Former City transfers chief opens up on past recruitment, relegation and what now lies ahead
PUBLISHED: 00:08 30 June 2018 | UPDATED: 00:08 30 June 2018
Ewan Chester had two spells heading up Norwich City's scouting network. He spoke to Michael Bailey about some of the deals - that both came off and fell away.
It would not have taken much World Cup watching this summer to come across a former Norwich City transfer target. That’s what three consecutive years in the Premier League can do for you. Ola Toivonen and Toby Alderweireld to name two; it was never your pie in the sky summer speculation.
Not that my chat with former Canaries chief scout Ewan Chester started there – although I was sure the talk will soon come round to his second spell at Carrow Road. The one where Chris Hughton’s switch from Birmingham took Chester back to City with the hope of kicking the club on in the top flight.
No, this starts with his first year and three transfer windows at City under chief executive David McNally and manager Paul Lambert – a stint from June 2010 to the following September with a little bit of hardball in the mix.
“I remember David coming into my office one day asking me if I wanted the good news or the bad news,” recalled Chester. “I asked for the good, and he told me (Peterborough director of football) Barry Fry was willing to pay £500,000 for Cody McDonald. “So I asked what on earth is the bad news? David replied that Barry wanted to pay over 40 years.”
City got their money in the end – half a million return on a nominal fee from Dartford, as the striker headed to Coventry. Such wins sit a lot closer to City’s current recruitment model than how things were operating on Chester’s return come June 2012 – the start of two and a half years back with Norwich, before hooking up with Hughton again at Brighton.
All of those years were spent in the Premier League – where the intoxication of big names being linked with ‘little old Norwich’, met the hindsight of criticism as City’s top-flight spell arguably floundered on the performance of their most expensive signings.
“I mean, everybody is going to come back to Ricky,” declared Chester from the outset, and it’s hard to look beyond Van Wolfswinkel – City’s £8.5m record signing in the summer of 2013 that promised so much more than it delivered. I don’t think we ever found that formula with Leroy Fer and Ricky. They should have been a real blend because Leroy could play that forward killer pass and Ricky’s movement was terrific. But we never hit on a system that got the best out of them both.
“Ricky in a team that had 60pc of the ball would probably have been a success, but there are games in the Premier League where you probably have 35-40pc and it’s just about pressing defenders and making what can turn out to be futile runs.”
Those were the buys Norwich managed to get over the line. The ones that got away were on another level.
“Alderweireld was a big regret because we got close with him,” added Chester, on the Atletico Madrid defender who later moved to Southampton and Tottenham.
“Toivonen, we had his agent in the building but couldn’t reach a financial agreement. I spent a lot of time watching him at PSV and it looked like it would happen. If we’d got him and Ricky? Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
“There were lots of ifs and buts – but it’s a frustration because I still think we were capable of staying up. Norwich is a super club but with football nowadays, everything is instant. This is no way belittling Norwich – I genuinely don’t think there is anything wrong with starting every season aiming to finish 17th in the Premier League; especially when the penalties for relegation are what they are.
“In retrospect, what was negative for us was finishing 11th in our first season with Chris – because with two weeks to go, we would’ve taken 16th. When you finish 11th, where do you go? You’re suddenly talking top 10.
“I look at what Chris has done at Brighton – he’s done a fantastic job. He’s kept them up and they finished 16th. If they do that again or 17th, fantastic. Every year that Brighton are in the Premier League is a bonus year worth £100m. I hope Norwich get promoted next season and if that happens, I don’t think it’s a crime to set out every season to finish 17th. You just need to look at the make-up of the teams in the Championship. What would Leeds give for a season in the top flight?”
Chester left Brighton before a spell as Birmingham’s football consultant. The Blues have not been big on continuity in recent seasons. Offers from MLS in the USA and top Scottish clubs have followed, but it is England where Rangers’ former recruitment lead wants to return to work.
“Both times I left Norwich were circumstantial and hindsight is a wonderful thing,” added Chester. “I’ve still got a lot of time for Norwich City and the owners, and I can genuinely say that. I’ve been to games and seen Delia (Smith), Michael (Wynn Jones) and the directors, and everybody has been very welcoming to me.”
And of course, what Norwich are dealing with next season is the reverse to their situation in 2013 – this time a final-day slump left City to accept a 14th place Championship finish, and leave expectations some way off a promotion push come August.
“What the club has to do is forget Ipswich and get around the play-off positions for the majority of the season,” said Chester.
“The players that have been brought in are good players, but the Championship is such a unique mental test. Of all the leagues I’ve been involved in, it’s undoubtedly the toughest.
“Some of the lads that came in last summer, you’ll see the benefit of having that season under their belt. I know last season there was a combination of some of the manager’s signings and some of the old school – so in fairness to Daniel Farke, that year could be invaluable to him as well.
“He now knows the players he can trust and he’s got players that have 40-plus games under their belt. The league won’t hold any surprises now.
“But the key for everyone at Norwich, including the supporters, is a good start. From the outside – and I still keep a level of keen interest – I think everyone has shown a level of patience. They’ve said fair play, this season is all about stabilising a turnover of staff and players with one eye on the financial situation.
“So if Norwich do well in the first six or seven games, they will get momentum and Carrow Road has got to be a fortress. There were too many draws at home last year.
“Teams will come and sit in again, and if Norwich can get the first goal in those games then it makes one hell of a difference.”
Such fine margins litter football’s successes and failures. Perhaps Chester knows that better than most.
And whatever the forthcoming results, there will be more of the same come August.
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