Reality bites in the corridors of power at Carrow Road

After the emotional highs of the derby win and the performance at the Emirates it’s been a week of reality checks for City fans.
A fall in income of 25pc, largely due to loss of broadcasting revenue, and significant sums going in redundancy packages, have left a black hole in the club’s finances that has only been partially filled by the summer sales, resulting in a loss of £2.7m.
While the payments to Alex Neil and Jez Moxey will stick in the throat of many fans given the limited playing budget this season, most of us wanted change, but it’s the board that have to deal with the financial realities of those decisions. Imagine the outcry if either had done well then gone elsewhere with no compensation to the club? Contracts work both ways.
With parachute payments ceasing at the end of this season it means that further cost cutting may well be required in the summer if promotion isn’t achieved, but that’s an inevitable consequence of such a far-reaching restructure of the club and its academy. However, what’s really interesting is that the club had its record wage bill last season, emphasising the extent of the failures on the pitch but torpedoing the popular theory of lack of boardroom ambition.
In some respects, the fact that City have been able to bring in players of the quality of Christoph Zimmermann, Marco Stiepermann and Tom Trybull cheaply, as well as shrewd loan acquisitions, is reassuring, but there is no doubt that Stuart Webber’s continuing ability to find talent for relatively little outlay is going to be a defining factor in terms of the club’s future development.
However, an equally important factor is fitness, with the last two games showing the toll that the club’s injury list and the glut of matches have taken on its relatively small squad. I’ve seen more mental errors from City players in this week’s games than in all of the previous eight combined and that is largely down to fatigue.
For example, Trybull had been virtually faultless throughout the unbeaten run, but was a shadow of that player on Tuesday, and the same is true of several others.
While City gave a good account of themselves against Derby and were unlucky to have lost the game, the fact is that they were totally outclassed by Wolves and were fortunate that the margin of defeat wasn’t greater.
Their performance was flat and almost totally dependent upon James Maddison for any form of inspiration and, whilst the quality of the opposition must be factored in, it did nothing to dispel the growing suspicion that City’s ponderous build-up play is too easily negated by visiting teams.
However, whilst it’s disappointing that an excellent run has ended in such a fashion it’s important not to overreact or rush to judgment. This week’s injury update suggests that we may not be too far away from seeing a City side with both Nelson Oliveira and Alex Pritchard fully fit, and it is only then that we will be able to really assess what this squad is capable of.
A realistic assessment would be that City are currently an upper mid-table team with play-off potential, and while we’d all like more, it’s a big improvement on the situation two months ago. Developing teams always have blips and, given the mitigating circumstances, I hope that this week proves to be one before the squad kicks on again.
A win today and players returning to fitness would mean that we’ll all be feeling happier by the time the action returns, so come on, City!


Norwich City have a squad that will ‘run through brick walls’

Reading probably expected to be facing a football team last Saturday, but instead found themselves up against a group of black clad Duracell bunnies who proceeded to harry them mercilessly for 95 minutes.

City’s work rate was phenomenal as they disrupted Reading’s laboured build-up and ensured that the Royals were unable to generate any sort of momentum, despite having a reasonable amount of possession. In fact, they did to the home team what others had done to them in the early games of the season when the Canaries’ self-belief was less developed.
We’re used to Cameron Jerome selflessly running himself into the ground for his team, but there wasn’t a single City player who left anything out on the pitch at the Madejski Stadium.
There were countless examples of players covering for each other, but the level of commitment and desire was perhaps best exemplified towards the end when Timm Klose lost out to two attackers just outside City’s six-yard box, only for Christoph Zimmermann to appear from nowhere and throw himself in front of the shot.

This is now a squad that will run through bricks walls for each other and their coaches, and that is very promising news indeed for City fans as the season progresses and the genuine promotion candidates start to become more obvious.

It’s ironic that we are now frustrated that an international break has come at a time when City had built up a real head of steam, because the previous one, which came with the squad in the doldrums, has proven to be the turning point in the season as Daniel Farke and his coaching staff used the time well to sort out the early-season defensive disarray.

What they have achieved in fact, thanks in part to a frank discussion between Farke and Stuart Webber in the immediate aftermath of the defeat at Millwall, is the creation of a side genuinely fit for Championship purpose.

Last season, until the late intervention of Alan Irvine’s pragmatism, City tried to play Premier League football in the second tier and at the start of this one tried to play the Bundesliga style with which Farke was familiar.

In both cases City saw plenty of the ball, but found themselves undone by sides that eschewed pretty build-up play to strike hard for the jugular and get in their faces, but it’s hard to see anyone out grafting the squad as it now stands.

What’s more, after a season when the side frequently looked rudderless on the pitch there now seem to be leaders everywhere you look, and not just the experienced players like Klose and Alex Tettey, but also the likes of Zimmermann (no longer being written off as a cheap German fourth division player by the perpetually negative) and James Maddison, and that has to be a healthy development.

Maddison has been an absolute revelation and is showing a frightening level of maturity for one so young. The mind boggles at what he might achieve in harness with Alex Pritchard when the latter returns, and Farke is going to have an embarrassment of riches in the centre of the park as long as everyone else stays fit.

Farke will now be hoping that none of his international players pick up knocks and that the break will allow Nelson Oliveira, Mario Vrancic and Marco Stiepermann to return to full fitness, while Tom Trybull will probably just be fed raw meat until the action returns and he can continue to chew up opposing midfields.

Trybull was probably the least heralded of the club’s summer signings and consequently relatively little was expected of him, yet he has become an instant fan favourite, and seems to epitomise the selflessness and quiet determination that runs through this squad.

It’s already become very clear that ego trips won’t wash this season, because under Farke it’s all about the football.


Norwich City’s united front is producing the right results


Cast your mind back to last season. City are visiting a team heavily tipped for promotion, are suffering from injuries to key players and come under concerted pressure. What happens next?
I suspect that the answer would be something very different to what we saw at Middlesbrough where City replaced the yellow and green colander that was on display at Villa and Millwall with the sort of impenetrable wall that would have Donald Trump burning with envy.
One by one the doubters are being won over as the clean sheets mount up, with City now having gone nearly eight hours in the Championship, one of the toughest leagues in the world, without conceding a goal.

However, whilst it’s the win at the Riverside rather than the goalless draw last Saturday that catches the eye, it’s worth pointing out that Bristol City, who have been scoring for fun this season, didn’t manage a shot on target until the 65th minute at Carrow Road.
While City were equally unable to break the deadlock, although they spurned three great first-half chances, it is squarely the defence and the peerless Angus Gunn upon whom this renaissance is predicated.

Defending isn’t glamorous and it involves putting bodies in the line of fire, as happened frequently at the Riverside, but a team with a solid defence is always going to be in the game as it provides the base onto which the frills can be added.

Daniel Farke came to Norwich with a reputation as a coach who could build a solid defence although that was brought into question by his side’s early travails away from home, but now we are starting to see just why Dortmund were so reluctant to lose him.

Defending, though, isn’t solely a question of the back four and goalkeeper. There has been plenty of talk about the importance of the two holding midfielders, but what we are seeing now is greater defensive responsibility being shown by everyone in the side, even those to whom it isn’t a natural instinct, like James Maddison and Josh Murphy.

The only way to get that sort of commitment is to develop a real sense of unity within the squad, a “we’re all in this together” mentality, and that to me is the biggest difference between this season and last.

The on-pitch huddle after the final whistle at Middlesbrough involving players and coaches spoke eloquently of how strong the bond is within this group and was a far cry from last season when the squad looked anything but united when the pressure was on, and an “every man for himself” approach seemed to kick in.

And, of course, the beauty of that sort of collective mindset is that it makes it so much easier for players to step in as result of injuries and contribute, not least because they are so determined not to let their team-mates down.

There was plenty of concern about the absence of Marco Stiepermann at the Riverside and yet James Husband, who hasn’t had the easiest start to his City career, came in and did a great job, proving once again that writing off a player too soon is foolish, because if City are to succeed this season they need a squad, not just a team.

Players take differing amounts of time to find their feet, particularly in a new country, but a strong dressing room spirit makes it so much easier for them to do so, and we are now seeing more from the likes of Mario Vrancic and Marley Watkins, although neither, in my view, has yet shown us their very best form.

This is still a work in progress, and Farke undoubtedly needs to find more attacking potency to go with the defensive resilience, but there is a growing sense that we could just be on the cusp of something special at Carrow Road.


Root And Branch Reform Needed At Norwich City

Huddersfield’s performance at Carrow Road was the ultimate indictment of Norwich City’s failure to get value for money from the financial benefits of four Premier League seasons and two funded by parachute payments since Paul Lambert took them up in 2011.

The Terriers have not had the luxury of splashing out large sums on transfer fees and wages, having spent eight of the last 12 seasons in League One, yet their team of relative unknowns put the bigger names in yellow and green to shame.

Huddersfield’s low key recruitment policy has been marvellously effective, allowing David Wagner to build a team that impressed everyone at Carrow Road with their passing, movement and self belief, that crucial factor of which City currently appear to be totally devoid.

They served to prove that the upper reaches of the Championship can be reached even with very limited resources, but only if a committed squad of players can be combined with an innovative manager who can inspire and motivate them and persuade them to buy fully into his philosophy. Clearly Wagner has done that.

Whilst the argument that recruitment is always going to be an inexact science and that all clubs make bad signings as well as good is perfectly valid, the fact is that when a recruitment team is constantly undergoing change, as City’s has, the risks of getting more wrong than right tend to proliferate.

Some weeks ago I commented on the revolving door that has seen Ewan Chester, Barry Simmonds, Tony Spearing, Lee Darnbrough and now Ricky Martin appointed to senior player recruitment roles in the last five years and while it would be nice to believe there has been a continuity of approach throughout these changes (and a crucial two-month period in the summer of 2014 where no one was in post) I think that would strain credibility rather too far.

During that period significant sums have been spent without cementing a Premier League place and last Friday City had somewhere in the region of £30m worth of signings either warming the bench or out of the squad.

While I fully accept these players are not in the side because the manager considers them to be currently inferior to those that are starting, it demonstrates a remarkable profligacy that such sums could be expended only for Alex Neil, having approved their acquisition, to return to those whom they were presumably bought to replace. Nothing could illustrate the long-term inefficiency of the club’s recruitment system more clearly.

Huddersfield are blossoming while City are stagnating and with a board that seems to be slipping into inertia without the hard-headed business approach of Alan Bowkett and David McNally these are worrying times for fans who just a year ago were celebrating a win at Old Trafford.

Inevitably, and justifiably, there is now a deafening call for Neil’s head, but there is a very real danger that may merely be the equivalent of applying a sticking plaster to a wound requiring stitches.

That’s not to argue a change of manager isn’t needed but it should go hand in hand with a root and branch reform of anything at the club which appears unfit for purpose.

That must surely start with a playing squad which contains too many individuals who have been involved in too many embarrassing displays over too many seasons and now surely has to undergo major reconstruction, but it shouldn’t end there.

Whilst I don’t believe for a moment the board or owners want anything other than the best for the club, genuine affection doesn’t insulate them against making poor decisions and currently they seem to be staking everything on a gamble that Neil will somehow come good despite all the evidence to the contrary.


THE TRUST RUN BY THE FANS FOR THE FANS

The Canaries Trust: run by the fans for the fans and there to ensure that the Canary board is held to account.

It tends to be a feature of football supporters’ groups of any kind that membership swells when there are problems at the club but declines when things are going well.

While membership of the Canaries Trust has steadily increased over the last year I don’t think that has too much to do with City’s relegation or the departure of David McNally. In fact I’d like to think it’s a result of a more business oriented board starting to get its key message across to more City fans.

It saddens me (because we have no one to blame but ourselves) how little many fans know about the Trust, its objectives and what it does. So hopefully I can put that right in this piece.

The primary function of the Trust is simple. We try to raise as much money as we can through competitions and the sterling work of a board of volunteers and what we raise is used to buy shares in Norwich City Football Club, which are held in trust for the fans so that all of us can have a growing stake in the club we love.

While shares have become more expensive as a result of the success on the pitch in the last 6 years or so we now hold over 2,500 and are constantly looking to add more via share purchases or bequests / donations from existing shareholders to the Trust.

Contrary to some of the more outlandish claims that pop up on social media we have no desire nor, realistically, the capability to put a fan on the club board in the way that our counterparts in Swansea did in 2003, when they acquired a significant shareholding to save the club from administration.
However, what we do want is to ensure that the fans can always ensure a dialogue with the club and the way to do that is for them to own a significant stake, which can only happen collectively for most people. The Trust is already one of the top 20 largest individual shareholders in the club.
Also, while we hope it would never happens at Norwich, a strong Trust can be the key to club’s survival if administration beckons as we have seen at Swansea, Portsmouth and numerous other places.

We also have responsibilities to monitor the governance of the club as, to quote a former City director, “This is where an organisation such as yours is so important, ensuring the executive and board is held to scrutiny and account for their stewardship.”

In fact our relationship with the club is very good and, although we don’t always see eye to eye on everything, a good channel of communication and the willingness of the likes of David McNally and Ed Balls to sit down with us and talk means that most issues are resolved quickly and amicably.

That aside, the area of our work that has really expanded in recent times is our link up with the Football Supporters Federation (FSF), which has seen us involved in debates on safe standing, campaigns to cap ticketing prices and to drive discrimination of all kinds from stadia.

The pricing issue in particular has shown us all that working together really can get results if there is co-ordination from a national body such as the FSF, and the £30 cap on away ticket prices in the Premier League is a credit to them and to everyone who took part in the campaign. But it’s only the start.
Anyway, if that’s whetted you appetite there are two simple ways in which you can help:

The first is to become a member, which costs just £12 a year, all of which goes to buy shares in the club.

The second is even easier and only costs £3! That’s all you need to enter this year’s Canary Challenge, kindly sponsored by Archant and Haines Watts. You simply pick the top 6 and bottom 3 in the Championship this season and earn points every time one of you selections features in the relevant section.

A league table will be published each week on the website (where details and online entry forms are available on the Canary Challenge tab) so you can check your progress, with cash prizes ranging from £20 to £250 for the top five at the end of the season.

It’s a test of your predicting skills but its also great fun so hopefully you’ll all have a go and see if you can do better than all the MFW columnists who’ll be testing their skills!

Finally, we do from time to time need to replace board members so if you love City and have energy and drive to spare you may be just the person we’re looking for!
Thu 21 Jul 16 by Robin Sainty