Norwich City’s victory over Blackburn Rovers confirmed their promotion back to the Premier League after a three year absence, following a remarkable season that not even the most optimistic Canaries fan could have predicted. On a shoestring budget, with a squad largely comprised of bargains and academy graduates, head coach Daniel Farke turned the Norfolk club into one of England’s most exciting footballing outfits. Here, with help from Along Come Norwich’s Jon Punt, we tell the story and look at the statistics behind Norwich City’s remarkable return to the top flight.
4th March 2017
Sheffield Wednesday 5-1 Norwich City
The boos and jeers from the infamous Leppings Lane end, the same taunts that have been following Alex Neil up and down the country for the last six months, are as vicious and vociferous as they’ve ever been. Confident for so long of an immediate return to the top flight, Norwich City now find themselves outside the play-off places, staring a potentially ruinous second season at Championship level in the face. The board, having backed their manager for so long, are now forced into action. By the next home game Neil is gone, but the problems at the club run deeper than the dugout. Whilst Alan Irvine is appointed as caretaker to see out the remainder of the season, the club’s hierarchy set to work on a root and branch review, restructuring at boardroom level and turning to a continental model in a bid to keep the club afloat. They begin by sounding out their first ever Sporting Director.
“Stuart Webber is the architect behind it all. From bringing on young players to investing in infrastructure, all while ensuring the recruitment setup is fit for purpose. He has talked of creating a legacy at Carrow Road which will leave the club in a much better place than when he found it; given the progression thus far you’d trust him to see that through.”
Jon Punt, Along Came Norwich
Stuart Webber had approached the Huddersfield Town board at the end of March and expressed his desire to leave. Having worked wonders with the Terriers, who would sensationally go on to win promotion to the Premier League at the end of the season, he was now in Norwich City’s cross hairs, and the opportunity to mould a club in desperate need of direction in his own vision was too good to turn down. Webber had made his name as a talented director of youth football. Starting out at Wrexham in his native Wales, his reputation took him to Liverpool’s academy, before stepping up to work with senior teams at Queens Park Rangers and Wolves. In two short years at the John Smith Stadium, he’d overseen Huddersfield’s evolution from relegation battlers to promotion candidates. Norwich City hoped he could have the same effect at Carrow Road. His first task was the find the right manager for the transformation.
On the surface it looked like a copy and paste job from Webber’s last managerial appointment. Daniel Farke had succeeded David Wagner at Borussia Dortmund’s reserve team when the bespectacled possession pest had departed for West Yorkshire. Like his predecessor Farke’s approach was system based, focusing on quality of possession, an accurate passing game, and hammering home the importance of chance creation. In his first season he’d taken Dortmund’s second string from lower-mid-table to fourth, making them difficult to beat in the process.
It wasn’t just an on-field identity the North Rhine-Westphalian offered either. Whilst his managerial expertise only stretched to the fourth tier of German football, he could call on his success whilst working with limited budgets, experience that has left him predisposed to excelling at youth development. In his first post at SV Lippstadt, a club with which he had three spells as a player, Farke took on the responsibility for all football related concerns, from managing the first team to overseeing the academy. In six seasons he led the club to two promotions, despite never wanting to become a football manager. Whilst Norwich City represented a significant step up the management pyramid, Farke would find himself under the same restraints when he arrived in Norfolk.
“What Farke has done is bring on youth products and integrated them perfectly into the side. If they’re good enough they’ll get game time. I’m not sure I ever recall a City backline so young be so successful.”
Jon Punt, Along Came Norwich
The new manager set to work on giving his squad a budget facelift immediately. On the opening day of the summer transfer window, seven established first-team members on high wages departed Carrow Road, including long-term first choice goalkeeper John Ruddy and club captain Sebastien Bassong. Before the start of the season they’d be followed by Jonny Howson, Graham Dorrans and Jacob Murphy, the latter identified as one of the club’s most saleable assets, bringing in £12m from his move to Newcastle United. In the other direction, the predicted influx of obscure names from Germany came to pass. Christophe Zimmerman and Marco Stiepermann, both graduates of Borussia Dortmund II, were joined by fellow Germans Tom Trybull and Marcel Franke, while Bosnian playmaker Mario Vrančić arrived from Darmstadt. The late addition of centre-back Grant Hanley provided some much needed Championship know-how, and represented Farke’s biggest splurge in the transfer market.
An encouraging draw away at Fulham on the opening weekend of the season proved a false dawn in a difficult August that ended with a 4-0 hammering at Millwall. The next two months were a little more rewarding, as the Canaries briefly troubled the playoff spots and the emergence of James Maddison from the under-23s gave rise to the theory that Farke was prepared to take a chance on youth prospects. The midfielder’s winner at Portman Road in the Old Farm derby turning out to be one of the few highlights in the German’s debut campaign at the helm.
A difficult spell in winter that saw just one win between the end of October and Christmas was addressed with five wins in seven over the festive period and into 2018, though by then Norwich were marooned in mid-table. The sale of Alex Pritchard, one of the club’s most consistent performers, to Huddersfield Town in January had supporters grumbling, while seven games without a win would see the season peter out. Whilst there had been flashes of what Farke could bring to the club throughout his first year in charge, the overwhelming sense was that Webber’s German experiment wasn’t quite working. A desperate defeat on the final day of the season would put immense pressure on the club to have a productive summer.
6th May 2018
Sheffield Wednesday 5-1 Norwich City
It’s said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. For some Norwich City supporters, even making the trip up the A17 for an ostensibly meaningless fixture on the final day of the season against a side that had walloped them a little over twelve months earlier seemed foolhardy. As the final whistle rang on an underwhelming season, the noise from the away end – less confrontational than the protests that met Alex Neil at the same ground, but still dissatisfied – provided the most honest assessment of Farke’s first season in charge. Webber and his chosen manager remained sanguine, however. Upon his appointment, the Sporting Director had stressed that it would take three or four transfer windows before the chemistry of the squad was right, while Farke pointed to the areas in which the team were heading in the right direction; at the end of the 2017/18 season, Norwich ranked in the top five for possession, passing, and chance creation. They ranked bottom for shooting accuracy, a statistic borne out by a hapless Sunderland side outscoring the Canaries. A goalscorer was top of the manager’s summer shopping list.
“There was little fanfare when Pukki arrived, he seemed to be backup for the ‘proven in the Championship’ Rhodes type character that we all thought we needed to sign. Pukki’s movement is much more dynamic though, and the chances he’s snaffled up this season have been usually of the instinctive variety, most of his goals are either one or two touch. When he has excellent service from the likes of Buendia, Vrancic and Stiepermann he’s always likely to contribute.”
Jon Punt, Along Came Norwich
A free transfer from Danish Superliga side Brøndby, whose most notable season had seen seven goals in twenty-five appearances in the Scottish Premier League for Celtic, Finnish forward Teemu Pukki hardly represented the glamorous goal-getting hitman that Norwich City supporters might have been hoping for. The days of spunking the transfer budget on the likes of Ricky van Wolfswinkel are long gone, however, and Pukki perfectly represented the new transfer model at the club; low-risk for potentially big rewards. The striker’s experience in the Bundesliga provided a big green tick for Farke, and the lack of transfer fee meant that limited funds could be put to good use elsewhere.
In the meantime, with the club’s parachute payments from Premier League relegation coming to an end, funds had to be raised to keep finances on an even keel. More big names on high wages were shown the door, with Wes Hoolahan and Russel Martin completing the clear out, while academy products Maddison and Josh Murphy attracted big money bids from the Premier League. The £35m recouped from Leicester and Cardiff for the pair was scant salve to supporters, but offered the club a little breathing space. Once again, trust in the vision was required.
To replace Maddison’s goals and assists in midfield, Argentinian playmaker Emiliano Buendía was brought in from Getafe for a paltry £1.5m. Having impressed on loan at Cultural Leonensa in the Segunda Division last season, the 21 year old was considered another low-risk gamble in the Championship. Moritz Leitner, another player familiar to Farke from his Dortmund days, joined from Augsburg to plug a gap in midfield, while Tim Krul arrived on a free to fill the #1 jersey. The loan signing of Jordan Rhodes, that most proven of Championship strikers, provided cover on the off-chance the Pukki experiment failed to pay off. From the outside looking in, Norwich City’s first team resembled a patchwork of has-beens and never-weres.
If Farke’s stock had taken a hit in the Sheffield sunshine a few months earlier, then a sticky August saw it sink to its lowest ebb. A 94th minute equaliser from Onel Hernández at Birmingham City on the opening day provided the first of four points from Norwich’s opening five games, with Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds playing the Canaries off the park at Carrow Road on August Bank Holiday weekend. An hour into the following game, the first Old Farm derby of the season at Portman Road, crisis club Ipswich Town were a goal to the good and on the verge of their first victory over Norwich in almost a decade. Leitner’s equaliser saved Farke from ignominy, but a porous defence conceding an average of two goals a game needed addressing.
Having tested out 4-3-3 and 4-1-4-1 formations in the opening weeks in a bid to crowbar both Rhodes and Pukki into the starting lineup, Farke switched to 4-2-3-1 for the visit of Middlesbrough following the international break. Pukki started as the lone striker, with Hernández, Buendía and Stiepermann providing support. The reliable Alex Tettey offered steel next to Leitner’s silk in front of the back four. Norwich won 1-0, Pukki scored the decisive goal, and Farke had finally found his winning formula. Narrow margins would be the key in the team’s first winning run of the season. Four victories on the bounce were achieved by a single goal, and though a draw at Derby and defeat at home to Stoke would temper talk of mounting a push for promotion, the foundations of Farke’s revolution were beginning to bear fruit. By the end of October, Norwich were firmly ensconced in the playoff places, and the yellow machine was about to kick into gear.
3rd November 2018
Sheffield Wednesday 0-4 Norwich City
The scenes in the away end were jubilant. Sheffield Wednesday had shaded a tight first half, but were blown away by the energetic high-press and fitness of Farke’s side in the second. An eleven minute spell in which Pukki struck twice either side of Buendía put the game to bed, and set Norwich on course for their biggest away win since April 2011. It also took them into the automatic promotion places for the first time in two years. If supporters were still reluctant to get carried away, the meeting with Millwall a week later would finally give them cause to start believing.
“There have been so many standout moments this season, but Teemu Pukki’s winner against Millwall is the one which will probably be talked about in years to come. It sent shockwaves through the stands and is the reason you keep coming back”
Jon Punt, Along Came Norwich
On a grim November afternoon in Norfolk, 26,000 unassuming spectators witnessed one of the most staggering finales to a football match in the modern era. Tom Elliott’s first half header had given the visitors a lead at the break, the only action of note as both sides toiled. Pukki’s equaliser shortly after half-time saw the momentum swing the way of the hosts, and though the Finn had his penalty saved less than ten minutes later, Leitner’s effort from outside the box put Farke’s side in control. With ten minutes to go however, all hell broke loose.
First, Ryan Leonard levelled up for Millwall, before Jed Wallace put the lowly Lions in front, as Carrow Road stared punchdrunk at the smash and grab taking place before their eyes. With Rhodes and Vrancic thrown on in a bid to salvage something from a game the Canaries should have put to bed, the fourth official signalled for nine minutes of stoppage time. Injected with new hope, the home support rediscovered their voices, and were quickly rewarded as Rhodes restored parity with an effort that nestled in the bottom corner. Millwall soon lost their heads, flying into tackles and earning two bookings in as many minutes. Deep into the deepest of added on time, Vrancic found the run of Pukki, who lifted the ball over Ben Amos and into the net. Carrow Road went ballistic. Norwich City went top of the league.
“Farke has placed a large emphasis on making his players as fit as they can be, with those double sessions in pre-season now really paying off. That’s coupled with a real belief that the team can turn games around. They know they have enough to score at will when they’re on their game – so they just keep going until it clicks – and it invariably does.”
Jon Punt, Along Came Norwich
Late goals have epitomised Norwich’s season, and Farke’s ability to drill that extra mileage out of his players has played an enormous part in their automatic promotion. Eighteen of their points this season have been earned thanks to goals in the final fifteen minutes of games – a difference that would see them in sixth – while six points have arrived due to goals scored in stoppage time – without which they would sit level with Leeds United. It’s no accident that Farke’s intense pre-season training and high-valuation of player fitness has given his team a cutting edge. Spare a thought for those City supporters of a nervous disposition however, with Derby County and Reading both turning the tables at Carrow Road and escaping with spoils thanks to late, late goals.
That victory over Millwall would begin a five week residency at the top of the Championship, before a gruelling festive period with one win in six saw Farke’s side slip to third. They would rediscover their form at just the right time, however. The near effortless 3-1 victory over Birmingham City, in which the game was sewn up after 25 minutes, provided a timely reminder of how far the manager and his assembled squad had come in a few short months, and preceded a double header against the Canaries’ closest promotion rivals. A brace from Billy Sharp, the only striker in the second tier approaching the same kind of goalscoring level as Pukki, earned Sheffield United a point at Carrow Road, before Norwich descended on Elland Road.
“I started to believe promotion was possible after we’d taken Leeds apart at Elland Road. It was a performance of such high quality against what many perceived to be the division’s best team. It also was the culmination of a run of extremely difficult fixtures, which we’d have been happy to come out of within touching distance of the top two. The fact we actually emerged at the summit was remarkable.”
Jon Punt, Along Came Norwich
If the schooling that Marcelo Bielsa’s side had dished out back in August was Cersei Lannister-esque in its plot to divide and conquer, Farke’s approach for the return fixture was a full on Dothrakian assault. From the first whistle, the yellow shirts harrassed, harried and got in the faces of their lilywhite opposite numbers, and their reward came after just five minutes, as Vrancic’s free-kick deflected off the wall and desperately out of Kiko Casilla’s reach. Leeds, still carving open chances despite the claustrophobic attention of their visitors, stuck to their passing game, but had no answer to Buendia’s determination, as the Argentinian robbed possession and started the move leading to Norwich’s second. Two goals to the good and happy to cede possession, the Canaries wrapped the game up in the second half, with Vrancic sweeping home Jamal Lewis’ cross. Norwich were restored to the top of the table.
For all the talk of Farke’s perfectly executed gameplan, and the starring roles of the German manager’s signings, perhaps the most pleasing aspect of such a dominant performance was a defence that featured three academy graduates. Amidst the success stories of Buendia, Pukki and Stiepermann, the emergence of Lewis, Ben Godfrey and Max Aarons had been overshadowed. Prior to Farke’s arrival none of them had played a minute of first team football at Carrow Road, but while Lewis had been introduced during the German’s first season in charge, nineteen year old Aarons was thrown in at right-back at the start of this campaign and has made the position his own. Between them, the trio have played over 10,250 minutes this season, rightfully earning plaudits for their composure, maturity and reading of the game. All three have received international recognition for their impressive form, and all three are tipped for the very top of the game.
“My player of the season has been Max Aarons, a player who is capable of playing for England if his career is managed correctly. Pukki and Buendia will probably grab the headlines though, for their respective goal scoring exploits and flair.”
Jon Punt, Along Came Norwich
A perfect fortnight was topped off with a 3-0 victory over Ipswich Town at Carrow Road, putting an enormous dent in the survival hopes of Norwich’s local rivals, before defeat at Preston – the side’s first, and so far only, reversal of 2019 – temporarily knocked the Canaries off top spot. They would return on the 16th February, with another crushing victory, this time by four goals away at Bolton, and haven’t relinquished it since. That result at the Macron Stadium would begin a relentless streak of eight wins on the bounce, culminating in the Saturday lunchtime meeting with managerless Queens Park Rangers at the beginning of April.
The game was over by half-time, as Norwich went for the throat from the off once again. Buendia and Stiepermann had put Farke’s side two up within twelve minutes, and a third from Pukki ten minutes before the break left the visitors with little to play for. Even a straight red for Buendia’s overzealous tackle couldn’t damped the spirits of the home crowd, and a trademark Pukki finish five minutes from the end wrapped up another memorable afternoon. Thanks to results later in the day, Norwich finished the weekend seven points clear at the top, while their Finnish marksman was able to celebrate another landmark – becoming the first City player to score 25 league goals in a season since Chris Sutton in 1993/94. He’s now chasing Ralph Hunt’s club record of 31 from 1955/56. Not bad for a free transfer.
It was also the game that saw the Canaries match Wolverhampton Wanderers’ goals haul from the previous season. Nuno Espirito Santo’s side had been lauded for their free-flowing, attractive, continental style attacking football, but Farke has shown throughout the season that there are plenty of ways to skin a cat. While Pukki has grabbed the headlines with his goalscoring prowess, the support offered from midfield has proved just as important, with Hernandez, Bundia, Stiepermann and Vrancic all on the verge of double figures. One of Farke’s key targets for the season was to address the shooting accuracy in the team – they sit top of the league with 51%.
Its not just sharpshooting that Norwich have excelled at this season either. They sit third for accurate passes, third for total possession, second for successful dribbles, and second for total shots. They’re also the highest scorers in the Football League. Always trust in the system.
With promotion secured, all that remains is the trip to Villa Park on the final day of the season, providing Stuart Webber and his colleagues the ideal opportunity to hold a mirror up to this season’s achievements, and cast them in the context of their hosts. A remarkable late season surge sees Dean Smith’s side back in the playoffs for a second consecutive season, but Aston Villa fans will undoubtedly watch on with envy at the success of the team they were relegated alongside in 2016. Since arriving from the Premier League, owner Dr Tony Xia has sanctioned transfers to the tune of £95m, including £30m on three strikers. Loan signing Tammy Abraham will lead the line against Norwich.
In contrast, City’s big business has all involved player sales, with six players departing Carrow Road for £10m+ since 2016. They have not spent more than £3m on a single player in the same time frame, and Farke’s transfer business has seen him rebuild the squad whilst making a £42m profit. It is by no means a foolproof strategy for promotion, but Norwich City’s feat this season can only be admired.
“Next season there’ll be no big names, just hidden gems and discarded players who once showed promise. In fact I’d be surprised if our outlay is more than £30m. It’ll very much be sticking with the plan we’re implementing, just on a slightly grander scale.”
Jon Punt, Along Came Norwich
And what of Act 4? It’s unlikely Norwich City will be following in the footsteps of free-spending Fulham, particularly since Huddersfield Town’s spirited showing in their debut season in the top flight proved that big-spending doesn’t guarantee survival. Undoubtedly Farke and Webber will be three steps ahead, planning for life in the Premier League and sounding out shrewd investments to add quality to a squad already blessed with spirit and desire. In the meantime, City fans can enjoy their summer and look forward to more thrills and spills ahead. The future is unwritten.
Along Come Norwich is a Norwich City fanzine and podcast that takes a sideways look at the club, focusing on atmosphere while also offering the same match reviews and previews you’d expect. The podcast has seen interviews with some of the club’s past and present players, the most recent being centre-back Ben Godfrey and City stopper Tim Krul.
Along Come Norwich’s podcast back catalogue is available here.