come here and play 4-5-1 and say ‘Try and break us down’. We’re going to need patience and we’re going to need the supporters to stay with us because they can win us games. We can be in the 85th minute, 0-0, trying to push for a win and they can drag us over the line.
One thing I do think about Carrow Road and from the games I’ve seen, is that it’s so tight, you think ‘Bloody hell, if this place was a bit more atmospheric it could be intimidating, it could be horrible to play here for the opposition and great for Norwich’. We have to create that and I get it, the two work together and we’ve got to give the fans something. They’ve got to react to that, and they’ve got to patient with it. Certainly during the early stages when the style is changing they’ve got to stick with it and help these young players, help the Murphy’s, Maddison, Pritchard, Godfrey. Help them out – don’t take the mick if they make a mistake. They’re going to make mistakes and we want players who are going to be really brave, especially our attacking players, to have shots – we don’t want them to be scared the crowd might laugh at them if they put one in the top tier. We need that level of understanding from people.”
Webber also felt his time at Huddersfield could help shape and improve the atmosphere at the club:
“We marketed it really well, and credit to the people involved in that, we created an identity, something that people could relate to. The supporters could relate to the identity of how we played, we called it the Terrier identity, it was all about fighting (not physically) but fighting for every ball, pressing. We have to do that here, I don’t know the people within the club well enough yet, but we need to create something which turns supporters on, gets them excited, gets maybe some younger fans turning up. Surely there’s enough young people here who want to come and get a little bit drunk, have a laugh, sing and make it atmospheric.
As a fan, the club I ended up supporting was the one with the best atmosphere. It’s what sucks you in as a young person, there’s nothing better than an away game with 2,000, 3,000 fans and you’re in the middle of it. That feeling is probably the best feeling in the world. I’m sure every fan who comes here would rather be sat in that sort of atmosphere, rather than where they can hear 500 away fans in the corner singing ‘Is this a library’.
I don’t want to speak out of turn here, but at the club if there’s something we need to do better – tell us. If we need a better song to run out to get people going, we have to be really open minded as a club, and I’ve said this to be board, ‘Let’s strip it all back – anything goes, let’s be open minded, let’s interact with the people who matter – the supporters out there.’ They’re the stakeholders in this and we have to listen.”
Webber’s final comments are potentially the most telling. This is a man who understands football, understands supporters and realises their role within a club such as Norwich City. It’s a remarkably open and honest approach and one that all in yellow and green will hope is a success.
Based on my short time with the man, I’d say we’re in very good hands.