As the 22-23 season crumbles into dust, Nathan Hill examines how poor performances *off* the pitch dampened down fan engagement to unprecedented lows.
Of all the emotions football fans are likely to feel, on any given matchday or through any season, something needs to be fundamentally wrong for apathy to be one. It’s worse than frustration or heartbreak, both of which are indicators that you cared, were invested in an outcome that didn’t come to fruition. Apathy is the state of not caring, numbness and detachment from a game in which you, by sheer dint of being in the stadium, should be playing an active role. While there has been toxicity at various points this season (and last), apathy most accurately sums up the mood music right now.
Each Championship defeat has served to expose Norwich’s operational flaws and to remind us how far off-course our once-progressive project has drifted.
Smith is gone but the atmosphere surrounding the club hasn’t improved. Carrow Road lies mostly dormant on matchdays, with a chance of eruption depending on just how lukewarm and ineffective a performance is served up. So far, the club’s problems running far deeper mean only part of the ire has been directed at new head coach David Wagner. Each Championship defeat has served to expose Norwich’s operational flaws and to remind us how far off-course our once-progressive project has drifted – none more so than the brutal dismantlings handed out by both Middlesbrough and Swansea towards the end of the campaign.
There are two football clubs, each with a discernible playing philosophy and off-pitch plan. Regardless of whether either are promoted to the Premier League sometime soon, their clearly defined principles are something that supporters can buy into and proudly support. We no longer know what Norwich’s version of this is. If allowed to continue, we will have become one of the stale, rudderless clubs that Daniel Farke’s Norwich were swatting aside in 2018/19 and 2020/21.
Last season I wrote about the insularity of the club, its hubris, and its catastrophic miscommunications to supporters (and anyone outside the Carrow Road/Colney bubble), alongside one-way, in-house broadcasts where the most pertinent issues were only addressed at surface level or not at all, with no critique welcomed, even if it’s constructive. A series of well-polished recordings of a carefully cultivated set of questions asked, and a series of neatly prepared political answers given.
At boardroom level, Norwich have remained in lockdown.
Back in 2017, the club hit reset in terms of playing philosophy but they also underwent a dramatic cultural shift. The higher-ups would be open, approachable and accountable. Since the Covid period, however, the lines of dialogue have been cut off. Football on the pitch returned, as did the paying fans (who are paying more than ever, by the way). But at boardroom level, Norwich have remained in lockdown. In fact, on the few occasions when they’ve poked their heads out from behind the curtain, they’ve always made sure to point a finger back at supporters, blaming them for “giving up” – while dismissing any sense of disconnect and downplaying protests as ‘just a few rowdy individuals with a bedsheet’.
You will, however, be applauded for renewing your season tickets en masse; the tonal shift when it comes to you committing sums of money to them is astounding. Whether the figures the club have come out with, however, are the whole truth is another matter. While social media is admittedly an echo chamber, the noises emanating from it are enough to believe that people are jumping off the bus in their droves. Yes, there has always has been a massive waiting list ready to hoover these vacancies up, but many of those people may have also reconsidered their place in the line. You can’t blame them – it’s £500+ during a cost of living crisis. And while yes, going to the football can and should be pure escapism during stressful times, the ROI in that regard has been miserable for two straight seasons. And this is before the criticism from those you’ve handed that money to, because you’re not happy with the rapidly declining quality of product.
Meanwhile, for some unspecified “breach of trust,” relations with multiple local media channels have soured, with a little more than a basic level of access only just starting to be restored to key figures after a long spell of non-cooperation. No disconnect though, remember. The connection fans have to the club’s higher-ups is through the local media. They ask questions on behalf of the general public and are their main conduit of information and provide balanced, accurate coverage. Shut them out, you shut the fans out.
Wagner, since his arrival, has done more than anyone this season to extend olive branches and include supporters on the journey. But sometimes his rallying cries have come across as tone deaf, attempts to cajole punters into going to war with a set of players who don’t look prepared for battle themselves. After the aforementioned debacle of Swansea at home, he leapt to the defence of Webber, saying that there was “no one who cares more about the club”. That particular statement is likely to remain bookmarked in the minds of many and won’t do a lot to win over anyone who feels his appointment was a sign of a retreating Webber trying to salvage his legacy. It also jars when, mid-season, the sporting director was busy climbing mountains while speaking about operating at 90% and Delia and Michael begging him to stay.
Even when promotion was still possible, the questions surrounding Norwich’s overall direction of travel would’ve needed answering.
Wagner isn’t entirely blameless in terms of failing to reach the playoffs. After all, he is the head coach and if the team had been on a winning run, gearing up for playoff football with their best foot forward, this conversation would have at least been parked for another day. Parked being the key word. Even when promotion was still possible, the questions surrounding Norwich’s overall direction of travel, abrasive attitude towards fans and attitude to public scrutiny would’ve needed answering – not from Wagner, but the club’s main business and footballing figureheads.
If left unanswered, or not answered satisfactorily, the football club will see apathy in its most visible form – empty seats, in large numbers, despite whatever their renewal figures are supposedly saying. Something I’m yet to see in my 20 or so years supporting this football club.