Transfer tales: How pursuit of Ross McCormack shaped Norwich City’s future

PUBLISHED: 12:00 25 March 2020 | UPDATED: 12:01 25 March 2020

Ross McCormack failed to justify his big-money move to Villa Park. Picture: PA

Ross McCormack failed to justify his big-money move to Villa Park. Picture: PA

PA Archive/PA Images

He was the most expensive signing Norwich City never made. Mark Armstrong looks at the Canaries’ chase for then Fulham striker Ross McCormack

Alex Neil as desperate to sign Ross McCormack in the summer of 2016. Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus ImagesAlex Neil as desperate to sign Ross McCormack in the summer of 2016. Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images

Running a football club is about taking calculated risks.

Clubs can only be as good as their recruitment and Norwich City sporting director Stuart Webber has proved himself to be pretty good at it.

He would admit himself that not every transfer has come off since he arrived at the club. He has said how responsible he feels for a poor transfer window last summer but he still has a lot of credit in the bank with most fans after masterminding, with Daniel Farke, the unlikely promotion season of 2018/19.

It hasn’t always been that way at Carrow Road and in the summer of 2016 a chain of events started that would ultimately lead to the 35-year-old’s arrival from Huddersfield.

Jex Moxey's stint as Norwich City chief executive lasted just six months. Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus ImagesJex Moxey's stint as Norwich City chief executive lasted just six months. Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images

It was the summer of 2016. Despite being one of the biggest spenders the previous January, Norwich had failed to maintain their Premier League place.

Chief executive David McNally had recently left the club to be replaced by Jez Moxey and manager Alex Neil was desperate to lead the club’s assault on regaining their top-flight status.

Flush with Premier League parachute money, City decided to go ‘all-in’ with their recruitment strategy. They had one shot to get this right.

Neil didn’t want to make too many changes to the squad but after Dieumerci Mbokani’s loan ended he wanted to bring in some firepower.

There was one man at the top of his list... Ross McCormack.

The then Fulham striker was hot property at the time, considered by many to be the best forward outside of the Premier League. He had scored 23 goals in the 2015/16 season and Neil liked the idea of teaming the 29-year-old with his fellow Scot, Steven Naismith, bought the previous January from Everton for £8.5m.

Neil had put McCormack at the top of his list of targets from the moment City’s relegation was confirmed and started a charm offensive to land the player.

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The message back from the player’s camp was positive. Discussions could begin with Fulham and, although they started to drag, it looked like Norwich had the field to themselves.

Neil was confident ahead of City’s season opener at Blackburn that the deal would get done.

“I think we are at a stage where we are not getting rejected out of hand so there is movement on both sides but it is how much we are prepared to give and how much they are,” said Neil.

“We are already spending considerable money to get it done and I don’t think there is any need to spend any more.”

The EDP even got a nice graphic made up profiling what would have been the biggest signing in the club’s history, ready for when the clubs pushed the button to announce the signing. The page never got sent to print.

New Aston Villa owner Tony Xia had recently bought Aston Villa from Randy Lerner and wanted to make a splash of his own. The Chinese businessman had become frustrated with pundits predicting how the Villans would struggle in the Championship and he wanted to make a statement of his own.

Suddenly McCormack was in his sights... and the pound signs lit up.

“Someone go low, we go high! Up The Villa!@AVFCOfficial” Xia tweeted on August 4 in not too discreet reference to Norwich’s negotiations with Fulham.

They blew Norwich’s offer out the water and the months of work Neil had put in to convince the player to swap Craven Cottage for Carrow Road had gone to waste. Norwich simply couldn’t compete with £12m fee along with the rumoured £40,000 a week Villa had offered.

City dodged a bullet, but only just. McCormack’s time at Villa Park was an unmitigated disaster, playing only 20 games in three seasons. He even once failed to turn up to training because the electric gates on his house wouldn’t open - then manager Steve Bruce wasn’t impressed.

To rub salt into the wound McCormack’s wages went up to £70,000 a week last summer as a result of their promotion. Villa decided to pay him off and he is currently listed without a club.

But the saga also served to demonstrate once again the flawed transfer strategy of the Canaries. Too much was being done on the hunch of a few individuals and the idea of thinking beyond the following season was alien in the corridors of power at Carrow Road at the time.

An underwhelming eighth-placed finish in the Championship accounted for Neil’s job, who was gone by March, whilst Moxey and City had already parted ways the month before.

A new management structure was required... and by the end of that season they had the man in Webber ready to lead it... and they won’t ever be risking the sums of money talked about in the McCormack deal whilst the Welshman is in charge.

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