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Interviews

Sporting director Stuart Webber reviews the season so far

10 February 2021

Norwich City sporting director Stuart Webber has spoken openly and honestly about the season so far, January transfer business and his thoughts on the remaining 18 matches of the season.

The full interview is below:

Let’s start by talking about the season so far. It’s been a good season for the majority of it with a little bit of a blip in recent weeks, so what’s your mood overall?

It’s probably been better than expected, if you look at the teams who came down with us - Watford and AFC Bournemouth - they’re probably the ones we can judge ourselves against because we had the same circumstances going through relegation.

I think we’ve done well and if someone would have said to us with 18 games to go we’d be in the position we are in terms of the amount of points we’ve got, I think we’d all have taken that. We’re almost at two points a game which is what gets you, in general, automatically promoted.

We’ve put ourselves in a really good place, so credit to Daniel, the staff and all of the players on how they reacted to a really difficult time at the end of last season with the bad results, relegation, quick turnaround and not having a normal pre-season.

That was the same for everybody of course, but how we’ve reacted to that I think we should be really proud of. We’ve built ourselves a really good platform to hopefully go and finish the job off.

You and Daniel always come across very level headed. As fans it can be easy to get carried away with a win or a defeat. How important is it for us to try to stay calm, let the dust settle and remember the bigger picture?

Fans are there to dream - that’s why you’re a football fan. A football fan shouldn’t be worried about the day-to-day reality but absolutely it’s mine and Daniel’s job and everyone else associated with the club to stay level and remember who and what we are.

If we win, great, we don’t get carried away. If we lose, it’s not like we need to go and jump off a bridge or anything. It’s football and it’s what happens. You win games, you lose games, but the most important thing is that you’re performing well and your processes are working, that the environment, culture and attitude are right.

The quality in the end wins through and that’s what we’ve got to do. When you have a few more challenges in terms of not winning as many games as you want for a little period, that’s when those things get challenged and you’ve got to stick together and come through it.

We had a difficult period at the start of the season with the first four games, only winning one of them, and we came through that really well, so I’d expect the same this time.

It’s difficult because every team wants to beat us. Every team is 11 against 11 and there’s no divine right to win games as we know, so we just have to stay level, keep believing in what we are and working hard.

In January we completed the signings of Dimitris Giannoulis and Orjan Nyland. What can you tell us about the recruiting of those players, what they can bring to this team and how they’re settling in at the moment?

Both have settled in well. Obviously, Nyland’s injured at the moment and we knew that before we signed him. He’s someone who Kieran Scott, Head of Recruitment and his team have identified for a long time now.

We were watching him at Ingolstadt before he went to Villa and we think he’s a fantastic goalkeeper, certainly for the way we play, so he can in time hopefully add some real depth to the goalkeeping department.

We’re happy with him and he’s a great guy, typical of what you’d expect of someone from Scandinavia in terms of professionalism, so he’ll bring a lot to the group.

On Giannoulis, again credit to Kieran and the team that he’s a player they identified a long time ago and have kept on him. The deal came alive to us in December when we never thought it was going to be possible.

I think that shows the great mentality that Kieran and the guys have there, being relentless in their work and their pursuit of trying to find players that can improve us.

For us, in January it was important not just to add players for the sake of it because that’s easy. It’s about adding players who ultimately make the group a lot better and we think we’ve got that in the pair of them, so really happy with the work that the guys have done.

Now, it’s about them settling in and that’s where people like Phil Lythgoe and the rest of the staff come into their own in making sure that off the pitch everything’s right, which is in these times quite difficult because it’s really hard to immerse themselves in the area and the environment which we know that they’ll enjoy once they can.

Making what we can, in terms of the car and the house, as best as it can be will help them hopefully perform as quickly as possible on the pitch.

How much of an impact is Brexit going to make on football signings? Do you think it could make things more difficult in certain markets and is that ability to be versatile and adapt to new rules a strength of yourself and your recruitment team?

It’s going to change recruitment forever probably. You’ve got two options - you can either look at all of the problems that it’s created, because it’s created a lot, or you can look at all the opportunities it’s created, which is also a lot.

Part of our mentality in the whole club, certainly when it goes down to the recruitment department, is we’ve got to look in places where other people don’t look and be quicker than other people because we can’t compete on just finances so we have to be smarter, quicker and more aggressive.

We’ve seen Brexit coming down the road for a few years. It didn’t just happen on the 31st of December, it’s been coming for quite a while and we’ve planned accordingly within the recruitment department but also with the investment in the academy, the infrastructure and the time and effort we put in to produce our own players.

We knew that there’d become a premium and need to produce your own players so that’s why, four years ago, we made that call to invest as heavily in the academy, but then also within the recruitment in terms of setting off in certain projects around Asia and South America in preparation for the rules changing in the direction we expected, which they have.

We could be prepared to give it our best shot and that’s what we’ve tried to do. That doesn’t mean it will work or we’ll be any better, but you adapt or you die and that’s very much our philosophy.

What we can’t do is sit here and moan or make excuses. We’ve got to find the opportunities in it and let other people moan and make excuses while we’re trying to do some work and gain an advantage out of it.

After relegation in July, you said your job was to get your head around the situation and get on with it, so that’s the same approach we’ve got here with those new rules.

It has to be. In life, you adapt or die. It’s like with the COVID situation - you’ve got two options. Sit at home and eat and put on about four stone or you take the advantages of travelling less and go ‘right, I’m going to exercise more and spend more time with family, get to know my son and my wife better’ or whatever it is.

Everything in life is about the mindset you approach a situation with because if you want to just find the bad in stuff that’s really easy. Finding the opportunities in it is harder but what we need to do. Fair play because so far the staff are doing that really well.

All clubs have had to adapt to challenges presented by COVID. We managed to avoid having any cases here for a while but when they did come how pleased were you with the way that it was prepared for, dealt with and responded to?

Really pleased. Jonny Martin and Greg Pillinger are sort of our COVID leads if you like. They’ve set up robust practices for when this day would come, because it was always going to come.

I’d challenge anyone who’s gone through life and not been affected in some shape or form by it, so it was always going to get here.

After that Christmas period, the whole country was always going to be at risk of it spiking and that meant that we were at risk of it spiking and football was at risk of it spiking. That’s what happened and we had some cases here but we’ve got a top class doctor who’s dealt with it brilliantly throughout and stayed calm throughout, staying focused on the job at hand.

When something happens, it’s about your processes coming to the fore. When we had the challenges, we sat down as a group and spoke about how we knew this was coming, but now we have to work out if our processes are right or not.

Mike Tyson said everyone’s got a plan until you get punched in the face. That was the same for us. We had a plan and then the punch in the face. It’s about dealing with that and touch wood we seem to have got through it.

Luckily, everyone’s come through it from a health point of view. Tim got caught quite bad with it and was ill for a few days but luckily he’s come through it now and is back playing and feeling good.

The others had mild symptoms, similar to what you’d have from a cold or a mild flu. It is what it is and we’ll have to learn to live with this probably for years now. I don’t think it’s going to suddenly disappear.

It’s about learning to deal with it and when it does happen, don’t panic, it’s alright, let’s work through it. That’s what we’ve done and I’m really proud of all of the staff and the players because, like everyone in life, they’ve had to make a lot of sacrifices to keep the environment as safe as possible.

They don’t have the option of just sitting at home during this period. We can’t furlough Teemu Pukki for example. He’s someone with a young child at home who has to take all the precautions he can to make sure his teammates and staff are safe here.

Credit to all of the players and staff for the responsibility they’ve shown during this period.

In the stadium, we’ve shown that we can welcome 1,000 and 2,000 fans back to Carrow Road when it’s safe to do so. I’m sure you’re hopeful we can get as many of those back as soon as we can, especially, should we be in the Premier League next season, how much of an impact they have on home form, as we saw during Project Restart.

Let’s be honest, football… not just football, but any sport without fans is… just not the same. It’s an entertainment business and I know it’s been great for people to watch football on TV so at least it’s getting people entertained at home.

Getting it going back in May when we re-started was the right decision because it’s brought a lot of happiness to people. If nothing else, they can put football matches on at night and there’s been more free-to-air available. The cricket’s been free-to-air in India this week, which is important.

Sport is massive for people to have something in their lives. 

But for proper football fans who go to football or football players who play in front of crowds, not having them is horrible and we need to get fans back as quickly as we can and as soon as it’s safe, not for Norwich City but for football in general.

Whether it’s King’s Lynn, Ipswich Town or Norwich City, it’s actually irrelevant. Every club needs their supporters back because, most importantly, them supporters need to be back.

For lots of football fans, the highlight of their week is going to watch their team play. Their community is watching their team play stood next to the man or woman that they stand next to every other Saturday afternoon and have a pint or a moan with.

Maybe it’s going to the pub before the game or after the game or maybe it’s meeting up with their mum or dad once every two weeks to go and watch football - it’s that sense of community which is being lost, which we’ve got to get back more so than the atmosphere.

We all know that’s what football’s about. For the people who come and watch, that sense of community, as a whole country, we’ve got to try to get back as quickly as possible.

That’ll cost, in my opinion, as many lives as what COVID costs. People will die of loneliness and we’ve got to try and avoid that if we can.

Changing the subject onto the loan system, we’re seeing the likes of Sam McCallum, Danel Sinani, Aidan Fitzpatrick, Tyrese Omotoye and Archie Mair all learning and growing from scrapping at the lower end of their respective divisions this season. Do you think that’s as good for their development as being at the top end and winning trophies?

We’re huge believers in the loan program and we’re very fortunate that Neil Adams, who runs it for us, is outstanding at his job. If you look at the last few years - the Murphys, James Maddison, Todd Cantwell, even Kenny McLean - they’ve all had loan experience and it’s done them the world of good.

If they can’t go directly into the first team then lets get them experience out on loan. We sacrifice a lot in terms of Under-23s and Under-18s results because of our philosophy but we think we win through in the end with players coming back.

Remember Ben Godfrey’s journey - he went to play 54 games on loan at Shrewsbury, came back, got in the first team and the rest is history for him. 

Todd went away to the Dutch second division, played, got promoted there, came back and got in the team and the rest is history, so it’s a really important part of all of their journeys.

Whether it’s off the pitch or on the pitch development, whether you’re Archie, playing and getting beaten up every week because you’re a goalkeeper and they’re chucking crosses on top of you. 

Whether it’s Tyrese, who turned up late for a meeting last week and that meant he was dropped out the team - he’s got to learn that, he’s 18. He’s got to learn that if you don’t turn up for a meeting, guess what, there’s a consequence to that.

We can’t give him that experience. That’s real life experience on the job and that’s what these young guys are. They’re young men who are learning to be the best professionals they can be and they need to go and make mistakes, whether that’s on the pitch, Archie giving away a penalty, Sinani missing an open goal or Tyrese missing a header - they have to experience that and that’s how you get better and learn.

Sam McCallum gave away a penalty a couple of weeks ago. I went to his game on Saturday against Watford to see how he reacted and he was playing against the winger there, Sarr, who cost 40 million. His reaction was brilliant and he gave Sarr nothing.

That’s what we want to see - do you learn from the previous week when you gave a penalty away or do you crumble? Suddenly, you’re live on Sky playing against one of the best players in the league, how do you react to it?

We get so much from that and Neil keeps in contact with them every week. He and I have Zoom calls with them midway through the season to discuss their progress. Daniel is fully informed of how they’re doing all the time, so it’s a big part of what we do.

We don’t loan them just for the sake of it. It’s part of their footballing journey.

The philosophy of backing young players is clear to see for the players who are here as well, the likes of Josh Martin and Bali Mumba, who made an impressive debut at home to Swansea. What have you made of their progress?

Brilliant. Credit goes to the boys first and foremost because we can only take them to the door, they have to walk through it, and credit to Daniel. We’re very lucky here at this club that we’ve got a head coach who first of all believes in young players and secondly pushes them so hard to try to achieve their potential.

That’s a key ingredient. When I came to the club four years ago, Daniel and I spoke about how the academy must have good players because of the amount of investment that had gone on but we needed to build a bridge and that’s what we’ve done.

It only works when the player then takes it when he gets his chance. We can’t do that bit. That’s then up to them. All the academy staff can do, the likes of Steve Weaver and David Wright, is prepare them for that moment and then it’s up to them.

It’s up to Daniel to keep pushing them to push on and get even better, but I think they’re very lucky to have a head coach who understands young players and understands development. All the staff do.

He’ll also understand that they can have a bad game or a bad training week or make a mistake off the pitch and that’s part of the journey.

As a club, we try to be robust in the support that we give our young players because it’s a key part of our model. 

You often find if you trust young players or young people, very rarely do they let you down. You’ve just got to trust them, give them that opportunity and back them.

You previously mentioned this season was about taking actions and not dwelling on the past. People outside the club might have been surprised to see Norwich top of the league after relegation, and we’ve seen how other relegated clubs have done so far this season, so what does that say to you about Daniel, the coaching staff and the players who work here?

I’m not particularly surprised. I think we know with Daniel we’ve got a top, top manager who’ll go and be a head coach in the Champions League one day. I’ve always said that and nothing’s going to ever change my mind on that.

In terms of the players, we were quite smart with getting our recruitment done early and getting that group together as quickly as possible. We brought in some big characters, whether that’s Jordan Hugill, Kieran Dowell or Ben Gibson.

That’s part of what we wanted, to get rid of this feeling of losing games and getting relegated. We’ve got no time to sulk and we didn’t. Mistakes were made and we held our hands up for that, but it was about how we react and not dwelling on them.

There’s no point looking back. You’ve got to learn from what’s happened, absolutely, and analyse it, but then you’ve got to get on with it.

We lost on Friday night at Swansea but there’s no point dwelling on it all this week. We’ve got Stoke City to prepare for and then another two games quickly following that.

It’s about looking forward and yes, realising why it didn’t go right, then dusting ourselves off and going again rather than sitting around moping or trying to blame people.

Huge credit to Daniel and the big staff he has here. Everyone’s got their head down and got on with it and credit to the players as they’re the ones who go on the pitch and have to deliver week in, week out.

In general, they’ve done that really well and we’re very proud of them and grateful to them that they’ve done that. Hopefully, now they get what they deserve out of this season, which is where we want to get to being promoted.

The way the players and staff have adapted, they deserve that. We’ve just got to keep working hard and fight in every single game and I think we’ve already proven to ourselves that we’re good enough to do it. Now we’ve just got to go and make sure we can finish it off.


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