Paddy Davitt: City know nothing can be left to chance

Stuart Webber speaks to Paddy Davitt at Colney_TT_30/05/2019

Norwich City's sporting director Stuart Webber is trying to keep the Canaries on a path to longer term progress - Credit: Tony Thrussell

The prospect of Emi Buendia, Max Aarons or Todd Cantwell leaving Norwich City may induce a nauseous feeling among some supporters. But this is all part of the game for Stuart Webber.

City’s sporting director used a wide-ranging interview with the Financial Times earlier this year to frame arguably the main tenet of his tenure at the club. 

Webber cited a text, ‘The Infinite Game’ written by Simon Sinek which espoused a mathematical theory to suggest in any competition there are two types of ‘game’. Some are ‘finite’, like a football match, where there are ‘known players, defined rules, and an agreed upon objective’.

The team that scores the most goals over 90 minutes wins. But there are also ‘infinite games’, where the players and rules keep changing, and the objective is ‘merely to stay in the game as long as possible’. Sinek’s theory runs too many organisations fail to understand which game they are playing. 

Not Norwich. Not under Webber. Whether it is a £750,000 ‘Soccerbot’ or a vegetable patch now situated behind one goal of the main training pitch at Colney this is a club calibrated for the long term; a sustainable, self-sufficient model. Whether it is a process that can attain Premier League longevity remains to be seen. 

But that again is missing the point. If the goal was simply points, wins and seasonal survival then Norwich City, cast in Webber’s image, has failed to understand what game they are playing. 

Which is why success or failure is not about keeping hold of Buendia or Aarons or Cantwell this summer. Yes, in the shorter term one could reasonably contend the Canaries’ chances of staying in the Premier League beyond a solitary term increase. But at what cost, be it in terms of stifling the ambitions of the individual or the potential financial implications another relegation may have on their market value? 

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“Football’s an infinite game,” said Webber in that FT interview from February. “So when some people say, ‘Why are you spending £2m on a gym? Spend it on a striker because you have more chance of winning next week,’ well, yes, you probably have. 

“But these (facilities) will be here forever and train more strikers than £2m can buy you. In 15 years, you will look back and think, ‘we brought 30 players through here.’ 

“Buying a £20m player would be like a Ferrari in a Vauxhall garage. We’ve got to make our Vauxhalls almost as good as a Ferrari.” 

Webber equally appears to understand professional football is about emotion and passion as it is big data, or more ephemeral cultural and philosophical aims. That is why he continues to maintain any decision to sell the club’s most prized commodities this summer is not solely about numbers on a balance sheet. 

It is that holistic approach which indirectly helps their cause to attract further promising, if unproven, talent to the club where they can be moulded by coaches who buy into the theory. 

This was Webber, speaking directly to this publication, in the same month as the FT interview following a January transfer window where only Aarons was the subject of a firm enquiry.  

“It is part of our model,” he said. “We can’t sell to players or staff come here, we will develop you and if you do well for us we will help you on your journey to bigger and better things. Then we prevent an opportunity. 

“All three of those have big futures in the game but we are also realistic. If the offer is that good for them and us we can’t stand in their way.  

“When it is ready we will know it is right. We talk with them. We have good relationships with them and their families. I remember Max in my office at the age of 16 and I am giving him a rollicking because he had done something wrong in college. You go on a journey with them and we all play our part.   

“Long before me when (Nathan) Redmond and people like that were here there is always another hero. I remember people moaning at me for selling Jonny Howson and later that summer it is James Maddison stepping up. Or when Wes (Hoolahan) left, a legend, now Emi is being compared to him.  

“Emi will leave one day and there will be a new hero. You have to take the emotion out of it. The same with Daniel Farke. I have always said he will coach in the Champions League. 

“If Dortmund came this summer or Everton or whoever the same would apply. We give them an opportunity to work to get to the next level.” 

An infinite game. Not one player, not one transfer window, not even a head coach or a sporting director. An ever-changing cast list where the objective is to stay in the game for as long as possible. To survive and to flourish. Expect this summer transfer window and the tilt at the Premier League to harness this core principle.

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