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Strangest of seasons has Norwich still on cusp of play-offs - Interview
Friday, 9th Feb 2024 07:32 by Clive Whittingham

It's been a season of irritation and dissent at Carrow Road, with disliked sporting director Stuart Webber ousted and manager David Wagner apparently permanently on the verge of the sack, and yet here Norwich City are a point from the top six - what gives Gary Gowers (@Gary_Gowers)?

How's the season gone so far for Norwich?

Hmmmm… odd is probably the best way to describe it. We oscillate wildly between looking like genuine playoff contenders, relegation certainties, and mid-table nonentities. No two performances (or line-ups) are ever the same and so, as fans, our collective mood oscillates in unison with all of the above. There have been times when the form and quality of football has been so ball-achingly poor that a slide down the table into the relegation scrap seemed inevitable but then, usually from nowhere, they find a performance that arrests the slide and has everyone believing again. Honestly, it’s so weird.

We were told when David Wagner was appointed that throughout his career he was ‘streaky’, in that his teams would have blocks of games where they pick up plenty of points followed by barren spells where the points (and performances) would dry up. I can’t for the life of me recall who delivered that insight into Wagner-world but they weren’t bloody kidding.

For his part, there were times when it felt like Wagner was one defeat away from the sack, and always, without fail, he somehow managed to conjure up a win. It was uncanny. It felt like he needed the jeopardy of a P45 before he could get a tune out of this team. But he appears to have ridden out that particular storm and, with the unswerving support of Delia Smith and her husband, now looks as safe as houses. Quite a few of us believe he’s not the future, but while we’re in and around the playoffs he’s not under any pressure whatsoever. He now has a cigar and his carpet slippers on.

Norwich so far this season
Norwich 2-1 Hull Rowe 45, Idah 90 – Delap 17
Southampton 4-4 Norwich Bednarek 17, Armstrong pen 21, pen 90, Adams 57 – Sargent 7, Sara 23, Rowe 45, Fassnacht 84
Norwich 3-1 Millwall Rowe 25, Sargent 49, Barnes 56 – Emakhu 90
Huddersfield 0-4 Norwich Sargent 11, Barnes pen 17, Rowe 49, Idah 84
Rotherham 2-1 Norwich Lembikisa 22, Hugill 40 – Fassnacht 50
Norwich 1-0 Stoke Stacey 44
Norwich 0-2 Leicester Iheanacho pen 45, McAteer 87
Plymouth 6-2 Norwich Whittaker 15, 45, 59, Scarr 35, Azaz 45, Cundle 90 – Idah 72, pen 78
Norwich 2-0 Birmingham Sara 55, Rowe 60
Swansea 2-1 Norwich Lowe 3, Humphreys 83 – Sara 22
Coventry 1-1 Norwich Gibson og 88 – Rowe 40
Norwich 2-3 Leeds Duffy 4, Sara 43 – Suffy og 63, Summerville 77, 85
Norwich 1-2 Boro Rowe 90 – Greenwood 46, Silvera 90
Sunderland 3-1 Norwich Hume 37, Neill 45, Clarke pen 80 – Ui-Jo 23
Norwich 1-3 Blackburn Sara 90 – Dolan 8, Szmodics 15, 49
Cardiff 2-3 Norwich Bowler 39, Robinson 43 – Fassnacht 22, Wintle og 82, Idah 84
Norwich 1-0 QPR Ui-Jo 21
Watford 3-2 Norwich Kone 30, Rajovic 33, Asprilla 77 – Batth 3, Ui-Jo 12
Bristol City 1-2 Norwich Knight 34 – Tanner og 59, Idah 90
Norwich 0-0 Preston
Norwich 3-1 Sheff Wed Sainz 7, Barnes 48, Rowe 72 – Cadamarteri 32
Ipswich 2-2 Norwich Broadhead 34, Burns 60 – Rowe 40, 49
Norwich 2-0 Huddersfield McCallum 47, Sainz 73
West Brom 1-0 Norwich Thomas-Asante 50
Millwall 1-0 Norwich Bradshaw 18
Norwich 1-1 Southampton Sargent 78 – A Armstrong 70
Hull 1-2 Norwich Morton 90 – Rowe 36, Fassnacht 88
Norwich 2-0 West Brom Sargent 13, Rowe 71
Leeds 1-0 Norwich Bamford 16
Norwich 2-1 Coventry Sargent 60, Sainz 84 – O’Hare 48

I follow a few of your fans on socials, and the mood has been pretty dark towards the owners and manager all season, and yet here you are a point off the playoffs and in half-decent form - why so grumpy?

How long have you got? Right, well, you did ask…

At the end of last season, which was really crap, we were promised by our then-sporting director, Stuart Webber, the squad would be given the complete overhaul it so desperately needed. As well as being not very good, it was also lily-livered and fragile. It was also too young, or at least it was in most of the games at the back end of the season.

The ‘big’ overhaul never happened – probably because a major refresh would cost money, which is always in short supply in these parts – but Webber did hone in on the ‘too young’ and ‘too lily-livered’ parts of the equation. In came Shane Duffy (32), Ashley Barnes (65), Adam Forshaw (32), Danny Batth (33), Hwang Ui-jo (31), and Christian Fassnacht (30). We were also rumoured to be in for Arthur Lowe and Clive Dunn (Google it, kids).

The ’young, hungry, and with a resale value’ ethos of the recent past had clearly been canned, and so what we have now is a squad for today but not for tomorrow. And it’s still not particularly good.

But it’s what’s happening behind the scenes that’s caused most of the grumpiness. The aforementioned Stuart Webber finally left us in November after failing miserably in his mission to make us a ‘top 26’ club but left behind his wife, who remains our executive director. Before he departed, the club was effectively run by two married couples – the Webbers and Delia Smith & Michael Wynn-Jones – and ran very badly. Doing their bidding for them is a small band of suits who remain loyal to Delia. But the trouble for City fans is that Webber loathed us and had such an influence on Delia that she now loathes (most of) us too. So do the suits. So too does Zoe. And we (the fans) don’t like any of them much either.

After November’s AGM, in a Q&A with the local press, Delia openly called “20 percent of us”, whingers and moaners who "don’t have a clue", which was nice.

I could go on but you get the gist. Any on-field successes are only ever sticking plasters on a club that is fractured. In the background, we have an American investor, Mark Attanasio, but Delia is insisting he serves an apprenticeship before he’s allowed to challenge her, Zoe, and the suits on how the club is run.

A total shit show.

Sorry, mate … but you did ask.

David Wagner, meanwhile, has felt on the cusp of the sack for months and yet, again, here you are. How's he currently viewed by the fans?

I think I partly covered this above, although as it transpires because he had the unswerving backing of Delia & Michael, even though the football being dished up was a total dog's mess, his job was never at risk in the way we, the fans, thought it was. We have a reputation here for judging crap head coaches very gently and I struggle to think of another club in the 92 that would still be employing Wagner after all the dross he’s dished up. I guess those in power will argue that now the form has improved their patience was justified, but the majority of fans are still unconvinced that he’s the long-term answer. He is a nice bloke though.

Any noticeable impact/improvement from new sporting director, Ben Knapper from Arsenal, yet?

Not really, although we have recently had a good couple of home wins – over West Brom and Cov – where the football was pretty good and even, dare I say it, easy on the eye. That *may* be the Ben Knapper influence (who knows?), as he did promise us attacking, attractive, progressive football, which was the complete antithesis of most of the football dished up by Wagner in the first half of the season. Knapper hasn’t said much so far (albeit he’s doing a round of interviews with the local press as I type) so we’re still a little unclear as to his vision and the planned route to achieve it. He hasn’t slagged the supporters off yet though, which is already gives him a head start on his predecessor. Have I mentioned how much Webber *really* despised us? I did? Well, however much I made it sound… he hated us a bit more.

What business did you do in January? What needed to be done?

It was Knapper’s first chance to wow us with some rabbit-out-of-the-hat type signings but, in typical Norwich fashion, it didn’t happen. As ever, we’re hamstrung in the transfer market by 1) having not a pot to piss in, and 2) being Norwich City.

For years, we have been what was termed ‘self-funding’, which basically meant that Delia Smith and her husband didn’t have wealth of their own to fund the club but didn’t want others getting their grubby mitts on it, so we could only spend money we generated ourselves. As a result, we’re perpetually skint. It took Delia 27 years to recognise the fact that football had moved on and they hadn’t, so now, belatedly, we have the US investor on board. But… so far, his money has been used to cover our debt burden and help with ongoing running costs. None of this wasting money on shiny new players lark.

So, in answer to your question, we offloaded six players – either sold or loans – and brought in one, Sydney van Hooijdonk (son of Pierre) on loan from Bologna. The big transfer window win for us was keeping hold of our four good players – Gabriel Sara, Jon Rowe, Josh Sargent, and Angus Gunn.

Summer Ins >>> Christian Fassnacht, 29, RM, Young Boys, £2.5m >>> Kellen Fisher, 19, RVB, Bromley, £100k >>> Danny Batth, 32, CB, Undisclosed, Sunderland >>> Borja Sainz, 22, LW, Giresunspor, Free >>> Shane Duffy, 31, CB, Brighton, Free >>> George Long, 29, GK, Millwall, Free >>> Adam Forshaw, 31, AM, Leeds, Free >>> Jack Stacey, 27, RB, Bournemouth, Free >>> Ashley Barnes, 33, CF, Burnley, Free >>> Ui-Jo Hwang, 31, CF, Forest, Loan

Summer Outs >>> Andrew Omobamidele, 21, CB, Forest, £10m >>> Max Aarons, 23, RB, Bournemouth, £8m >>> Milot Rashika, 27, RW, Besiktas, £4.5m >>> Bali Mumba, 21, RB, Plymouth, £1m >>> Tim Krul, 35, GK, Luton, Undisclosed >>> Kieran Dowell, 25, AM, Rangers, Free >>> Teemu Pukki, 33, CF, Minnesota, Free >>> Daniel Sinani, 26, RW, St Pauli, Free >>> Michael McGovern, 39, GK, Hearts, Free >>> Abu Kamara, 19, CF, Portsmouth, Loan >>> Sam Byram, 29, RB, Leeds, Free >>> Josh Martin, 21, LW, Released >>> Christos Tzolis, 21, LW, Dusseldorf, Loan >>> Jon McCracken, 21, GK, Accrington, Loan >>> Jonathan Tomkinson, 21, CB, Bradford, Loan >>> Aby Kamara, 19, CF, Pompey, Loan

Winter Ins >>> Sydney van Hooijdonk, 23, CF, Bologna, Loan

Winter Outs >>> Przemyslaw Placheta, 25, LW, Swansea, Free >>> Adam Forshaw, 32, CM, Plymouth, Free >>> Adam Idah, 22, CF, Celtic, Loan >>> Tony Springett, 21, RW, Northampton, Loan >>> Jon McCracken, 23, GK, Dundee, Loan

Best players in this team?

See above but add to that list a feisty little Spaniard we signed in summer by the name of Borja Sainz. He missed the first part of the season due to an injury he picked up in pre-season but has settled, is fit, and is playing well. He plays on the left but is one of those inverted wingers whose natural tendency is to cut inside and look to shoot with his right foot. You watch…he’ll have a stinker on Saturday now.

Weak links?

Yes.

Oh… you want me to highlight them?

Well… while we don’t ship as many goals as we did in the first few months of the season, we do have a horrible knack for sharing around the individual defensive cock ups – often when we least expect it. Our ability to conjure up a complete disaster out of what appears a benign, trouble-free situation is remarkable, and much of this is borne of having a style of play that relies on centre-backs being calm and comfortable on the ball without actually having any centre-backs who are calm and comfortable on the ball.

At times it’s almost funny. Almost.

We also have a winger who’s whole-hearted, will run all day long, who even has a Norwich City tattoo, but who can’t hit an accurate cross or a shot on goal to save his life. I’ll not spoil the surprise … see if your readers can spot him on Saturday if he plays.

Revised expectations for the season?

I didn’t expect to be writing this, but given that we are currently only a point outside the playoff places I suppose we have to say a top-six finish is within our grasp. But, going back to my first answer, we are notoriously streaky, and at the moment we’re amid a good one. If we lose to you on Saturday and then to Watford in midweek then we could be seven+ points adrift and we’ll all be licking our wounds and saying our season is over. It’s been that type of campaign.

But, as I write, we are still in with a shout, especially if the five players I mentioned earlier stay fit.

If I had to predict, I’d go for a ninth-place finish – just missing out – but who knows with this lot.

Links >>> Norwich Official Website >>> The Pink ‘Un — Local Press and Forum >>> Eastern Daily Press — Local Press >>> My Football Writer - Norwich City >>> Along Come Norwich - Blog

The Twitter @Gary_Gowers, @MFW_NCFC, @loftforwords

Pictures — Action Images

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LLoydy added 13:00 - Feb 9
"For his part, there were times when it felt like Wagner was one defeat away from the sack, and always, without fail, he somehow managed to conjure up a win. It was uncanny. It felt like he needed the jeopardy of a P45 before he could get a tune out of this team."

Paging Mark Hughes...
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TacticalR added 13:46 - Feb 9
Thanks to Gary.

Norwich seemed to have that whole 'bouncing between divisions' strategy sewn up, but it seems it's not something that you can do forever. When we played them earlier in the season I thought them a mid-table side rather than a promotion side (they still beat us of course).

"The ’young, hungry, and with a resale value’ ethos of the recent past had clearly been canned, and so what we have now is a squad for today but not for tomorrow. And it’s still not particularly good." Yes, didn't Norwich set up their academy to make money through sales? The danger of the 'squad for today' model is that you *must* get promoted immediately, and when that doesn't happen everybody gets disappointed.
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Myke added 16:47 - Feb 9
Bit off topic and probably a bit too soon to be playing this game but it's the thought that's occupying me QPR wise. Completely unscientific but trying to be as objective as possible I feel we can get to 44 points. I was pleasantly surprised how often that wad enough to survive over the past 6 seasons
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Northernr added 16:50 - Feb 9
A couple of times that would only have been down to points deductions though, and there aren't going to be any of those this season.
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