Easy to see why Stuart Webber is in Norwich City’s sights
Michael Calvin’s excellent book, ‘The Nowhere Men’ charted the role of the football scout.
It was a fascinating glimpse into a hidden world. Well away from the glamour and the headlines. But Stuart Webber represents an increasingly important constituency that until now appears to have had the same mystical allure of the scouting fraternity – the ‘shadow men’.
Mostly, but not exclusively, much younger than the traditional chief executive stereotype with a background more often than not in recruitment and academy spheres of influence.
It is hardly a huge surprise Webber’s name has emerged as the leading prospective candidate to become Norwich’s newly-created sporting director.
Huddersfield’s ascent to the top end of the Championship this season owes plenty to head coach David Wagner and an exciting mix of homegrown, overseas and loan talent. But Webber, or Huddersfield’s head of football operations, to give him his full title, is the common denominator.
The 33-year-old was instrumental in enticing Wagner to leave Jurgen Klopp’s backroom at Borussia Dortmund in 2015. It was Webber who had the contacts and the persuasive skills to prize Chelsea’s highly-rated Izzy Brown out of Stamford Bridge on loan and repeated the trick with Manchester City’s Aaron Mooy.
The Citizens’ 26-year-old midfielder was an influential figure in the Terriers’ slick 2-1 Championship win against Norwich just before Christmas. Huddersfield’s inventiveness, the width with which they surgically dismantled the Canaries that night and the energetic thrusts of men such as Mooy, Kasey Palmer and Elias Kachunga spearheaded one of the most accomplished displays seen by a visiting side at Carrow Road this season. It was not just a victory, at times it felt like a changing of the guard as City’s midfield laboured to stem the attacking cut and thrust.
You could hardly blame Norwich’s board for making a mental note when they embarked on this path of enlightenment, following Jez Moxey’s exit that also claimed Alex Neil as collateral damage in recent days.
Webber’s football CV marks him out as one of the leading ‘shadow men’ currently operating in the Football League. Before Huddersfield there was a stint at Wolves, in which he was credited with prizing Benik Afobe out of Arsenal before the hotshot spurned Norwich’s advances to sign for Bournemouth for a massive mark-up in January 2016.
Before Wolves there was Liverpool and a recruitment role under Rafa Benitez that brought the 15-year-old Raheem Sterling north from London.
But it is less the stardust that Webber appears able to sprinkle which might impress City’s top brass than the refreshingly commonsense approach underpinning Huddersfield’s success. Read this extract from a recent Daily Telegraph interview on his first impressions upon arriving in Yorkshire and see if you can detect any parallels with the situation at Carrow Road.
“To be frank, it was boring to watch Huddersfield and I wouldn’t have paid £350 or whatever for a season ticket,” he said. “The club needed a cultural shift, a plan and we needed to do something drastic in terms of appointing a head coach who could help create an identity. The focus wasn’t on winning, it was all about survival and there was no identity.
“We needed a man with a clear identity, who would be open to the recruitment of young and foreign players, and who would be a head coach and make the players and team better. David (Wagner) fit the criteria perfectly and we were speaking to him long before Jurgen Klopp went to Liverpool.
“I met David at his house and in three hours we talked about everything, how he wants his team to play and every position. He had a pot of chocolate raisins on his table and he put 11 of them out in a 4-2-3-1 formation, and went through every single player.
“He picked up the chocolate raisin right-back and told me exactly what he has to do, then the centre-back and so on.
“I ate the number 10, but I came away with a real feeling that this was a guy who knows exactly what he wants and he knows exactly how to put it together.”
That identity and common purpose feels like it has been lacking in the past 14 months or so, once Norwich’s initial surge under Neil ran out of steam. It may just need a ‘shadow man’ to provide the same type of catalyst as the Scot. Webber reportedly spurned the advances of Scottish giants Rangers last month. Whether Norwich appeals remains to be seen.