Stuart Webber: England's 'purest example' of a Sporting Director
Written by Training Ground Guru — March 18, 2023
OUR guest on Episode #48 of the Training Ground Guru Podcast was Norwich City Sporting Director Stuart Webber.
We have frequently described him as the 'purest' example of a Sporting Director in this country. He is in charge of the club's football strategy and the different heads of department, including the Head Coach, report into him.
Webber has also been very visible, doing interviews and giving updates on the club's strategy. This led to him being lauded when the club were doing well (they have twice been promoted to the Premier League on his watch) but also receiving a lot of flak when they were relegated last year.
You can listen to the podcast via the player below, and read an edited transcript after that.
Stuart Webber: I was born and raised in a little village eight miles inland from Aberystwyth in mid-Wales. You’re not really meant to leave those places and go into the big wide world, that’s the culture. But I always loved football. I was very poor academically and football and F1 were the only things I was into.
I decided to leave home at 16 and moved to a college near Wrexham. I wanted to get closer to the big wide world - or what I thought was the big wide world - and did a course in horticulture. As part of that, I got into Wrexham on work experience and they gave me a job within six months. I was working on the pitches there, which is why I’m very anal about football pitches now!
At the training ground I invest so much time with the groundsmen. Football has to be played in a certain way, in my opinion, and you can’t do that if the pitch isn’t right. It's normally the least resourced area, normally the afterthought, and if people make redundancies it’s, ‘Cut the ground staff.’
We’re the opposite here, we’ve probably got a bigger team than it needs to be.
At the same time, I was doing my coaching badges and got a job within Wrexham's Centre of Excellence as a coach. So I was working on the pitches during the day and coaching of an evening. Then Steve Cooper got made Head of Youth and then they appointed me as his assistant. I was probably only 20 and was doing my A Licence. Since then I've done my Pro Licence as well.
Because of where I’d come from, because I hadn’t played the game, because I had the stigma of being a groundsman, it was like, 'I've got to prove myself way more than other people have to.'
Coaching in our Centre of Excellence we had Darren Ferguson and Brian Carey, who had both been captains of Wrexham and played for their countries.
I was like, 'If I’m going to get more respected than them as a coach then I’ve got to out-work them and try and get better than them.' I’m not saying I ever did, but that was my attitude every morning when I woke up and every night when I went to bed.
I knew I could out-work anyone. Someone is off sick or can’t come in because they’ve got a problem at home? Bang, I’ll do it. It was that attitude of non-stop obsession with it really.
You do have that imposter syndrome. I was doing my Pro Licence with Rob Page, Marcel Desailly, Jens Lehman, Didi Hamann. When they say, 'What have you won? it’s difficult to say, ‘The mid Wales Under-12s league and I scored in the final.’
You have to go through those doubts, that’s part of it.
LIVERPOOL AND DAMIEN COMOLLI
Steve Cooper moved to Liverpool and recommended me to a guy called Malcolm Elias, who was Liverpool's Head of Youth Recruitment. Malcolm offered me a job and then Frank McParland came in and I went and met him for the afternoon and thankfully he still wanted to take me on, in their scouting department.
At that time I was Head of Youth at Wrexham and coaching their Under-18s with Joey Jones. But I thought, 'You might never get the chance to work for a club like this again.'
Frank was great, invested in me a lot, gave me a lot of autonomy and then Damien (Comolli) came in and that went up the charts. Steve Hitchen, who was Damien’s right-hand man, was brilliant with me too and gave me loads of opportunities, so I was really lucky that a set of people believed in me and trusted me and let me develop.
Damien, for sure, was the biggest influence on me. Prior to Damien, I hadn’t worked with one (a Sporting Director) before. When I went to Liverpool, Damien came in quite quickly, as Head of Football Strategy to start with and then Director of Football. I was intrigued, because we had been brought up with managers and Chief Executives. You know Damien well - he’s incredibly intelligent and I learnt a lot from him, which I still use to this day.
Originally I had wanted to be a manager, but working at Liverpool with Damien I realised in quick time, 'That’s the job I want.' Because you are involved enough in the day-to-day to get that buzz of winning, but you can also step back and think bigger picture.
I like building stuff, whether that’s teams, infrastructure, youth development, the scouting side. We started a South America project here at Norwich four years ago, which saw our first two players ever signed direct from South America this summer.
Being able to have that longer-term vision and implement it, I got that from Damien. The interest in data - he was talking 15 years ago about that to me.
If you go to Liverpool from Wrexham, 90% of the workforce will think, ‘How have you got this job?’ So you have to prove yourself. It’s the same for young players going into the first team.
Each time you have to prove yourself, but I quite like that and enjoy that challenge when you have something to prove - it drives you on. If you want to grow and get better you should have to be a bit uncomfortable and think, 'I’ve got a bit to prove here.'
I want to be around people who can make me better and who I can learn from. Even if they are working underneath you, it's still the same. Someone you have met today, John Iga (pictured above) - I learn something from him every day and he reports into me.
I would never have left Liverpool if Damien hadn’t have left. I think if Damien was at Liverpool now, I would still be there in some capacity, because every day I learnt something from him. I want to be around people who can make me better and who I can learn from.
It was a disappointing day when Damien left. I remember the phone call, exactly where I was, and that was, 'Ok, that’s probably me done here then.' And it was. I left within six to eight weeks to go to QPR.
Then Mike Rigg at Man City. I got close to Mike with our links back at Wrexham and that’s when I took the opportunity to go and work with him at QPR, because that was a chance to move to the first team.
It was good at Huddersfield, because I followed Ross Wilson, so a lot of the things were in place already. I saw opportunities where I thought, 'I could grow that programme,' certainly in the area of foreign recruitment and coaching, because they hadn’t really gone down that route.
I remember talking to (Chairman) Dean Hoyle very early on and saying, ‘When we change the Head Coach, would you be open to a foreign one?' And he said yes. So I said, 'Ok, I’m going to spend a bit of time researching what could be the best transitioning country to the Championship.'
We looked a lot at Bundesliga 2 and thought there were a lot of parallels with the Championship. Then we looked at the movement of German coaches over that period of time - success story, success story, success story - and thought whether we could get one into England.
Because at Huddersfield we had to massively overachieve to be successful, because our starting point was really low in terms of size of club, budgets etc, so it was about thinking differently and doing it differently. That was why we made the decision to go with David Wagner and then that following summer we signed 14 players, of which seven or eight were from abroad, mostly Germany.
It worked well. Unfortunately, it’s been closed now because of Brexit, so that’s why we’ve had to do South America. It’s about trying to find that competitive advantage.
We were playing games against teams who didn’t know our players. We’d be sat in the Boardroom before the game and their Chairman would say, ‘Who’s Chris Lowe? Who’s Chris Schindler? And after the game it was, ‘How much did he cost you again?’ ‘Well, he was a free transfer and he’s on six grand a week.’
And they were like, ‘Ok, we’re paying ours 30 grand a week.’ Dean backed it unbelievably, because it was his own money that topped it up, and he halved the price of the season tickets so we sold more than ever. Dave (Wagner) did incredible getting the crowd with him and key was we had a good start that season.
People believed in what we did and we all just grew. It was a great opportunity for me to go and try some stuff that was in my head that I thought could work.
GERMAN v ENGLISH COACHES
Our coaching levels are going up and up, for sure, if you see the success of people like Steve Cooper, Kieran McKenna. There is some great work going on. But I still don’t see the U21 league as being a good enough step to being a first-team head coach.
If you look at Kieran McKenna, he was in close with Olly (Gunnar Solskjaer). Steve Cooper had his own team with England (U17s). I still don’t think our (U21) league is brilliant for that, because you’re not really working with your own team every week, you’re not working in a competitive league, you never know who you’re playing. So it’s a bit of an unrealistic league in my opinion.
There isn't that crowd pressure. I know there is relegation and promotion, but let’s be honest, no-one really cares. Whereas in Germany, David coached Dortmund second team in the German third league, our equivalent of League One, and you’re playing big clubs and there are big pressures.
What you are seeing in England now is more coaches getting opportunities with first teams though, which I think will more set them up. You get to take a first-team set of players in a proper training session, where some of them are going to tell you to piss off, and I think it’s really important to have that experience. If you’ve solely been U21s, to make that step to the first team is a whole different world.
At least with Mick Beale, he’s with Steven (Gerrard), seeing how he is after a game, seeing him getting hammered after a game and learning from him and thinking, 'Ok, when I’m in this opportunity, I’ll do this.'
What’s important for coaches to understand is that it's about going on a journey of learning and not rushing too quick. You’re doing a good job at a mid-table League One club, so gain your experience, don’t just jump at the first Championship job and then get sacked in six months and get forgotten about.
Build your CV, build your experience. I think they can move too quick, I think there’s a clamber for that a bit in our country.
These young players coming through are super exciting, arguably the best in Europe, so we need the coaches to follow that, so that in five years it’s Mainz taking one of our coaches and not the other way around.
JOINING NORWICH CITY
I didn’t want to leave Huddersfield, because we were doing some good things there. But a big attraction for coming to Norwich six years ago was that I saw great potential for growth.
Where we are based, it’s the only club and there’s a lot of interest. We can harbour a bit more of a collective and that’s quite powerful. When you’re going through difficult times, the stadium is still full and that gives us the chance to go, 'This club is a bit different. It's not just another club in London or the North West.' It can be a little bit unique and we try and harbour that.
I remember we came here and changed a lot - a lot of heads of department, the squad. The average age of the team came down three or four years and there was an emphasis on the Academy. Although it's quite a small site, there had been an us and them between the first team and Academy when I turned up, so it was about aligning those things.
We already had a good Academy, were Cat 1, and there were talented players here, but our productivity wasn’t good enough. That’s because the whole club wasn’t connected.
When we appointed our first Head Coach, Daniel Farke, that was an expectation of him - to give young players a chance. But what you’ll get in return is the benefit of time. We don’t expect you to give Jamal Lewis or Max Aarons a debut and if they make a mistake that’s on you. No, that has to be on the club.
In terms of the facilities, it was about showing people, ‘This is going to be different.’ Once you get people buying into that and they believe in that and see you are true to your word, they normally want to follow and then it becomes their plan.
I remember a very vivid conversation with one of the groundsmen, who said, ‘Ok mate, I’ve heard all this before.’ And I actually said, ‘Yeah, but you’ve not heard it from me.’
What you have seen today is everyone is invested in that and has played a big part in that.
Then we had success, got relegated, and had to build another team, which was a new experience for me. Now it was about thinking, 'What's next in five years time?' Whereas in my previous job at Huddersfield and the first two years here, it had been all about change, driving the place, instilling culture.
Part of being a Sporting Director is being able to have that mid and longer-term vision and really creating something that is sustainable and has longevity. Once you get people buying into that and believing in that and seeing you are true to your word, they normally want to follow and then it becomes their plan. What you have seen today is everyone is invested in that and has played a big part in that.
Some of the best ideas have come a long way away from my desk, from empowering our staff to come up with ideas. The players have been on that journey. Grant Hanley has been here the whole time I’ve been here, Tim Krul and Teemu Pukki more or less the whole time. They have been part of helping this club grow and grow and our culture and standards. It’s not just about one person.
It’s about can we make a real sense of belonging.
I think I’m good at change, going in somewhere and livening it up, getting people to buy in. It’s different now. A lot of the staff I’ve worked with for six years. You get a bit closer to them and you change. My child is six years older, I’m six years longer married, of course you become a different person with different perspectives.
We have won two trophies in the last three years and competed in the hardest league in the world, where you’ve got a club like Chelsea who have spent more than the rest of Europe on themselves.
Brighton and Brentford, two fantastic clubs who are great models, but in the last accounts Brentford published in 2021, their owner had put £130m in, Brighton’s latest ones is £120m, so even people we see as our peer group. And ours is zero. So it’s super tough.
We understand that the fans want to win today - and we want to win today as well - and that is key. There is no-one here walking round happy if we get relegated or don’t win on Saturday, We want to win as well, but are having to do it in a sustainable way, where we put growth at the forefront, so if we don’t get the ultimate goal of achieving on the pitch then we grow off it, from an infrastructure or staffing point of view.
What we are ultimately trying to do is build a Premier League club and that’s what you’ve seen today. What we want is that when this club gets to and thrives in the Premier League - because it will happen, for sure - a lot of the work has been done.
'PUREST' EXAMPLE OF A SPORTING DIRECTOR
There are still so many where it’s a glorified Head of Recruitment job or a glorified Academy Manager. For me, it's a job where, in its purest form - like on the Continent - you appoint the Head Coach, make decisions on player recruitment, Academy pathway, facility development. Otherwise, if you’re just signing players, you’re Head of Recruitment. I did that job at Wolves.
Here is definitely one of the purest ones. I would imagine Dan (Ashworth) has now probably got it at Newcastle, seeing the work he talks about up there. I think that's how the role should be as well. How can you be accountable for something if you haven’t got that autonomy? Really, then it’s like there’s someone who’s hiding who’s making those decisions.
I’m visible to the media and fans. I don’t hide, I will admit to mistakes, I take ownership on stuff and I think that’s how it should be. I believe in communicating outwardly as much as inwardly.
I think it’s important that we are honest and try and tell people our plan and admit to our mistakes and show a bit of vulnerability publicly. Unfortunately, that brings attention. There are lots of other Sporting Directors we all know who never talk. That’s fine, that works for them, but I also think that isn’t right.
I think the fans should know what’s going on. Some things you can’t talk about, we know that, but I think we owe that to them to talk as much as we can. A couple of times a year, when you can explain decisions. With that comes sometimes undue attention.
If you are appointing a Head Coach, you have to understand the challenges he faces daily. It’s about stripping your ego back, it's about what’s best for the football club. There are times when the Head Coach is fully in charge and then there are times when I’m fully in charge, but the key thing is there is a relationship between the two of us. It's about working together for the best of the club.
We sacked Daniel (Farke), who had been amazing for this club on every level, but ultimately, in the Premier League, we won six games out of 50 with him, and made the decision to go with Dean (Smith), because he’d been more successful than Daniel in the Premier League, so what can we learn from him?
Should Sporting Directors be more visible?— Training Ground Guru (@ground_guru) March 14, 2023
That's what Antonio Conte said a few weeks ago and Norwich City's Stuart Webber agrees.
"There are lots of other Sporting Directors we know who never talk. I don't think that's right."
There are times I have to protect the Head Coach, and it's about dropping your ego and thinking what is best for the club and the bigger picture. We talk every single day, have that ability to show vulnerability to each other, challenge each other and be open-minded. Because I’m yet to meet anyone who is that good that they don’t need all those things. Even if you are that good in that moment you won’t be in a year.
The word I would use is empathy. So it's about him understanding the challenges the Sporting Director has and me understanding the challenges he has and where he needs support.
At times you have to make tough calls and be the boss in that moment, but my style is very much we are working together and I will sit in the background as much as I can and talk when it's to try and create a protection layer for the Head Coach. I would rather get a bit of flak for that if it takes a bit of pressure away from those guys.
We do live in that media world now which is so reactive, so instant. You win a game, you’re brilliant; you lose a game, you’re rubbish. That’s why you have to do your best, as Eddie Jones talks about, to ignore the noise. Or else your strategy will be forever up down, up down, and you will never actually achieve anything. It’s about taking that emotion out of it.
It comes with the territory. You’ve got to take the good and the bad. Luckily, I don’t read either the good or bad, so it doesn’t affect me, what people say, or how I do my job. If it is being lauded, not suddenly thinking I’m great, or if I’m getting stick I don’t suddenly think I’m not good enough.
WELLBEING AND A HOLISTIC APPROACH TO LIFE
None of us takes ourselves seriously enough in terms of looking after ourselves and getting our heads up. Most people, when they come back from a holiday, they have new ideas and are in a much better space. There’s a reason for that - you’ve had a break and a chance to switch off.
I think it’s unhealthy when people get constantly consumed. That’s why here, with the staff, I encourage them to take time off and have a breather. Not at certain times, when we have three games in a week, but in international week I don’t want to see you.
I had one with our Head of Analysis last year, I said, 'If you’re in the office next week I will sack you,' because you need to get away. You will work out the problems by being away from here. I think it’s something as a society that we’re learning more about. I've invested in myself in that and I want the staff too as well.
I was four stone heavier (before). My lifestyle was horrific. It was constantly in the car, drinking fizzy drinks, chocolate. Luckily, I’ve never drank alcohol, or else I would have gone down that route for sure. I didn’t look after myself. I wasn’t the best husband I could be, the best dad, the best at work, because I was constantly tired and didn’t have that time to come up with ideas and be creative.
If I’m walking in looking like a bag of shit every day, how’s that inspiring to staff or players? You’ve got to lead the way. Don’t get me wrong, some days you feel like absolute crap and have to put a clown face on, but look after yourself. The season is long and there’s no point burning out in September. That’s a big area I’ve evolved in.
Or being there with your mum, whose husband is in hospital, and having that time. 'Maybe I can take a game in in the North and take her with me.' When I bump into a manager that always makes them laugh - ‘Is that your mum?’ ‘Yeah, long story.’
I don’t want on my gravestone, ‘Brilliant worker but didn’t do anything else and didn’t inspire anyone.’
My Dad left when I was very young, so I always said to myself, 'If I ever have a kid, I’m going to do it the opposite way.' Like anyone, you have to make sacrifices, but if I’m around and I can make it work I want to be with him.
I don’t want him to grow up like I’ve grown up, being resentful of my father. That would break my heart.
I remember at Liverpool, with Pep Segura and Rodolfo Borrell, there were times when they said, 'No no, the game is not the teacher, you have to tell them'. It's the same with parenting - you don’t have to wait for them to put their hand on the stove to tell them it will burn their hand.
There are other times when you’ve got to learn and discover.
(In 2022 and 2023, Webber is taking on a series of mountain challenges, culminating in a climb up Everest. Money raised will go to his Summit Foundation, which will help disadvantaged children in Norfolk).
I’ve really enjoyed doing that stuff. I’ve found it incredibly challenging. Learning about altitude, learning about different cultures. I’ve been in Kilim, the Himalayas. You meet cultures and people where you can’t help but learn from these people. You learn about yourself when you’re in stressful situations, you’re up a mountain, the weather is coming in, you’re struggling to breathe.
I think it’s improved me in my work - it’s given me a different perspective, it's problem solving, it's given me time to think. Ive come back after three, four days of completely clear head and being able to get out of the grind of the day-to-day.
NORWICH CITY AMBITIONS
To get and thrive in the Premier League. We have to believe we can find a way do that. It is everyone’s determination here to do that and we won’t settle until we’ve done it.
The club is full of great people, has amazing owners and it would take a lot to make me leave for a change in football. There aren’t many clubs where you get the autonomy to do your job. Of course there is challenge but there’s a big difference between challenge and interference.
I know I am very fortunate here, because I talk to my counterparts at other clubs and hear some of the challenges they go through and think, ‘I’m not sure I could go through that.'