Bravery defines Webber's four-year City reign
- Credit: Archant
Four years ago, a straight-talking Welshman waltzed into Carrow Road with the task of reviving Norwich City's fortunes and restructuring a club that had lost its way.
Stuart Webber had been interesting City's hierarchy long before Huddersfield Town's unexpected promotion charge had taken full flight, and as the Canaries' board plotted a change of course after Alex Neil's departure, they picked up the phone and made an approach.
The recruitment of the man who has spearheaded City's footballing operations wasn't a sudden change of mind. It was made after conversations with some of football's experts, including Damien Comolli, who recommended a shift of structure.
Webber's in-tray was rammed with tasks that needed desperate attention.
City were rudderless. They lacked a manager, the team had underperformed and in the background, a worrying financial hole was beginning to expand as the prospect of promotion disappeared into the distance.
Apathy was running through the heart of the club. Jez Moxey's ill-fated spell as chief executive had ended sourly. City's performances on the pitch were just as uninspiring.
Whilst much of the scrutiny and blame was placed onto the shoulders of Neil, the reality was the club was slipping through the cracks that had begun to appear in its foundations.
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There was no bridge connecting the academy to the first team. There was no defined policy on recruitment that matched the club's desire to be self-sustainable. There was no philosophy on the pitch, that depended on who was occupying the dug-out at the time.
Instead, the club was driven by two figures - the manager and the chief executive of the day. They were omnipotent. What they said went.
This move was designed to split up those roles. City's owners Delia Smith and Michael Wynn Jones are believers in the idea that the more pair of eyes you can have, the better.
Hiring Webber was the first step. The rest would be up to him to shape and mould.
In his opening remarks after his appointment was confirmed, Webber told the club's official website: "There's a real carte blanche to go and do it as I believe is right and you don't get many opportunities like that at big football clubs."
As the Championship season faded out, work behind the scenes continued to ramp up. Webber had moved to appoint a little-known German coach called Daniel Farke to become City's next head coach.
Externally, this was seen as a copy and paste from his success at Huddersfield. As time progressed, it's clear the appointment was made to align with City's new-found culture rather than a replication of past successes for Webber.
The first season can be filed under transition. The skeleton of Farke's style of play was being constructed on the pitch. Personnel was changing in the academy and players were both leaving and arriving in droves.
Whether it be recruiting from the lower reaches of German football or taking risks in terms of recruitment by saying yes when others said no. Norwich have forged their current route through hard graft and bravery rather than finance.
Underpinning the success of Webber's reign to date has been bravery. A willingness to swim against the current and break conventions. This hasn't always been a conscious decision but something that has been forced to happen due to circumstance or finance.
Other interventions have been self-made.
After the Brexit vote in 2016, there was the realisation that home-grown players would become more expensive assets, hence the increased funding and focus on the youth system - amongst other factors. The improvements at Colney were made with the long-term in mind when spending money on players would have appeased supporters.
Of the 12 Premier League clubs who have released their accounts from the top flight last season, only one has made a profit, Norwich City. As a custodian, Webber is determined to leave the club in a better state than he inherited it.
That's why City 'ignored the noise' and didn't pursue expensive targets. When players drove up their demands, the Canaries said no. That was a risk Webber wasn't willing to take.
When others speak about City's sporting director, they cite his ability to drag a club forward as being a key factor behind his successes.
In season four of Webber's tenure, City are primed for a Premier League return; they have a fully functioning academy, a recruitment system that is envied throughout the English pyramid and a team playing aesthetically pleasing football on the pitch.
It has been four years of change, renovation and succession planning. The Canaries have been dragged into the modern era of football and the foundations are in place for them to push on and thrive even further.
Many figures in football look to bend the truth or offer diplomatic answers to difficult questions. Not Webber. From his comment after spraying money up the wall, or words to that effect, to his front-footed defence of goalkeeper Tim Krul after some supporters bemoaned him playing it out from the back, the truth has always been second nature to him.
He's not a people pleaser. Alongside that honesty is realism.
Even in spite of successes, minutes after City's remarkable promotion two years ago, he fronted up to the media and, as the corks had just left the champagne bottles, he candidly discussed the struggles to come in the top flight.
And they came true.
City did get their recruitment wrong. Webber admitted to sending Farke 'into war without a gun' but as they crashed out of the Premier League with 10 straight defeats, he kept faith in his methods when many would have been tempted to rip them up and start again.
There was even a degree of offence taken as the Canaries defied the odds to conquer Manchester City.
The success this season hasn't taken him by surprise. He will be determined as ever to prove his, and City's, doubters wrong as they prepare to navigate their way through a top flight when money rules.
This time there will no excuses. Beyond a financial hole caused by Covid, City have no sins to rectify. They have a squad that is better equipped to survive, with some additions.
As for Webber himself, rapidly the attentions will turn to his contractual situation. Upon joining Norwich, he said "In terms of the next stage of my career, the opportunity to come to a club the size of Norwich was something which I couldn't turn down."
This is just another chapter of his career. There is a desire to work abroad. That is a fact Webber has placed on the record. He is learning Spanish and has already spoken about this contract being his last in Norfolk. Whether a season of success could tempt him to continue the project remains to be seen.
City fans will have the words of former Terriers owner Dean Hoyle in their minds. Speaking on a podcast last month, he said: "We were so far behind the curve. I'd lost Stuart Webber to Norwich, (which was a) big loss for me. I had another head of football operations in place but, let's be honest, he wasn't Stuart."
Four years ago, Webber waltzed into Norfolk just days after the side he helped construct, Huddersfield, had dismantled his new employers 3-0. Tonight, he goes into battle with his old club hoping to move them closer to a top-flight return.
As Norwich hurtle towards a second promotion in three years, it's clear that Webber possesses the blueprint for getting teams out of the division.
Now, he needs to show he has what it takes to keep City in the Premier League. That may be something that defines his City legacy.