Connor Southwell: Is it time for City to aim beyond the top 26?
- Credit: Denise Bradley
It's been something that has been spoken about by Norwich City's figureheads since they walked through the door at Carrow Road.
What they found was a club grappling to find its identity, disconnected with the supporters and a training ground full of portacabins.
Fast forward four years and the club have two Championship titles in their trophy cabinet and have just broken their points record at this level of football.
They have, to quote Daniel Farke, 'paid for the sins of the past', helped by their last top-flight campaign and Colney has become a state of the art facility rivalling some long-standing top-flight clubs.
They have built a conveyer belt of talent emerging from the academy. They are developing players from nominal fees into £30/40m players. The transformation has been extraordinary during the four years that Farke and Stuart Webber have been at the club.
At various AGMs during the last four years, the ambitions of the club have been outlined, which has included the aim to become an established club inside the top 26 of English football.
That progress, both on and off the pitch, begs the question, is it now time for Norwich City to aim higher?
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Everyone is aware that there will still be constraints next season imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, supporters are also conscious of the difficulty required to maintain top-flight status given their struggles during the last decade.
But City have seldom had a better opportunity to sustain their Premier League presence.
Strip it all back and the approach City have taken during the last four years is remarkable. In the short term, winning isn't the priority. In a competitive sport where change is common and few have the patience to build longevity, that is an admirable thing to possess.
Instead, they have attempted to perfect the science behind winning. They've zoomed out and considered the necessary processes that need to be in place in order to become a side that wins regularly at the highest level possible.
Farke has built a style of play on the pitch. Last season, there was a noticeable change in the way they performed on a pitch that contained a more pragmatic base. This was City's boss future-proofing his side for when they returned to the Premier League.
City do head to football's promised land in a healthier position on the pitch. In a ruthless division played often on fine margins, they are better prepared to compete from a defensive perspective.
That has been coached into the Canaries' side without losing their core principles.
Off the pitch, they have recruited aggressively and bravely. Norwich have taken risks on players like Emi Buendia and been rewarded substantially.
Despite a £30m hole created by Covid, City remain in a healthy position to recruit effectively again with greater resource than two seasons ago. They are continuing to innovate off the pitch, at Colney, work on the country's first SoccerBot 350 machine is well underway, it is designed to coach players by using technology to recreate in-game moments and explore decisions taken.
Are City now in a position to attempt to become a top 17 club in England?
Norwich are at a financial disadvantage to their rivals. Despite a bigger budget this time around, they will be around the lowest spenders in the division again. They have proven they can get more bang for their buck in the Championship, but the challenge to sign the right players in the Premier League is tough.
They will aim for physicality. That's not simply size, but also speed and consistency in sprints. The feeling is City's top Premier League performers two years ago were all pacy.
Chris Hughton was the last boss to keep the club in the Premier League nearly a decade ago.
Nobody should underestimate the chasm of quality between the Championship and the top-flight. This time it can be different. It hinges on the right recruitment in a slow market complicated by Brexit and Covid.
In many ways, City face a moral dilemma as well. Whilst they won't gamble with the future of their club and offer players wages that, whilst they could afford currently, would jeopardise their future if they were relegated. Other clubs don't take the same care.
They plan to do it differently this time.
Instead of a large group, City will look to replicate Burnley and move towards a smaller core base of players capable of building a continuity and togetherness alongside their talent. This is all about making themselves more durable at this level.
You can sense it, they remember the pain from two years ago. They have decided to adopt it as fuel to go again rather than let it sweep into the fabric of the club. From the recruitment team to the sports science department, the hunger to improve is evident.
This feels like a different club compared to two years ago.
At Anfield in the opening fixture, they named a starting XI that only contained players who had been there the previous season. It was as much as fulfilling promises to those who had signed up with a hope of playing in the Premier League, to ditch that would have shattered the culture at the club.
Alex Tettey, Mario Vrancic and Xavi Quintilla's departure represent a fresh approach this time around. One that is more ruthless in the pursuit of success. That was visible in Webber as he addressed the media this week.
What has happened at the club throughout the Webber and Farke epoch has been transformational, now they need to prove it can be done in the Premier League - if they do, then the opportunity to grow further will be within their grasp.