Norwich City: Zoe Ward exclusive – Suarez, McNallly, Maddison, project transformation and her husband
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2018
Liverpool's former club secretary, valued by David McNally and delivering Colney's transformation. Michael Bailey speaks exclusively to Zoe Ward – the woman who is more than simply 'Webber's wife' at Norwich City.
Helping bring Luis Suarez to English football is unlikely to garner much thanks from Norwich City fans. That lob from the halfway line still grates, and then the hat-tricks. So many hat-tricks.
The Uruguayan superstar's Liverpool arrival delivered goal after goal – and not just against the Canaries.
It marked one of the proudest achievements for Zoe Ward; then Liverpool's club secretary and now one-third of Norwich City's executive committee. It also laid the foundations for another, which arrived at Carrow Road.
'Luis isn't one Norwich fans will thank me for,' smiled Ward. 'It was a hard slog getting that deal done. Traditionally it takes 14 days just to get a work permit appointment. We signed Luis on Monday, deadline day, and had him playing on Wednesday – then he came on and scored. It's moments like that where you feel wow, this is exciting.'
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Indeed it took Suarez just 16 minutes to score his first goal. Ward added: 'You become more proud of the achievement if the player has a level of success, so Luis is a massive one for me – and the other is James Maddison.'
It was January 2016 that City swooped for the Coventry prodigy; 3.30pm on deadline day to be precise, with Ward a key cog in the contractual team of then chief executive David McNally.
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Maddison's progression would go on to bail Norwich out from a far uglier summer two years later – a thought put into sharper focus by their superb current form.
'Bits of paper were flying all around the country. We completed that deal with one and half minutes to spare – and now, the sense of achievement is massive.
'Stuart (Webber, sporting director) and Daniel (Farke, head coach) did an amazing job working with him, and now he's gone on to do what he's doing.
'We knew James wouldn't be available in the next window. There was talk of Spurs and Liverpool. So sometimes you get a moment and you have take it.
'I hope we're having a similar conversation about Emi Buendia. That was an opportunity we took in January and hopefully we look back and can say that was the right thing to do at the right time.'
Ward's Liverpool role was more than just a job: 'It was a phenomenal opportunity, massively all-consuming, working at a top six club in the Europa League; it was just a constant 24/7 life. We went to Wembley for the League and FA Cup. Being able to take my dad in the royal box for a Liverpool cup final, sat next to Ian Rush having his lunch – it's nice to have those special moments.'
Her Reds opportunity owed plenty to McNally appointing her club secretary at Premier League Fulham, at the age of 26 – 'It was a brave move from David, at a time when most Premier League club secs were 40-year-old males' – while between Craven Cottage and Anfield, the stars aligned to bring Ward to Norwich. As you should be aware by now, she beat her husband to it.
'I met Stuart (Webber) at Liverpool (then director of academy recruitment),' said Ward. 'But it got to the point where life couldn't go on as it was. We'd go three months without having a day off together.'
Four seasons match-managing Liverpool and Everton games for the Premier League followed, before a familiar face came calling in late 2015.
'I randomly got a call from David to say he was looking for somebody to come in at Norwich, particularly to support him on the football side. So I met with him, Delia (Smith) and Michael (Wynn Jones). Obviously I had a big conversation with Stuart because he was at Huddersfield, but it was a really attractive proposition.
'So we decided to try to make that work – and in the time I met David and accepted the job, I found out I was pregnant. It then became a different proposition.'
McNally didn't change his mind, employing Ward and earmarking a role for her return from maternity leave – only for his own reign to end prematurely.
So to February 2017, when Ward got the call asking if she wanted to resume her Canaries career – with an added twist: 'They told me a restructure could be on the cards, decided they wanted a sporting director – and that's when Stuart came into the mix.
'It was quite a bizarre time because I got a call to ask if he would be interested.
'Up until then any job changes we hadn't had to move from the north west. So the background of me working here, understanding the ownership and the club, it made it an easier decision for him and for us to relocate.'
Things have moved on a lot in the intervening 18 months.
Now business and project director alongside Webber and chief operating officer Ben Kensell, the trio head up City's day to day running and strategy – a dynamic that caught the eye when was announced in October.
'I understand the reaction and we always knew it would be a talking point,' admitted Ward.
'The thing for me is Stuart and I met working together at a football club – so our first and foremost relationship has been a professional one. We know how to work together. It's not something we've all of a sudden decided to do while we've been married.
'People will talk about the fact we're married but there are three of us on that committee and we both have very good individual relationships with Ben.
'We don't come to work as a collective – it's not, what do Stuart and Zoe think? There are times when people ask what I think of something, and I'll say if it is Stuart's call. I don't think or speak for him.'
As for the working of the three-person executive committee itself?
'We're not a voting group, for a start,' continued Ward. 'We all have our areas of responsibility but the idea of a more collaborative approach is we can help and influence across those other areas.
'Ultimately if Stuart recommends we sign a player, it's not going to come down to a vote between the three of us. It's us respecting that is Stuart's responsibility and it's for him to make that decision, then for the board of directors to sanction it.
'If there are any disagreements between us, ultimately that's what the board is for – to safeguard the club against any wrong decisions.'
So far the recent evidence backs up Ward's hopes for the future.
The Canaries Bond is now held up as an example of the club's various departments coming together to deliver tangible progress. The £5m transformation of Colney Training Centre it has funded, is arguably more impressive than what City are achieving in the Championship.
The project remains on budget, with the first-team gym and academy's purpose-built home ready by the summer.
For those wondering what Ward's role really means, Colney is the definition: taking a vision, constructing the plan and delivering it. She calls that project 'a labour of love – my ambition here is just to make sure we're free of all the temporary buildings'.
Meanwhile overseeing the team that delivers player transfers and contracts is Ward's 'bread and butter – essentially getting several people in agreement, across the line at the same time'.
'We've learned in the past 12 months the real benefit of having that common goal, and everybody understanding the role they play at the football club to deliver that.'
Having worked on transforming Colney, it's already an open secret the aim now is to repeat the work at Carrow Road.
'I think there will be change,' added Ward. 'We've made a lot of improvements to the working environment at Colney and we're really passionate about doing the same thing at Carrow Road.
'It's really difficult when you have a business that has so many different facets that are so diverse. The challenge is bringing everybody together to understand the role they play in making us a better football club, and giving Stuart and Daniel the best opportunity to improve that team. We just need to do some more work on that.'
It's a neat coincidence I'm sat in front of Ward within days of speculation linking Southampton with a move for Webber: 'Really good form comes with speculation of all your football staff. It's Stuart this week, I'm sure it will be Daniel at some point and in January we'll have speculation around our squad.
'It's not unusual, it comes with the territory and it is speculation. It just washes over us really.'
And away from the chatter, Ward knows there is a job to do at Norwich City Football Club – and why that job is so attractive in the first place.
'We were overwhelmed at the response to the bond and the support for the club is massive,' she said. 'You only have to watch Championship games and see how many empty stadiums there are, how many clubs are struggling to engage with their fans – and we've got a massive, really supportive fanbase. It's incredible.'
From Zoe Ward through to her husband, and all her colleagues both above and below – that they are aiming to give those supporters the football club they deserve is an enduring thought.
And in turn who wouldn't want them to succeed or be proud if they did.
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