“We needed to change the culture around the club. It had become a little easy for the staff and players,” said Stuart Webber in February 2016, having appointed David Wagner as Huddersfield Town’s head coach the previous November.
Seven years later, almost six of them as sporting director at Norwich City, Webber has once again chosen Wagner to turn his club’s fortunes around.
Wagner, 51, has been confirmed as Norwich’s successor to Dean Smith. Christoph Buhler, who worked under Wagner at Huddersfield and his two 40-game tenures that followed — with Schalke and Young Boys — has joined as his assistant.
The pair have signed 12-month rolling contracts, which matches the deal Webber signed last year to continue in his role at Norwich.
Their primary task is clear: to repair Norwich’s hopes of an immediate Premier League return that hang in the balance.
Norwich were relegated from the Premier League last season after a multitude of issues that extended well beyond their head coaches.
They had been promoted as champions in their previous two Championship seasons under Daniel Farke, but Smith proved unable to deliver on supporters’ demands for an attractive style of play and positive results and was sacked following a Boxing Day defeat away to Luton Town.
Wagner takes charge with a list of objectives that dwarfs those that awaited Smith on his appointment.
Norwich have been keen to state the appeal of their head coach vacancy. Executive director Zoe Ward wrote in her matchday programme notes before the draw with Reading on Friday that the quality of applicants proved “this is one of the most respected coaching positions in English football”.
Webber was in charge of sifting through those hopefuls. An initial shortlist of four was put forward — Webber has such lists constantly on standby — and he set about approaching them, as he had when he came to appointing Farke’s successor in November 2021.
Time to get this show on road… 🇩🇪
— Norwich City FC (@NorwichCityFC) January 6, 2023
Wagner was considered Webber’s priority target given their shared history. It was Webber who took Wagner from Borussia Dortmund II to Huddersfield in November 2015 (coincidentally, he had interviewed Smith for the job) and they achieved a surprise promotion to the Premier League via the play-offs in his first full season in charge.
Webber had left Huddersfield for Norwich by that point, where he repeated his trick at Carrow Road by appointing Farke, Wagner’s successor at BVB II.
Wagner achieved something that proved beyond Webber and Farke — Premier League survival — but that did not prevent him leaving Huddersfield the following January as hopes of prolonging their top-flight stay grew increasingly forlorn.
Webber’s experience of working with Wagner and his ability to take the Huddersfield fanbase along with him on a journey stuck with Norwich’s sporting director, to the point he has opted to return to a known quantity.
Not that other names did not feature in Norwich’s search.
They included Bodo/Glimt head coach Kjetil Knutsen, who was in the frame in 2021 until Smith became a more realistic appointment. Norwich discussed the role with Knutsen on this occasion, too. Their timing was better than when Brighton came calling in the autumn during the Norwegian championship run-in, but the result was the same.
Former Fulham and Bournemouth manager Scott Parker was another in the initial running, but Norwich were swiftly informed Parker was in discussions with Club Bruges. He was appointed on New Year’s Eve.
From the outset, Norwich looked to avoid candidates (bar Knutsen) in employment and likely to be expensive in terms of compensation. Former Norwich players Russell Martin (in charge at Swansea City) and Coventry City’s Mark Robins were swiftly discounted on that basis.
As Norwich looked to keep a tight grip on their genuine contenders, it allowed rumours to swirl. Names such as Chris Wilder, Malky Mackay, Steve Bruce and former Hoffenheim manager Sebastian Hoeness were all suggested at various points, right up to Tuesday.
By that point, however, Norwich had completed their interview process. Webber and his assistant, Neil Adams, drove to London immediately after Norwich’s defeat against Watford on Monday night. Webber gained approval from Norwich’s board for the job offer on Tuesday morning, with Wagner verbally agreeing to join later that day.
The negotiations were no doubt helped by Wagner being represented by John Morris, a senior agent at Wasserman, who represent Smith and has worked closely with Webber since he was head of football operations at Huddersfield.
Work permits were secured with a delay but also relative ease thanks to Wagner and Buhler holding comparable positions at top-flight European clubs for the majority of the past five years.
In reality, had Webber wanted to pursue another rough German coaching diamond working in Europe’s lower leagues it is unlikely they would have been granted the post-Brexit governing body endorsement (GBE) required.
The same framework for players also makes it virtually impossible for Norwich to return to the recruitment plan that saw cheap but relatively high-quality signings arrive from Europe’s various second tiers and help Farke and Wagner achieve second-tier success in England.
Wagner will officially take first his training session with the players at Colney on Saturday and is set to conduct his first press conference alongside Webber early next week.
However, the first game of the Wagner and Buhler reign will come on Sunday with an FA Cup third-round tie at Carrow Road against Championship rivals Blackburn Rovers. The league fun starts the following Saturday, with a trip to Preston North End.
Familiar faces beyond Webber will await Wagner and Buhler at Norwich.
Loan player-manager Andrew Hughes worked as first-team coach under Wagner at Huddersfield and will now take up the same role. John Iga, head of strategy and innovation at Norwich, was head of performance under Wagner at Huddersfield. Steve Weaver, Norwich’s head of football development who took interim charge of Norwich alongside set-piece coach Allan Russell, was academy manager at Huddersfield until the summer of 2017.
While Weaver is set to return to his head of football development role, Russell appeared much more in the dark when asked about what would await him once Smith’s replacement had been found.
At his first press conference as interim head coach, Russell made it clear he was a club appointment, arriving in the summer as set-piece coach.
If so, Russell is likely to have the same contract status as goalkeeping coach Ed Wootten: effectively a permanent club employee rather than the fixed-term service contracts that tend to be agreed for head coaches and their staff.
Russell had made public his ambitions to become a head coach. However, on being asked to take interim charge at Norwich, it was made clear to Russell he was merely keeping the seat warm.
Norwich are 11th in the Championship, three points outside the play-off places having played a game more than sixth-placed Millwall. They have won just three times in 15 games. It has been a dismal run but Wagner’s target will be to achieve a top-six finish.
So how will he do it?
Wagner’s teams are renowned for playing with energy and a high press; more so than Farke, who preferred a greater emphasis on controlled, patient possession.
Double training session days and greater fitness work is likely so his players will be able to physically match their new head coach’s expectations.
Wagner took the opportunity in his first pre-season at Huddersfield to get his squad bonded with four days on a remote Swedish island. Phones were taken away, players slept on mats and food had to be hunted and cooked on fires.
Even Wagner admitted subsequently that it was perhaps a little too much, but it was still remembered fondly by many players, who pinpointed it as the launchpad for their 2016-17 promotion-winning campaign.
There will be no such immediate opportunities for bonding at Norwich. Instead, success will have to be built on the squad’s willingness to adapt. Players will need football intelligence and positional awareness to carry out a complex pressing scheme and ensure Wagner’s ideas stand a chance.
Wagner’s success at Huddersfield came through attacking in front of a high defensive line using width, especially through attacking full-backs, and having inverted forwards providing clever runs, supplying through balls and supporting their striker. The play was quick, often direct, and usually effective.
It could be chaotic, too. Huddersfield’s promotion came despite a negative goal difference and come their Premier League campaign, the boundless energy of their start was arrested by a 4-0 defeat at home to Tottenham. From that point on, Wagner looked to produce a more cautious, defensive side.
It worked for the remainder of that campaign but came unstuck the following season. By January 2019, Wagner had left by mutual consent.
Still, Wagner had proved his ability to unify a community and lead it. Huddersfield provided the family club and environment he wanted and his humble approach often came out in interviews.
His charisma helped, too, although it often came with a desire to avoid public focus. Wagner once ensured he expressed his clear dislike for a Huddersfield season ticket campaign that was focused on the “Wagner revolution” because he wanted a more collective message. The campaign went ahead as planned.
He took exception to one of his daughters posting a video in public of a Christmas message that was supposed to be for the eyes and ears of their nearest and dearest only. Fortunately, the evidence remains on YouTube to this day.
The package of Wagner’s achievements at Huddersfield will be more than enough to earn initial goodwill from the majority of Norwich supporters. The bigger question is whether that package is the one arriving at Carrow Road.
Wagner’s two jobs since have been widely regarded as failures but neither were straightforward tasks.
His time at Schalke started so well that they looked capable of returning to European qualification during the 2019-20 season. Wagner was liked around the club for his energy and personality but the team’s form nosedived at the turn of the year. A 16-game winless run stretched to the end of the campaign, straddling Germany’s football suspension because of COVID-19 and including its return behind closed doors.
Once Schalke started suffering the same results at the start of the following season, Wagner’s position became untenable. The decision to retain him as head coach beyond that first season was later branded a disaster by long-serving supervisory board member Uwe Kemmer. Wagner was sacked in September 2020.
The club went almost an entire calendar year — from January 17, 2020, to January 9, 2021 — without winning a league game. Having finished 11th under Wagner, Schalke were relegated to the second tier the following summer.
While some of Wagner’s coaching was questioned, Schalke’s issues ran far deeper. Over-extending their finances and mismanaging budgets, internal politics within the club’s ownership and budget cuts in the wake of the pandemic all meant Schalke’s fate may have been sealed regardless of who was head coach.
Wagner and West Bromwich Albion had lengthy talks over a Championship return in the summer of 2021, after chairman Lai Guochuan had vetoed the work of technical director Luke Dowling in teeing up Wilder as their new head coach.
Wagner instead joined runaway Swiss champions Young Boys, who were looking forward to a Champions League campaign but had lost their influential head coach Gerardo Seoane to Bayer Leverkusen.
Wagner led Young Boys to a Champions League home victory over Manchester United early in his reign but they ultimately finished bottom of a group that contained semi-finalists Villarreal and Europa League quarter-finalists Atalanta.
It was Young Boys’ domestic form that cost Wagner his job and he was sacked in March after slipping 15 points behind eventual champions FC Zurich. They finished third but are now 10 points clear at the top of the Swiss league under former Chicago Fire manager Raphael Wicky.
All of which has led Wagner to Norwich.
His eight caps as a striker for the USMNT through his American stepfather will earn him extra warmth from Norwich’s newest director, Milwaukee Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio.
He leads a fanbase that, despite deeper underlying problems, will still fill Carrow Road for each home game and is desperate for a cause to get behind.
And then there is Webber. There was a time earlier in his Norwich spell when he would openly state that, having seen both work at close quarters and their respective strengths and weaknesses, Farke was the better coach. It seems unlikely he could give the same answer now.
There is no hiding that Wagner’s arrival at Norwich is a Webber appointment. Wagner inherits the squad Webber has built, one which sees eight players’ contracts expire in the summer and at least another six in 2024. There is the likelihood of a significant transition over the coming months. It may have begun.
A squad and club are in need of direction, leadership and charisma. David Wagner, it’s over to you.
(Top photo: Christian Kaspar-Bartke/Getty Images)
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