Cory Varney: Viva la Webberlución - The definitive Norwich City story
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
It was the calculated gamble that led all the way to the Premier League. Out went Alex Neil and in came a fresh approach unlike any seen before. City fan and writer Cory Varney tells that epic story. Part one is a changing of the guard.
It’s a cold December night at Carrow Road and a team, led by a German recruited from Borussia Dortmund II, celebrate three points in pursuit of an unlikely promotion.
But that’s Huddersfield Town.
Norwich City, on the other hand, are struggling to keep the wheels from falling off a promotion bid of their own. It’s now just two wins in nine games for a squad that, supposedly, is one of the best in the division.
At full-time, Huddersfield boss, David Wagner, talks of playing with identity. Norwich manager, Alex Neil, talks of a lack of intensity. Months ago, the Canaries were leading the way. Now? It’s all going wrong.
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By the end of 2016, Norwich are 12th, trailing the play-off spots by seven points after a run of eight defeats in 11 games. They’re 17 points shy of the automatic promotion places.
Jez Moxey Remember him?
- 1 Paddy's Pointers: Five observations from the Canaries' 1-0 defeat against Watford
- 2 MATCHDAY RECAP: Hornets frustrate City in title tussle
- 3 Transfer rumour: Canaries interested in Celtic defender
- 4 Paddy Davitt: Player ratings after Canaries' 1-0 Watford defeat
- 5 Farke laments 'average' City display in Watford defeat
- 6 City ace Krul reflects on Premier League interest
- 7 QPR forced to deny manager is leaving ahead of City clash
- 8 David Freezer: Emotions bubbling for City as Watford tee up a proper title race
- 9 'Blown away' - Gibson reveals how City wooed him for Premier League push
- 10 Hanley insists winning title 'means everything' to Canaries
Chief executive, Jez Moxey, only appointed in the summer, takes to the club’s media channels in a bid to allay concerns, assuring fans promotion is ‘still the aim’. Yet that only seems to widen the disconnect between the two.
Still, things get a little better in January. Norwich win three out of four games, while Mitchell Dijks – on loan – and Yanic Wildschut arrive from Ajax and Wigan Athletic in the closing days of the window. Martin Olsson and Robbie Brady depart, as does young Spaniard, Sergi Canos, only recruited from Liverpool in the previous summer with little chance to make an impression at Carrow Road. He joins Brentford.
But news of a far more high-profile departure comes days after the window closes.
On February 2, he resigns. Perhaps intriguingly, sandwiched between the usual ‘best wishes for his future career’, there’s a line that reveals City’s hierarchy are to deliberate a ‘fresh approach’ in how they go about their business.
Two days later, Norwich make it four wins in five at Cardiff.
“We’re starting to hit good form at the right time. This is the time in the season to build momentum,” says Neil. In midweek, he’ll take his side to Wigan where, if they win, they will climb back into the Championship’s top six.
They don’t. They draw 2-2.
A 5-1 demolition of Nottingham Forest keeps Norwich within two points of the Championship’s top six. Jonny Howson, Wes Hoolahan and Alex Pritchard hold their own goal of the season competition. It proves to be the last victory Neil would oversee as Norwich City manager.
It’s now it unravels.
The end is nigh for Alex
A herculean first-half effort against league leaders, Newcastle, earns a 2-2 draw at Carrow Road, before defeats to Burton and a draw against Ipswich mean it is near enough the last chance saloon as Norwich head to Hillsborough in early March.
Victory against sixth-placed Sheffield Wednesday could rekindle feint play-off hopes.
Norwich lose 5-1.
If that didn’t kill the season, then a 1-1 draw at Bristol City certainly does, ensuring Norwich have lost more ground – too much.
Neil knows it as he sits down for his pre-match press conference, ahead of a home game against Blackburn on Friday March 10.
“We don’t want to be a ‘yo yo’ club,” he says. “That, at times, means you have to have a clear-out to a certain extent to make sure we freshen the squad up.
“We have a lot of lads who have been here a long time and I am not saying it is going to be all those guys who are leaving. That is not the case, but we need to freshen the squad up and do it as soon as we can.”
For Neil, the focus appears to be on rebuilding.
“If the board feel I am not the right person to lead it then that is the board’s prerogative,” he continued. “What I would say is in my position, knowing all the inner workings, I am the best person to lead that forward.”
Neil is dimissed later that evening.
It’s a ‘tough but unanimous decision’. Alan Irvine takes temporary charge. Rather than the usual talk of a search for a successor, the board tease that in a week’s time they will make an announcement regarding the club’s ‘new structure’.
True to their word, the plans for structural changes are unveiled a week later.
There will be three new roles – a nanaging director to oversee the business side, a sporting director to oversee the football side and a head coach to oversee the first-team squad.
Interim chief executive, Steve Stone, is the first man appointed, taking the role of managing director.
The recruitment of a sporting director, meanwhile, is revealed to be at an ‘advanced stage’ by chairman, Ed Balls. Once in the building, the sporting director will lead the hunt for Norwich City’s new head coach.
It’s work that has been ongoing a while.
Balls has sought the intel of ‘a lot of people inside the game’. That includes former Liverpool and Tottenham director of football, Damien Comolli.
“I said, Ed, as long as you don’t have a different structure in your football club, you will struggle,” Comolli explains to the Pink’Un. “You need a sporting director who’s going to build your culture and implement values which can be maintained. As long as you don’t have that, you won’t be able to sustain success.”
Two days later, the name on everyone’s lips is Stuart Webber.
Webber is football operations director at Huddersfield, currently sat third in the same league, playing enviable football under David Wagner, having finished 19th the season prior.
Ten days after those initial reports, Huddersfield place him on gardening leave, claiming he’s expressed a desire to leave the club.
A week after that – after Norwich lose 2-0 at Aston Villa and, ironically, 3-0 at a upwardly mobile Huddersfield – the deal is done.
April 6 2017.
Viva la Webberlución.
A man of action
“I’ve got a clear idea of what it will look like at the end,” says Webber, upon his arrival at Carrow Road. But he stresses patience.
Everything from the appointment of the head coach: ‘Let’s be patient, let’s get it right so when we look back in a year, two years, we go, ‘we made the right decision,’ through to his vision for Norwich City will all take time.
He says he’s looking at club that’s lost a bit of direction and certainly lost some identity. His head coach appointment, pencilled in to come two to three weeks after the end of the current season, will be a key part in leading that drive.
“I want to be a part of a football club who get promoted to the Premier League and become sustained in the Premier League, and an academy which constantly produces players, a recruitment department which we become the envy of.”
It could serve as Webber’s mission statement.
Irvine is to remain in charge until the end of the season. He leads Norwich to a 7-1 win over promotion-chasing Reading as the focus returns to matters on the Carrow Road pitch.
Off it, Webber dismisses head of football recruitment, Tony Spearing and head of scouting, Lee Darnbrough, while technical director Ricky Martin also leaves the football club.
Webber’s work has begun.
It’s now mid-April and Neil is reflecting on his Norwich departure.
There are no ill feelings.
There is, however, regret. “We had a lot of players at the club for longer than five years, and we needed to start afresh.
“Thirteen of the 24 players in the first-team squad were over 30, and when we went up the last time, they were 28, which is significantly different. It’s when you’re at your peak.”
Neil, once again, reiterates his belief he should have looked to rebuild, taken some time and strived to alter the squad more than he did following relegation.
Instead, that responsibility is now Webber’s.
Ahead of Norwich’s penultimate home game of the 2016-17 season, against Brighton, already promoted under former City boss Chris Hughton, Webber predicts only 12 to 15 of the squad names listed on the back of the programme will still be there next season. Some aren’t good enough.
Others aren’t hungry enough.
Webber cites the need for more intensity, more tempo and more youth, along with that word again, ‘identity’.
When asked whether or not the head coach has been identified, he serves up a wry smile.
We need the fans
He continues talking to fans in the coming days, sitting down with supporter group, Along Come Norwich, where he explains he’s made it clear to the club’s board opening the lines of communication with the fan base is vital.
With his revamp taking shape, there’s another item on his agenda: the Carrow Road atmosphere.
Webber says support from the stands is key. Norwich will have younger players and they’re going to need help. Patience will be needed. The supporters must stick with their team.
“They can win us games,” he says. “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 be patient with it.”
That will come from identity – that word again – thinks Webber. It will come from building something supporters can relate to. Something that can excite them. Norwich draw 3-3 at Leeds – losing a 3-0 lead – before, ahead of the final game of the season against QPR, the reshuffle begins.
So long John
The sun sets on the City careers of John Ruddy, Sebastien Bassong, Ryan Bennett, Steven Whittaker, Youssouf Mulumbu, Michael Turner and Kyle Lafferty. All will leave at the expiry of contracts.
It grants Ruddy, especially, the opportunity to say goodbye after a seven-year spell at Carrow Road.
He gets a send off befitting his service, earning the man of the match gong as Norwich defeat QPR 4-0. on the final day.
The 2016-17 season is over.
It’s now, at last, the real work begins.
“The new season started yesterday, straight after the game,” says Webber, speaking on the following Monday.
He almost has his recruitment team in place, with Webber stressing the need to be creative in the market. He almost has his head coach, all is still on track for that man, whoever he may be, to be in the building in two to three weeks.
He will be someone who has a ‘clear way of working on and off the pitch’.
He won’t be a coach that changes from result to result when the pressure is on.
He will arrive in Norfolk with a ‘strong footballing belief that fits with our club’.
The hunt is on.
Cory tweets about Norwich City on @iwritethings23 and @coryvwriter for business. He has also written a short film which explores mental health which you can support through the crowdfunding site for ‘I Love You Guys’