Following an interview with Zak Whitbread after the Stoke game Norwich fans are really starting to wonder about next season, especially with regard to players who are out of contract and are yet to be offered new deals by the club. It’s looking more and more likely (but lets not tempt fate too much) that Norwich will stay in the Premier League next season, is this the real life? Or is this just fantasy? I think we’ll stay up, but that does perhaps alter the plans when giving out new deals.
It’s easy in football to get sentimental. Fans get attached to players they like, it’s understandable but time and again we’re reminded that there is no place for sentimentality in football management, it’s a ruthless business. Paul Lambert has an incredible record and improving the squad, knowing who to keep, who to replace and how to build a better team for the following season.
Since Lambert has taken charge of Norwich they’ve improved at the start of every season but furthermore have improved during the season with the second half of the season’s results always bettering the first half’s, this trend looks set to continue in the Premier League for which Mr. Paul should receive yet more well deserved, hard earned credit.
It doesn’t surprise me that there are Norwich players heading towards the end of their deals, the club has gone through a massive transition very quickly, from League One to the Premier League and this makes long term planning difficult, no point giving a deal to your star player in League One if he turns out to be hopeless in the Championship, thankfully for the most part Norwich’s players have risen to the challenge.
But what about Gary Doherty? What about Michael Nelson? These were good servants to the club and good professionals, but that didn’t stop Lambert letting them go. The question you really have to ask is: can we replace them with someone better? Or perhaps at boardroom level: do they represent good value for money? With the popularity of the recent film Moneyball the economics of professional sport are definitely being given a closer look.
Zak Whitbread has proven himself to be a valuable member of the team this season, he’s produced good displays that have silenced his critics. Well perhaps not silenced but certainly quietened down a bit. One of those critics would be me. His lack of pace worried me, his tendency to get caught on in possession and his inability to handle tricky players were all a worry. As he’s played more games he’s improved, which is too his credit. Mistakes like against Fulham or Newcastle seem less likely to happen now but should these performances “earn” him a new deal? No. You have to ask yourself, can we replace him with someone better and I think the answer is probably yes.
It’s not a simple decision, the new player has to settle into the area, settle and blend into the squad, get used to the set up and the systems we play, get to grips with our style, get to know his team-mates, all of which takes time and isn’t easy. That’s why top managers are worth so much to a team, the difficult choices of who gets a new deal, who is out there that might be better, identifying them, scouting them and then getting them for a price that represents value to the club is a complicated process. In contrast a player like Simeon Jackson who has a one year option would be far harder to replace, for the simple reason that forwards cost more money.
So when you’ve got a limited budget, which Norwich certainly have, when financial fair play regulations are starting to take effect and you need to plan for the future of the club, it’s a lot easier to replace a player like Zak Whitbread or Elliott Ward than it is to replace Simeon Jackson or David Fox. Especially when Norwich already have two ready made replacements in Daniel Ayala and Ryan Bennett. All of which means that even though he’s under contract until 2014 the Norwich City future of Leon Barnett looks pretty bleak.
From both a financial and footballing standpoint David Fox is a player Norwich City surely must hang on to. I think replacing him with a player of similar quality would be difficult and expensive. There really isn’t another player in the Norwich squad like Fox and I’ve certainly been convinced this season by his performances that he’s massively underrated and undervalued, this is compounded by fans and their use of statistics too show how crucial Fox is to the side, there is a lot of David Fox love out there and with good reason.
Now don’t for a minute think I’m advocating the release of Zak Whitbread, or Elliot Ward and don’t suggest that I’m failing to understand their contribution. What I’m saying is that of all the Norwich players out of contract, I think they are the easiest to replace and who we have to best cover for already in the squad.
As a motivational tool, I’d imagine playing for a new deal could be quite effective. It certainly wouldn’t surprise me if Paul Lambert was using the incentive of a bumper new Premier League pay package to get the best out of a few players. However this summer I think Norwich and Lambert will face yet another test of their resolve that we got a sniff of in January and that’s holding onto the players that we want to keep.
So far under Lambert’s tenure I don’t think he’s had to lose a player that he did not wish to see the back of. The offers came for Grant Holt in January and they were resoundingly rebuffed. But come the summer, the offers might start coming in for the likes of Anthony Pilkington, Elliott Bennett, John Ruddy and Andrew Surman. All young players who have shown they are more than at home at Premier League level and have been a big part of Norwich’s success this season.
It’s another test for Paul Lambert and one that I expect him to handle with the same class and intelligence that he’s shown throughout his time at Norwich, unless of course, the unthinkable happens and someone makes an offer for Lambert himself, which he and the club, simply cannot resist.