City director hits back at the critics

RICK WAGHORN Straight-talking City director Barry Skipper today revealed that he had been left “puzzled, disappointed and a bit hurt” by the bitter and divided atmosphere that has engulfed Carrow Road in recent months.


Straight-talking City director Barry Skipper today revealed that he had been left “puzzled, disappointed and a bit hurt” by the bitter and divided atmosphere that has engulfed Carrow Road in recent months.

Speaking ahead of today's trip to Crystal Palace - the result of which will do much to set the tone of next Thursday night's fans' meeting at St Andrew's Hall - the club's vice-chairman was clearly in a mood for a few home truths with a polite fury underpinning his staunch defence of the board's record amid accusations of “kid glove” treatment for under-fire manager Nigel Worthington and claims of something being “fundamentally wrong” at the club.

In particular, the suggestion that after 10 years at the helm the current Canary board have taken the Championship club back to square one again and that Norwich City were facing the kind of deep-seated crisis that prompted the last public meeting at St Andrew's Hall in 1996, is one claim Skipper refutes with a passion.

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“In 1996, the club was on the edge of bankruptcy, the bank was telling the football club which players it had to sell. It was on the brink of oblivion,” said Skipper, as the reign of former club chairman Robert Chase came crashing down amid the sound of police horses' hooves clattering down Carrow Road.

“Now that clearly was a serious matter - not just for the football club, but for the whole community and the city of Norwich. I'm sorry, but I can't for the life of me see any comparison between that and with what's happening now.

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“I just don't know how we've got to the stage of people calling public meetings. As a board we're not novices. Most of us have been around for ten years now and, sure, we've made some mistakes - and we'll probably go on and make some more as everyone does - but these days we are quite a seasoned group that have been through the fire of football.

“We know, for example, that the line between success and failure in football is wafer thin. Equally, we know that football is not a business, it's a passionate game that prompts passionate opinions - and I wholly agree with all that passion being there - but that passion cannot be allowed to become an excuse for everything. Like our players being booed when they're winning. It doesn't seem to me like Norwich City.

“The players are disconcerted by these things. It puzzles me, it puzzles them. How have we got to this stage? Is this where football as a whole has got to?

“I don't understand it. Unlike in 1996, there are so many things which are going on at this football club which are positive.

“They may not all be football-related. They might not all be as exciting as a new centre-forward scoring goals, but they're still entirely relevant.

“We don't, for example, survive by selling our best players every year as we did with the likes of Darren Eadie and Craig Bellamy - we do it by selling a piece of land.”

When they do sell a star player, as in the case of £7.25 million exit Dean Ashton this January, it is done for the right reasons and at the right price, says Skipper. It was another example, he claims, of this current board keeping their nerve, of making tough decisions, of not being swayed by short-term frustrations.

“I don't think this board is thin-skinned at all. I know people will say 'Well, you would say that wouldn't you? Because you're on it!' but I have to say I think we have a very good board with a very interesting mix of people with a lot of inter-related skills. We complement each other very well.

“And we have made some tough decisions - and some brave decisions. Bringing Darren Huckerby here was a brave decision. Bringing Dean Ashton here was a brave decision.

“Selling Dean Ashton was a tough decision. But having come to the decision that we can't keep people here indefinitely who don't want to stay, you then have to decide how much he's worth. So we looked at the £7 million that Liverpool paid for Peter Crouch and made the decision that anything about that would be above the current market price.

“I'm just disappointed that among what I am absolutely convinced are a minority of supporters - and I may yet be proved wrong - we don't get slightly more respect for it.”

The biggest decision, of course, is sticking with manager Nigel Worthington in the midst of what Skipper readily admits has been “a disappointing” season. His position - whatever today's result at Selhurst Park - will come under renewed and intense scrutiny at St Andrew's Hall next week. The board, says Skipper, have already made their decision.

“We revisited the whole issue four or five weeks ago - that's when we had our most detailed debate as to where we all were and where we were going. And we all came to the same conclusion. It was entirely unanimous and I believe the chairman, Roger Munby, made our position perfectly clear on the back pages of the papers over the course of the following days.

“And I can't conceive that anything will change on that whether we win, lose or draw today.” The manager stays. “Firing the manager now is not the answer.”

Worthington is, says Skipper, quizzed at every turn - as are the club's other senior managers.

“We ask searching questions of them all - Shaun (O'Hara) on the finances, Andy (Cullen) on the commercial side and Nigel on the football.

“We certainly don't intervene in terms of who he wants to play, but I have to say he is extremely good at telling us what's happening with this or that player so we are often aware of a lot of things that the fans never are.

“In fact, he probably spends more time in the 'hot seat' than anyone else.”

The crunch will clearly come next season when Norwich head back into Championship battle knowing that this is the last chance saloon in terms of parachute payments - provided, of course, the next 11 games don't provide a minor play-off miracle.

“This has been a disappointing season - no one denies that. But then every club that goes up and down - be it Premiership to the Championship or vice-versa - goes through a big change of personnel and it is difficult.

“Next season is much more critical given you know there's no more time in terms of the parachute payments. This season you know that you do have another bite at the cherry.”

The arrival of £2.75 new boy Rob Earnshaw, Skipper claims, is another example of the board making a big and brave decision. In fairness, no one of his ilk followed Chris Sutton's £5 million exit in the dark and wholly divided days under Chase.

“This is a hard league to get out of - we all know that. But we're positive and upbeat. We know where we are and where we're going,” said Skipper, convinced that Worthington's new-look team is “not a million miles away” from clicking into gear. Likewise, he is determined that ten years of hard labour as a Carrow Road board - in particular, the many miles they have travelled together answering supporters' concerns at roadshows across the county - should not be dismissed lightly as the gathering at St Andrew's Hall looms.

“That's all that I'd ask - that after this period of time, we just want people to keep the faith.”

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