At just 22, Todd Cantwell already has a head full of memories. A star midfielder at Norwich City, the football club he joined as a local lad more than a decade ago, he has emerged in recent years as one of the English game’s brighter talents. Slouched on a chair at the team’s training ground, Cantwell sits up when asked to name some of his standout moments to date. The recollections flow easily.
In September 2019, for example, Norwich City faced Manchester City at their Carrow Road stadium. It should have been a mismatch. A team newly promoted to the Premier League, the world’s richest football competition, against the most expensively assembled side on earth.
In the 28th minute, Cantwell watched his teammates complete a slick sequence of passes around those in City shirts. The ball landed at the feet of striker Teemu Pukki, who charged at goal. Cantwell began to run up the pitch.
“It was a 50-yard sprint,” he tells me, blue eyes sparkling. “I was just energised by the thought of scoring, and in football that adrenaline takes over. I knew that if I got in his eye line, I knew Teemu would see me . . . to see the ball slide across and see the open net, you dream of stuff like that.” Cantwell scored, then danced in front of thousands of jubilant fans dressed in the team’s yellow and green colours. Norwich City went on to complete a famous 3-2 victory.
I ask him to fast-forward to July 2020. Carrow Road had been emptied of supporters because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Few witnessed the team being thrashed 4-0 by West Ham United. It was the latest of many defeats in a gruelling season. Norwich City were relegated to the division below.
Cantwell sat alone on the pitch long after the final whistle, frustrated, hurt. “We may not have been expected to stay up, no one here wanted to go down,” he says, quietly. “Everyone wants to play in the best league in the world.”
These flashbacks help explain what makes elite football such a potent spectacle for millions around the world. Over 90 minutes, Norwich City, a side assembled on a shoestring player transfer budget, can beat Manchester City, bankrolled by an oil-rich Gulf state and, at the time, English champions. But over the course of a 38-match season, small miracles are consumed by cold facts. Academic research has shown the amount spent on player salaries is the best indicator of league position. Last season, Norwich City had the second-lowest wage bill in the top tier.
I have come to Norwich City to speak with players such as Cantwell, as well as the club’s owners, executives and coaches, to better understand how the sport became a tale of haves versus have-nots. And to ask whether there is anything that can be done to close the gap between the game’s one-percenters and the rest.
Never a big club, Norwich City hadn’t even played in the top flight of English football until 50 years ago. But through the 1970s and 1980s they established a seat at the top table, peaking in the early 1990s, when the “Canaries” beat Germany’s most successful club, Bayern Munich, in a famous European upset.
Since the turn of the century, however, Norwich have enjoyed five promotions and suffered five relegations between the divisions. Too lean for the big league, too fat for the lower tiers, they are part of a group dismissively referred to as “yo-yo clubs”.
Manchester City used to be one too, before a 2008 takeover by an Emirati sheikh turned them into regular title winners through spending more than £1bn on players. Takeovers like this have given fans of other clubs hopes of attracting their own sugar daddy, an extravagant billionaire willing to spend whatever it takes to acquire glory. Teams such as Chelsea and Leicester City are among the sides to have been transformed in recent years by the backing of benevolent benefactors.
Yet this has helped to create instability at less wealthy clubs like Norwich City, which have had an unfortunate history of overspending on players, all in a forlorn effort to keep up with opponents’ unmatchable financial resources. Can the club do anything to snap the elastic that led it to bounce between the leagues?
Over many hours of interviews, I am told of a new blueprint to avoid the club’s boom-and-bust cycles. It is a plan designed around unearthing more talents like Cantwell. The club’s ambition is simple yet strikingly sober: to become strong enough to avoid yet another relegation from the Premier League, should they return. That would allow them to play Manchester City every season, though they would be extremely unlikely to challenge them for the sport’s greatest prizes.
Is this enough? Many of today’s leading football clubs began as community institutions — Norwich City was formed in 1902 by two schoolmasters — each one as good as the locals who made up their teams. Over decades, the biggest have morphed into multibillion-pound businesses, international workforces and global fanbases. But the majority, like Norwich City, are still followed mainly in the smaller cities and towns in which they are based. Here, supporting a football club is part of a civic identity. The team’s successes — and failure — are a matter of personal esteem.
“There’s part of me that just wants the club to go hell for leather, spend loads and win things,” says a consultant who has worked for Norwich City but declined to be named. The assumption here is that winning matches is the driving purpose of football clubs, victories the way it pays back fervent support. “How does football stay relevant to these small communities otherwise?” asks the consultant. “[Norwich City] has a great model and lots of good people, but the question I have is, what’s the purpose? What’s the point of a football club anyway?”
Delia Smith is the doyenne of celebrity chefs, a fixture on British television since the 1970s with shows such as One Is Fun! and How to Cheat at Cooking. Despite retiring from the small screen in 2013, Smith, now 79, is still best known to the wider British public as a genial TV personality and cookbook writer, rather than the co-owner of Norwich City alongside her husband, the writer and publisher Michael Wynn-Jones.
In 1995, Smith, who describes herself as a life-long fan, was approached by Norwich City’s directors at a time when the club was at risk of going bust. “‘Can you give us £500,000 for a seat on the board?’ they asked me,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Well, you can have a million pounds if you have [Wynn-Jones] on the board as well.’ That’s how it happened.”
The couple entered the sport just as it was undergoing a revolution. Norwich City were a founder member of the Premier League in 1992, when the country’s top sides launched a breakaway from the rest of English club football, setting up a competition funded by Sky, then a new satellite broadcaster.
“A small group of very canny, greedy chairmen hived themselves off and got the whole lot and left the rest of football struggling at grassroots level,” says Smith. “It was a sad day for football.”
Overall revenues for Premier League clubs rose from £120m in 1992 to £5bn last season, according to the consultancy Deloitte. In that period, Norwich City’s annual revenue has risen from £4.6m to £119m, according to Companies House records. But it remains far behind England’s richest club, Manchester United, which made £627m last term.
Most of the cash sloshing through the game is used to finance huge transfer deals and mega-wages for football’s superstars. “Player salaries basically got out of hand,” says Wynn-Jones, a gentle man who speaks barely above a whisper. “That really triggered [takeovers by] sheikhs and the like, because the clubs needed them.”
Smith and Wynn-Jones are among the longest-serving club owners in English football, part of the old guard of supporters-turned-owners who seek emotional returns on their investment over financial ones. Elsewhere these have been replaced by an international cadre of club owners united by net worths — from Arab royals to Russian oligarchs, American moguls to Chinese entrepreneurs.
Several “odd people” have approached Smith about a potential takeover of Norwich City over the years. One investor offered a nominal £1 to take a previously lossmaking club “off our hands”, she says. Another suitor planned to put it into administration to settle debts and cut costs. None was deemed to have the club’s best interests at heart.
Smith and Wynn-Jones’s refusal to sell splits opinion among the local fan base. Some believe that, without heftier external funding, the club is being sold short.
“You have an awful lot of Norwich fans who absolutely love Delia to death,” says Robin Sainty, chair of the Canaries Trust, a supporters group. “A small minority of people absolutely detest her, who think we should be selling out to an Arab multibillionaire or whatever. Then there are quite a lot in the middle who . . . appreciate what she’s done but think it would be quite nice to be a rich club.”
Smith is aware of the strength of feeling. “One guy came up to me [and said], ‘You have dragged our club into the gutter, and would you mind going?’” However, she adds: “Football is such an important thing for the nation. It’s one of the last vestiges of real community where people really belong together. If you see kids at football matches, letting off steam, they’re not out in the streets . . . It’s really wonderful.”
Smith and Wynn-Jones see their role as maintaining a local institution that has survived, just about, for more than a century. The club has often had “sticky moments” that have required Smith to go “up to Carrow Road with a cheque sometimes, because it’s got so bad”, and money remains a problem. In 2016, they overspent on players, again, in an effort to stay in the Premier League. They were relegated, again. That was the final straw. The owners espoused a new mantra of self-sufficiency, to live within meagre means. But how could Norwich City then fund a return to the Premier League?
On a foggy December morning, I drive to the club’s training ground, hidden off a country road on the outskirts of the city. A year ago, the venue was made up of 49 Portakabins alongside a sloped pitch, which became waterlogged on one side during the winter. Gym equipment was housed in a conservatory with room for just four players at a time. Today, as part of an ongoing renovation, with £8m spent to date, there are swish buildings with wood-and-glass facades that evoke a posh barn renovation, as well as flat, manicured lawns for pitches.
I’m greeted by Stuart Webber, the club’s sporting director. As he takes me on a tour, the 37-year-old Welshman greets staffers planting herb gardens and rose bushes. “Without going sort of spiritual or whatever,” says Webber, a man with intense eyes and a tell-it-as-it-is manner, “people feel good when they have colour and freshness around them.”
Webber was introduced to Norwich City’s owners by his wife, Zoe Ward, the club’s business and project director, who was hired in 2015 to help tackle the club’s financial troubles. He began his career as a youth coach at Wrexham, before moving to bigger clubs including Liverpool (where he met Ward in 2010). Appointed head of football operations at Huddersfield Town in 2015, he helped guide them to the top tier for the first time since 1972.
In 2017 Norwich City’s owners hired Webber. Alongside Ward, he recommended upgrading training facilities rather than spending more on players. This explains why the club is acquiring a futuristic new machine: the SoccerBot360.
Created in Germany, it allows players to control a ball on a small turf pitch, surrounded by a wall of video screens that replicate the sensation of having a blur of teammates and opponents around them. In any match, players are forced to make hundreds of snap decisions about when and where to pass and shoot. The idea is they will make faster and better decisions in a real game if they have already seen it thousands of times within the SoccerBot. Set to be built next year at the training ground at a cost of around £750,000, the facility will be the first of its kind in England.
However, if the goal is to reach the Premier League next season, surely the club needs to spend on players who could advance the team right away, rather than many years in the future?
To answer, Webber refers to a book by British-American organisational guru Simon Sinek, The Infinite Game. Relying on research based on mathematical game theory, the writer suggests that in any competition there are two types of “game”. Some are “finite”, like a football match, where there are “known players, defined rules, and an agreed upon objective”. The team that scores most goals over 90 minutes wins. But there are also “infinite games”, where the players and rules keep changing, and the objective is “merely to stay in the game as long as possible”.
Sinek reckons too many organisations fail to understand which game they are playing. In a 2018 presentation, he said that, in the Vietnam war, “the Americans were trying to ‘beat’ the North Vietnamese, while the North Vietnamese were fighting for their lives, and invariably, a different set of strategic choices was made . . . The United States . . . ran out of the will or the resources to play. They didn’t lose, they dropped out of the game.”
For Webber, the objective of a team, winning matches, is different from that of a club. “Football’s an infinite game,” he says. “So when some people say, ‘Why are you spending £2m on a gym? Spend it on a striker, you have more chance of winning next week,’ well, yeah, you probably have. But this team will be here for ever. [Practice facilities will] train more strikers than £2m can buy you. In 15 years, you will look back and think: we brought 30 players through here.”
This long-term mindset has influenced how the entire club plays the game. Under Webber’s direction, Norwich City’s academy players, starting from age seven up to 21, are instructed to play in the progressive, passing style demanded in the first team. Sainty of the Canaries Trust says this is one reason why most Norwich City fans accept the club’s frugal approach: “From a fan’s point of view, we love watching it.”
The playing style was also devised with an eye on the bottom line. Youth teams are told to play with two forwards rather than one, doubling the chances of developing valuable goalscorers. “[Strikers]are like gold dust,” says Webber. “If we can create our own, over time that will then save us millions and millions of pounds.”
Thrust into the first team, Norwich’s starlets have thrived under the new system, grabbing the attention of wealthier clubs. Since 2017, the club has recouped £79.5m in sales of young players. This includes James Maddison to Leicester City, Ben Godfrey to Everton and Jamal Lewis to Newcastle United. The money has helped balance the books.
That doesn’t mean the entire team is for sale. Last summer, FC Barcelona, the world’s highest-earning football club, approached Norwich about acquiring Max Aarons, a highly rated 21-year-old defender. Teammates jokingly dubbed him “Dani Alves”, after the ex-Barcelona and Brazil great. Norwich refused to sell, believing Aarons was key to the club’s promotion push, which would earn an estimated £170m in Premier League revenue — a more valuable prize that would benefit the club for years to come.
Webber, though, understands players have personal ambitions that may not align with the club’s. So he sat down with Aarons before the start of this season, showing him statistics that ranked the player alongside English right-backs such as Manchester City’s Kyle Walker, Chelsea’s Reece James and Leicester’s James Justin. The numbers showed Aarons had played more minutes than his peers at the same stage of their careers. “I was quite a way ahead of all the other right-backs when they were my age,” says Aarons.
Webber’s argument to Aarons was that, by playing frequently at Norwich City, he was on track to become an even better player before, perhaps inevitably, he moves on to a bigger challenge. Aarons says analysis shows that his ball retention and chance creation have “gone up loads” over the past two seasons. “I’m a lot more composed,” the player says. “I don’t make rash decisions.”
In a small, sparse office that contains little more than a shelf full of “Manager of the Month” awards, I meet Daniel Farke, the club’s first team coach. We speak in the middle of the day, soon after he has concluded a “light” training session with players before an important match that evening.
“[The players] are up in the morning and have proper breakfast and lunch,” he explains. “You don’t have to do this with the older players, who are a bit more experienced, who have families. But a young person thinks, ‘We’re playing at quarter past eight, so we can sleep till two and have a late night.’”
A relative unknown in England before his arrival in 2017, Farke was sought out by Norwich for his excellent record leading Borussia Dortmund’s under-23 team in his native Germany. Even though the Canaries managed only a measly five Premier League wins last season, the club retained Farke. The other relegated teams, Bournemouth and Watford, both replaced their head coaches in response to the failure.
He says: “Everyone in this business recommended, ‘Listen, with this approach, without spending money, paying for the sins of the past, with such a young side where no one really has Premier League experience — if you don’t add quality, you have no chance.’” But he adds that within the club leadership he felt “unbelievable trust and loyalty” towards him because it was well understood that relegation had been a “realistic outcome”.
Instead, the club’s demand is to instil a progressive playing style and develop young players above all else. That is a noble aim — but surely that will again leave the team as cannon fodder if they return to the top tier?
Tucking his long hair behind his ears, Farke says, “You don’t work in this business just to achieve realistic targets. Otherwise, Real Madrid will win the Champions League title each and every year. Otherwise, I will never win the Premier League title.”
But, he admits, the club’s approach is that the means matter as much as the ends. “It is not so much the goal,” says Farke. “It’s more the way.”
Hours later, I watch Norwich City play Nottingham Forest, two-time European Cup winners who dropped out of the Premier League more than 20 years ago. Before the game at Carrow Road, I’m invited to dine with the club directors. Over succulent grilled fish and a dessert of chocolate cheesecake, Smith amuses guests by revealing that she likes to eat at McDonald’s before away matches. (Her preferred order is a Big Mac.) Wynn-Jones regales the table with memories of Norwich City’s former glories.
The match is a contrast of styles. Norwich hog the ball, passing relentlessly. Forest defend deep, hoof the ball forward while their manager Chris Hughton screams from the sidelines: “Pass! Pass!”
There is no lack of passion on the Norwich City side. In the second half and already a goal ahead, midfielder Emiliano Buendía concedes a free kick. “Why did you foul him?” shouts Farke. “It wasn’t a fucking foul!” retorts Buendía. “Fuck off!” screams Farke.
Following the free kick, Forest equalise and celebrate wildly, but a few minutes later another smart sequence of passes ends with Buendía scoring the winner. The result left the club top of the Championship table, on course for a swift return to the Premier League. Webber says that with less need to invest in infrastructure, the purse strings will be steadily loosened to acquire players, providing a better shot at staying in the top division for longer.
But the club’s humble culture will come first. “Even when the day comes to spend more money,” says Webber. “It might also not be the right thing for our club to put a £20m player in this dressing room. It would be like putting a Ferrari in a Vauxhall garage. It would look out of place. We’ve got to try and make all our Vauxhalls almost as good as a Ferrari.”
Executives around the sport tell me they have watched the Norwich City model in admiration. But they argue that, ultimately, modern football runs an efficient market. The best players attract the highest price tag and are paid the most. The best teams win the most matches.
That leaves the club with a dilemma. Leaders such as Webber and Farke and emerging stars like Aarons and Cantwell admit to ambitions of moving to the world’s biggest teams in the future. What are clubs like Norwich City to play for, if not the sport’s shiniest silverware?
“It’s about that infinite game,” says Webber, who insists that the process of self-improvement is reward in itself. “Every decision has got to mean that this club is left in a better place than when we arrived.”
Murad Ahmed is the FT’s sports editor
Delia Smith and Michael Wynn-Jones will discuss this story at the FT Business of Football annual summit next week. See a full speaker list and register here
Follow @FTMag on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first. Listen to our podcast, Culture Call, where FT editors and special guests discuss life and art in the time of coronavirus. Subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen.