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Perhaps the most wounding slur you can level against any club is to accuse those in charge of lacking ambition. This, at least, is the sentiment of Stuart Webber, Norwich City’s pugnacious director of football, who is incandescent at criticisms that his team are not even trying to retain their Premier League status.
The brickbats are hardly undeserved: Norwich, with a mere two points from nine games, appear marooned in an anguished limbo, capable of winning the Championship at a canter but hopelessly exposed on their top-flight return. With five promotions and five relegations since the turn of the century, history keeps repeating itself, suggesting a club that has become resigned to its yo-yo existence.
Webber rages against that charge. In his four years working alongside manager Daniel Farke, he has established Norwich’s place as the 11th highest spenders in Europe, investing £12 million in their Colney training ground and lavishing £70m on summer transfers to bring in highly-regarded young prospects Christos Tzolis, Milot Rashica and Josh Sargent. While the results are difficult to discern, with two goals scored this season and 23 conceded, Webber refuses to see the club’s sense of purpose second-guessed.
“To say that we've accepted relegation already, it’s a disgrace,” he says. “Either we sit here and be that nice little Norwich – or we fight back.”
The roots of Webber’s ire lie in comments made earlier this month by Jamie O’Hara, the former Tottenham midfielder, labelling Norwich an “embarrassment” and calling for the Premier League to be reduced to 18 teams “to get rid of the dross”. O’Hara’s overall argument, made during his late-night radio programme, was self-evidently absurd, but Webber is incensed enough to set up an interview in the Gunn Suite at Carrow Road to put Norwich’s side of the case.
“There’s frustration, because we think some of the criticism – that we’ve not had a go, that the manager isn’t good enough, that the players are too naive – is false,” he explains. “We have invested heavily in our infrastructure. We have very high staffing levels, with over 300 people here. It’s important that we understand the bigger picture. Now, when we sign players, we can go after better raw products. We managed to attract Ozan Kabak, who played in a Champions League quarter-final for Liverpool six months ago. He would not have even answered the phone two us two years ago, as he would not play at a club without a proper training ground.”
Webber, a bullish 37-year-old who cut his teeth working alongside Rafael Benitez and Sir Kenny Dalglish, insists both that Farke’s recently-signed four-year contract is safe and that his own position is not up for debate. But while he defends Norwich’s approach passionately, there are precious few consolations at which to grasp on the pitch. Last weekend’s 7-0 defeat at Chelsea was, he acknowledges, “diabolical” and “unacceptable”. One source of solace was that Norwich’s players outran their opponents that day, even if it was largely to retrieve the ball from their own net.
The longer these trouncings last, the more a sense of fatalism takes root among the fans. Already Webber is agitated by the fact that many home supporters, having watched Norwich concede 47 goals in their last 10 games, seem to have abandoned all hope of staying up. Describing the club as having “nowhere to hide”, he says: “Everyone has given up, everyone thinks we’re down, everyone thinks we’re the worst team ever. What we don’t need is our own fans singing songs about how rubbish the opposition must be after five minutes.
“Now is the moment to come together as a community. This isn’t a fanbase where they start beating you up outside the ground or smashing up cars. They have been through thick and thin with this club, from Europe down to League One. You can’t help but respect the fact that if you’re up in Cromer, 45 minutes from here, you’ll see so many people in Norwich shirts. But at times, I believe you’ve got to recognise when your team needs a bit of help.”
The predicament for Norwich could scarcely be starker, with players’ confidence visibly ebbing by the week. But Webber is adamant that the situation has evolved from 2019, when he admitted to sending Farke “to war with no gun” en route to another 20th-place finish. “People were playing out of position and there were players who should never have been playing for Norwich in the Premier League, if we’re being cruel,” he says. “Now we’re fortunate that Daniel has to leave players out of a 20-man squad. Two years ago, we didn’t have a go – we’re very honest about that. We wanted to use the money to make ourselves look more like a Premier League club. But this time it’s very different. We have brought together a squad that’s full of internationals.”
Webber is sanguine about the fact that he could be sacked tomorrow, but he takes comfort in the fact that Norwich’s soul has survived intact. “Football is an infinite game, it’ll be played long after we’re all dead. The one thing that has to happen is you have to leave your club in a better position than where you found it. We’re only custodians here. The things we’re doing now, somebody sitting in this chair in 20 years’ time will see the benefits and will reflect, ‘Thank God the club was thinking longer-term than just trying to stay in the Premier League one more year.’”
Such is the Norwich dichotomy: on the one hand, they are caught in the seemingly endless purgatory of bouncing between divisions. But on the other, they refuse to be doubted in their commitment to the cause.