Stuart Webber: Climb of the Canaries
Written by Simon Austin — February 7, 2019
WHEN Stuart Webber was appointed as Norwich City's first Sporting Director in April 2017, he arrived at a club with a massive wage bill that had failed to bounce back to the promised land of the Premier League.
What followed was a ruthless restructuring, both on and off the pitch. The squad was completely revamped, while almost every head of department was replaced.
Now, with former Borussia Dortmund reserve coach Daniel Farke at the helm, the Canaries are top of the Championship with 16 games remaining. In an exclusive interview with the My Football Writer website, Webber explained his philosophy and beliefs.
DEVELOPING A PHILOSOPHY
Stuart Webber: What we did when I came in was to look at our model and establish what was important for us. We couldn’t buy our way out of the league.
If your philosophy is just to win, then spend £60m and appoint a Champions League level coach like Wolves did. We couldn’t do that.
The group we had had been relegated out of the Premier League and had then underachieved in the Championship - with the second highest budget ever in the division.
It was, unfortunately, a failing group of players. So we came back to three things - employ someone who can implement a certain style of play, be open-minded in the transfer market and promote young players from within.
In appointing the head coach, that person had to fit in with those three things. Daniel (Farke) has been brave enough to play homegrown players and make them better and as a club we have given him support in doing that because it’s one of our criteria for success.
Our criteria wasn’t just win, win, win. If that was the case, Daniel wouldn’t still be here after last season (when Norwich finished 14th). If you set the objective of win and also for the average age to be 23, then those two things don’t usually go hand in hand.
BRINGING THROUGH HOMEGROWN PLAYERS
We’ve got top young players in this country, probably the best in the world. Just look at the England age group teams - the Under-17s won the World Cup, as did the Under-20s.
You don’t win World Cups if you don’t have top players. Look at Angus Gunn and James Maddison, who were here at Norwich - they’ve both got in the England squad in the last 18 months.
But someone has to give these players an opportunity and then put trust in them. As a club, you have to support the coach in that.
You have to live through inconsistencies and, like the sign I have up here in my office - ignore the noise. Don’t read Twitter, because they don’t know. You have to support people through it.
Every single club in this country has young players who are good enough, genuinely. But what you have to do is provide the bridge for them, which is where we go wrong in this country.
You can have the best processes, the best facilities and the best players in your Academy, but if the head coach doesn’t pick them, it’s an absolute waste of time.
As a club, we have to accept that young players make mistakes. A big part of my job is to understand the football business. ‘He messed up, that’s what can happen with young players’ and then communicate that up to the board and to the media.
Let’s be honest, is the way to win playing an 18-year-old or a 28-year-old? Most people would say the 28-year-old - it’s the same in any industry. So it’s about understanding the journey of a young player.
As long as the young players don’t keep making mistakes, that’s fine. And on the other hand you can get someone like James Maddison, who kept performing every week, and jumped above our club. He was ready for the Premier League and at that stage, as a club, we weren’t.
YOUNG ENGLISH MANAGERS
I feel sorry for our managers. We’re so uneducated still in our country that we have a manager and the board puts the weight of the world on his shoulders, making him feel he has to win, win, win, and then criticises him for not playing young players or a certain style.
You’re contradicting yourself. I think we stitch our young coaches up. I think we have some top young coaches but they get a first team opportunity and are under pressure after three or four games, because maybe the club don’t understand what they’re doing.
You have people in charge of clubs who were really successful in their own industry who just don’t understand this industry.
BENEFITS OF A SPORTING DIRECTOR
You probably watched the Sunderland documentary on Netflix. When you watch that, it’s no surprise that they suffered a double relegation, it really isn’t. They put all their faith in one man, the manager, and as soon as it went wrong, said, ‘it must be his fault’.
Why not look a bit deeper? Maybe that group of players wasn’t good enough, maybe the culture wasn’t right, maybe the head coach needed some support. Instead, you put him on a pedestal and said, ‘go and sort this out will you?’
Ah, brilliant - on my own, with 20 departments and 25 players, half of whom are overpaid and don’t want to be here and don’t care.
That’s where the Sporting Director comes in and that model is really ingrained in Germany, which helps their coaches a lot. As a Sporting Director, you need owners who allow you to do your work.
In my last two jobs I’ve worked for two of the best owners around. They let you get on with it, so long as you keep them up to date with what you’re doing.
I look at some of my friends in the game who have owners who interfere and overrule them and think ‘how can you do your job?’
TOP PLAYERS DON’T AUTOMATICALLY MAKE TOP COACHES
The coach education system in our country has improved a lot. I still think we hand out badges a bit easy though, and that if you’ve got a certain number of caps then people are in awe of you.
‘He must know what he’s talking about, he’s got 50 caps for his country’. In fact, he might not have a clue. I was fortunate to visit Red Bull recently and their Team Principal, Christian Horner, said most of their drivers don’t have a clue and you couldn’t put them in charge of a team.
But in football, everyone thinks, ‘he played, he was a top footballer, let’s put him in charge of 25 players, 30 staff - and he can deal with the media and the board.’ It’s actually a pretty tough job.
If you immediately put Max Verstappen in charge of a Formula One team, with 300 staff, people would think you were crazy.
GERMAN COACH EDUCATION v ENGLISH COACH EDUCATION
I genuinely believe that Germany are the best at preparing coaches for their careers. I think their courses are the most regimented, the toughest to pass, and that the DFB take it really seriously in terms of delivering them.
Anything we talk about in terms of youth and coach development, they were doing it 20 years ago.
When I speak to my colleagues out there, they almost laugh when I tell them what’s going on here in those areas. ‘Are you only just doing that?!’
But there are areas where we’re way ahead of them, in terms of sports science protocols or having a loan manager, for example. They don’t have that role over there.
Culturally, too, our players tend to work hard, are tough and have a great mentality. Then again, there are areas where we can learn from them, such as when you see Moritz Leitner in the canteen and the way he picks his food so carefully for his lunch. That rubs off on our players, so now I see Jamal Lewis doing the same things, because he’s learning from a top professional.
With different football cultures, you have to take the best from each and then you develop a powerful mix. It’s not the case that one football culture is best.