Norwich City are top of the Championship but few tipped the Canaries for promotion after Daniel Farke had struggled to make much of an impact last season. So how has this happened? In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports, Norwich sporting director Stuart Webber tells Adam Bate why the club kept faith in the German to help transform the club.
Ask the managers in the Championship which team has impressed them most this season and one name keeps coming up. "I thought Leeds were good but Norwich are probably better," says Nigel Adkins. Gary Rowett talks of how they limit space. For Dean Smith, it's the fluidity. For Lee Johnson, it's the depth. Graham Potter praises the clarity of their idea.
News of Norwich's rise to the top of the table has won admirers even beyond the Championship. Speaking to Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp recently, he revealed that theirs is one of the first results that he looks for at the weekend. "All the Norwich results I know, second only to the Huddersfield games. I had a lot of their players," he told Sky Sports.
"Moritz Leitner was awesome for me and it's not just him. Mario Vrancic was my player. He was my Mario Gotze at Mainz, 17 and in the squad. I have known him for ages and he is a good friend of my son's. Marco Stiepermann was in the squad for the 2011 championship at Dortmund. Felix Passlack was a very young prospect there alongside Christian Pulisic."
The German influence at Carrow Road is strong since Daniel Farke arrived in the summer of last year. He has fused savvy recruitment with an impressive willingness to develop the young academy talent at the club and that is now reaping rewards. Norwich have won eight of their last nine games to lead the Championship and are six points clear of third.
But it has not all gone smoothly for Farke. Last season, a Norwich side that included the talents of James Maddison finished in the bottom half of the table. Both the coach and Stuart Webber, the sporting director who had appointed him, came in for criticism. It took real belief to stick to their principles, as Webber now explains.
"If we had sacked Daniel at any time during last season it probably wouldn't have been a surprise," he tells Sky Sports. "If you look at something like The Debate, I'm sure they wouldn't have been saying it was a disgrace. The supporters would not have complained. The local media would not have complained. If the club had listened to the noise then both Daniel and I would have been sacked a long time ago, but luckily the club stuck with it.
"Sometimes to get success you have to go through that period because if it was easy to win by playing the football we want to play with young players and smart recruitment from abroad then everyone would do it. People are quick to judge but it needs a bit of time. We are trying to sort a big mess out here, which we didn't create, so give us a chance."
Webber, 34, joined Norwich from Huddersfield in April 2017 having played a key role in the Yorkshire club's dramatic turnaround. He was drawn in by what he calls the club's unique potential. The Canaries have a category one academy and are the only club in the county let alone the city. "This was the chance to turn it into something quite special," he says.
But the problems ran deep. First and foremost, there was the financial predicament. Norwich are still adjusting to the contract commitments that came with having spent four of the five previous seasons in the Premier League. "The drop off from parachute payments to becoming a self-funding club is unbelievably drastic," Webber explains.
"It is poor management that gets you into that situation because you cannot blame the Premier League - they set up the parachute payments to help you. But if you overspend beyond your parachute payment years then you get yourself in trouble like we did.
"Unfortunately, a lot of the money was probably wasted. People look back with a tinge of regret because you feel like you have won the lottery and then three years later you work out that you have had a few good holidays and nice nights out but you find you've still got a mortgage on your house and you're wondering how that happened.
"The level of facilities here completely contradicted where the club had been. We had loads of expensive players and staff with a huge wage bill yet we had pitches with hills in them and people working out of porta-cabins. They had a term here 'best in class' but the gym wasn't big enough. It didn't make any sense. So it was about stripping it back."
That can be a challenge with supporters, particularly when their patience has already been tested. "There was no real joined-up strategy," he adds. "We went from different types of managers and different types of players with no real explanation. It looked a bit scattergun and I think supporters lost belief in the club. Where are we going? What's our identity?"
Webber even asked that question of those at the club and could not get an answer. "The club didn't really have one beyond the colour of the shirt. It had got a little bit lost so the cultural challenge was big. We had to create something that we would be known for."
The new vision means investing time in academy prospects and bringing in bargain youngsters from abroad. By playing a more attractive brand of football, Norwich feel they are not only improving their long-term prospects of success but making their players more attractive to potential buyers and thus giving them resale value if promotion doesn't come.
"As a self-funded club, our sole aim is not to win. It can't be. The aim has to be to have value in our squad because for us to survive we have to sell when we are in the Championship. We could have gone all out to win promotion, appointed Sam Allardyce and signed a load of 32-year-olds. But if we didn't get promoted then we'd probably have gone bust."
That is where Farke comes in. The 42-year-old German was recruited from his role with Borussia Dortmund's U23 side, the same job that David Wagner had been doing when Webber took him to Huddersfield. It was used as a stick with which to beat the sporting director when things were not going so well but he insists there was more to it than that.
"It was unfortunate because everyone just assumes you have done the same thing," he admits. "People were saying that I thought I could just go back and do what I did before, but it was just a strange coincidence really. I remember saying to Daniel that I wish he'd been at Bayern Munich and not Dortmund because people wouldn't be saying it."
In truth, it was a bit more than a coincidence. Webber has a deep respect for German coaches and the success of Wagner clearly emboldened his belief that a youth coach from the country would be able to transition well to the Championship. Most importantly, he knew that Farke was a like-minded individual who shared his ideas about how to progress.
"You can't appoint a coach and ask him to implement your philosophy because they will always revert to type," says Webber. "So we needed someone who had a track record of developing players, a track record of working with good signings, and being open-minded about taking players from all over the world rather than wanting a certain type of player."
Even when the results were not going Norwich's way last season, Farke fulfilled this remit. Maddison had joined from Coventry to much excitement but a loan move to Aberdeen had not worked out and the now Leicester midfielder didn't even start a game under Alex Neil. Farke trusted him with a central role in the Norwich team, building the side around him.
"James played every week, Daniel developed him and we sold him for over £20m," adds Webber. "That's what we needed. If we'd appointed a coach who wouldn't have played James Maddison then if we weren't in the Premier League now then we'd probably be bust. We needed someone who would promote young players from our academy."
A trio of graduates have been regulars in the starting line-up this season with Todd Cantwell featuring alongside the full-back pairing of Maximillian Aarons and Jamal Lewis. In the last-gasp win over Bolton on Saturday, the three were joined in the team by Ben Godfrey, another graduate, who was drafted in just before kick-off when Timm Klose was injured.
The youngsters have bolstered the connection to the local community and supplemented the talent from abroad that has so lit up the Championship this season. Leitner has revelled in a deeper playmaking role, while Marco Stiepermann has been more effective further forward. Emiliano Buendia is an exciting talent and Teemu Pukki's goals have been vital.
"Daniel has been outstanding with the young boys," says Webber. "It is about having a coach who will give them the opportunity and make them better. You have to have someone who will put his trust in them. There is some real talent there and more to come."
Norwich are already top of the league. The prospect of further improvement only adds to the sense of excitement around the club. Clearly, they are ahead of schedule. And that is a complete vindication of the decision to go in a different direction - and then stick with it.
"We knew that we might have had to go significantly backwards in order to go forward," says Webber. "The challenge was getting people to understand that if you play a young player it takes time for that young player to develop. If you are implementing a style of play, that takes time too. Again, if that was easy then everyone would do it.
"This is where you have to be brave as a club. The thing with Daniel is that he never went away from what he wanted to achieve and how he wanted to achieve it. It was never a quick fix. But if you believe in your work and the plan then you have to stick with it.
"We always felt we would be a better team this season because the players we were recruiting fitted the team more than the ones we had. Of course, the progress has been off the charts but we certainly expected to be in a place where the supporters were saying that the style of play was good and there were good young players coming through."
There is not a Norwich fan who would disagree with that right now. There are some big spending clubs at the top end of the Championship this season and the Canaries are a long way from promotion just yet. But the excitement is back at Carrow Road and the late winners just keep coming. The fans are loving it. And they are loving how they are doing it.
"The great thing about football is that having money helps but that's not the only way of being successful," says Webber. "You have to be optimistic and try to find another way."
So what would promotion mean?
"It would safeguard the club for the next 10 to 15 years really," he adds. "It would help us not have to sell our best young players and enable us to invest further in the future.
"There is still more work to do at the training ground and more work in the academy to make that the best it can be. If we are fortunate enough to get back up, it will give us the chance to set it up for the future, whatever league we are in. That would be the dream."
The reality is that, whatever happens, Norwich are finally getting it right.
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