Norwich have sacked Dean Smith while sitting fifth in the Championship, but the club’s trajectory shows that the problems run deeper than the manager.
With just 11 points between relegation and the play-off places, the Championship is yet again proving itself to be the most idiosyncratic of divisions. With the scent of desperation at the possibility of all that lovely Premier League loot so tantalisingly close, clubs are taking points off each other left, right and centre. More than halfway through the season, there may be 18 or 19 teams still holding ambitions of making the top six.
But for all the fuss about the amount of money that relegated clubs receive from the Premier League in parachute payments, it doesn’t seem to have given Norwich a huge advantage out there on the pitch. Burnley are well clear at the top of the table, but that is likely due to the changes wrought by new manager Vincent Kompany since he took charge. Watford and Norwich City are in the chasing pack but a considerable distance behind in terms of points.
Those among us who’d only been paying passing attention to the club game while the World Cup was on might have been forgiven wondering what all the fuss at Norwich City was about. It’s a tight division. If anything, it’s even tighter than it has been in recent campaigns. And while 10th place in the table is hardly a barnstorming return on their first season back, Norwich’s position could hardly be described as calamitous.
But the axe has now fallen on Dean Smith. The straw that broke the camel’s back was a 2-1 defeat at Luton Town on Boxing Day, a match played exactly nine years and 11 months after Luton travelled to Carrow Road as a National League side in the fourth round of the FA Cup and beat their then-Premier League hosts by a goal to nil – becoming the first non-league club to beat a top-flight club in the FA Cup in almost 30 years.
So what has all the fuss been about? Norwich have been bouncing between the Premier League and the Championship for much of the last decade, and the problems within the club seem to run somewhat deeper than just the manager and his assistants.
When the January 2022 transfer window opened, Norwich were bottom of the Premier League table with just 10 points, but they didn’t bring any new players in at all and shed 10 players, nine of them on loan.
The club’s transfer business following relegation back into the Championship was no less perplexing. Twenty players were released or sent out on loan, and only four came in. Those new arrivals had a less than stellar first half-season. Gabriel Sara arrived for £6m from Sao Paolo. He’s played 18 times this season, but only started half of those. Marcelino Nunez arrived from Club Deportivo Universidad Católica as a Chilean international, but has largely failed to impress.
The other two players were loan signings: Isaac Hayden from Newcastle United and Aaron Ramsey from Aston Villa. Hayden’s recurring knee injury cropped up again before the league season even started, and he didn’t even play for them until the middle of October. Ramsey – the 19-year old brother of Villa forward Jacob – took until the end of October to score his first goals for the club. Two weeks later he’d joined the injury list after having picked something up during the break and may be out for two months.
Some of this is bad luck, but if the manager was enough of an issue to be sacked, then surely questions should be asked of the recruitment team as well.
This lack of coordination doesn’t end with recruitment. Smith arrived at the club in the middle of November 2021, replacing Daniel Farke. Farke’s departure came just 16 weeks after he’d signed a four-year contract extension with Norwich, and shortly after he’d recorded their first league win of the season. At the time of signing his extension, Farke was the 12th longest-serving manager in the Premier League and EFL combined. When a manager is sacked, of course, the whole of their contract has to be paid up in full – this is why so few jump before they’re pushed – so this contract alone will likely have cost Norwich millions of pounds. This came on top of them having spent £70m on new players that summer.
Norwich’s league position at the time of Farke’s departure was bad, but it can hardly be considered to have been a huge surprise. If the club had the possibility of sacking Farke should they struggle in the Premier League in the back of their mind, why on earth did they agree a four-year contract extension with him just four months earlier? Because all this chopping and changing is just haemorrhaging money. Smith had a year and a half to run on a two-and-a-half-year contract which will cost them another £1.5m to pay up at an estimated £1m per year. Norwich City made £100.6m in television prize money from spending last season in the Premier League. It feels as though they’ve been spending more money on compensation to sacked former managers than they have on signing new players.
There are reasons why Smith has been sacked. The football hasn’t been especially great to watch and they’ve only won three of their last 14 Championship matches. But at the same time, it’s difficult not to consider the vituperative nature of the protests against him as being part of a broader disconnect between the club and its fanbase. The atmosphere at Carrow Road was described as being ‘flat’ even when the team was second in the table in the September following a run of six successive wins.
It’s certainly not difficult to see why that should have been the case. Norwich’s last two promotion seasons have been followed by campaigns in the Premier League which have seen the club win just five matches each time. It becomes more difficult to get excited about that promotion chase if you already know that it will be followed by something like that.
This is in no small part structural. The financial gap between the Premier League and the Championship remains so massive that the newly-promoted can are at an automatic disadvantage to the other 17 teams in the division.
Of course, clubs do break through this and thrive after promotion. Fulham, who have been yo-yoing in the opposite direction to Norwich in recent seasons, seem to have finally cracked the code and are well settled in mid-table.
It’s possible to see Smith as collateral damage in this scrap between the club and a fanbase that is losing patience with the team’s lack of challenge once promoted. Following Farke, who was popular and whose team played attractive football, certainly wasn’t easy.
It’s not that Smith is somehow incompetent. He pushed Brentford towards the Premier League before going to Aston Villa, where he took the team back into the top flight and then put seven goals past Liverpool. Perhaps supporters would have been more supportive of him under different circumstances, but it feels as though Smith going to Norwich was the wrong manager going to the wrong club at the wrong time.
Perhaps Norwich’s season can be revitalised with a new manager. Perhaps that enthusiasm can be breathed back into the club with an imaginative appointment. The issue that supporters might have is questioning whether those running it will be able to deliver the shot in the arm that they need, because it feels as though enthusiasm at Norwich has been wearing thin for some time.
Patience for Smith was similarly scarce and perhaps it’s for the best that this separation took place. But those running Norwich City may well find that the clouds that have settled over the club of late will not lift solely because he has gone. They need to get the next appointment right, too.
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