Michael Bailey: Steve Stone helped to heal at Norwich City, with a lead that needs to be followed
PUBLISHED: 06:01 09 October 2018 | UPDATED: 10:31 09 October 2018
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Football and stability rarely go hand in hand. MICHAEL BAILEY delves a little deeper into the surprise news managing director Steve Stone has left Norwich City – and what it means for the club.
If there is one man who knows how difficult life has been in the corridors of power at Norwich City Football Club in recent years, it is Steve Stone.
Arriving as finance director in the spring of 2015 with City externally debt-free and hoping for a continuing stay in the Premier League, Stone probably feels he was only ever dealing with an unravelling situation.
A year later there was a resignation – that of then chief executive David McNally in rather bizarre circumstances played out on social media in May 2016.
It was soon followed by relegation to the Championship, a self-inflicted revenue chasm and a failing bid to make it back to English football’s often labelled ‘promised land’.
Eventually Alex Neil was sacked as manager, only for the threat of financial catastrophe to linger in the air alongside a bold attempt to achieve a seismic cultural shift across the club in the season and a bit since.
It was a true baptism of fire. Little more than a year after starting the football equivalent of the job he had previously undertaken in the pub and gambling trades, Stone was effectively City’s most senior executive and running the ship.
In fairness to Stone, he always wanted more. He openly courted becoming McNally’s long-term replacement only to find the City board opting for Jex Moxey’s weighty CV – a decision that even now evokes a shake of the head.
When Moxey’s flawed appointment was eventually ended, Stone’s openness and ability to communicate well with fans was rewarded.
Splitting the chief executive role into managing and sporting director posts was perhaps a nod to City’s willingness to promote Stone – and yet the need for more football-focused leadership alongside it; Stuart Webber providing the wheeling and dealing, recruiting and contracting on the pitch.
Stone’s remit was clear too: finances, consumer and retails issues, commercial projects and revenues. Football clubs are both business and sport – and the two roles ensured each was given a chance to thrive.
From an oversubscribed £5m Canaries bond to fund exciting and much-needed academy development at City’s Colney Training Centre, to negotiating the club’s most serious financial waters since late 2009 – it’s perhaps most frustrating that Stone’s departure appears to have arrived at the very time Norwich City’s ship seemed stable.
And that also goes for the club’s relationship with its supporters. Numerous fan groups and representatives will want to share the view that Stone was a decent man with an open ear and an appreciation for making the club a better place for those who spend their hard earned money to support it.
It all makes the news a big surprise and raises plenty of questions over not just what has gone wrong – but what happens next at Carrow Road.
The club may look at replacing Stone outright – in which case, external candidates could well be off the table given their previous search provided Moxey’s arrival.
If it is to be an internal promotion, we will wait to find out who.
Likewise, the initial concept of splitting City’s key role into two could come under scrutiny – although rowing back on the new structure so soon seems a highly unlikely move.
Perhaps most intriguing is away from the club’s operational activities and into the boardroom, where Stone’s appointment as a director in April took City to their limit of seven.
His departure will now leave a vacancy that the club may treat as a rare and welcome opportunity. Time will tell.
The plan for what happens next will be key. At a time when City were able to exude a degree of strength in vision, philosophy and direction, Stone’s surprise exit will raise questions that have the potential to do damage.
And yet as is always the case with a football club, any tricky situation can still provide a positive outcome – if it is handled with care and foresight.
Protecting their good work in recent months, and making sure foundations remain strong enough to survive renewed scrutiny and build on, should now be priorities.
Ensuring the open ear and approachability Stone brought to the club survives beyond his exit, shouldn’t be far behind either.
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