Stuart Webber: If we lose I’m upset, but my life isn’t to appease Norwich fans | Sport
Stuart Webber was given some advice by Kenny Dalglish during his time as head of recruitment at Liverpool a decade ago. “Just remember, son, life’s not a rehearsal,” Liverpool’s then manager told Webber. “You’re here once.” Dalglish’s words struck a chord with Webber, now Norwich City’s sporting director and a slightly restless soul who grew up roaming the mountains alone near his Welsh hamlet, always wondering what lay over the horizon.
That determination to seize the moment defines Webber’s career after learning under another Liverpool legend, Joey Jones, as teenage member of the ground staff and eventually head of youth at Wrexham. “Joey taught me about life, he gave me wisdom and would call me out if he felt I was being a bit of an idiot,” Webber says. “I’ll say a Joey Jones comment every day to somebody. ‘It’s nice to be important but it’s more important to be nice.’ ‘Don’t cut corners because you wouldn’t like it if they cut your wages.’ He was the toughest bloke I ever met, he was scary. It’s respect, I didn’t want to let him down.”
Webber then absorbed Dalglish’s sound counsel and helped to bring Raheem Sterling to Liverpool. In 2012, Webber moved on to become head of scouting at Queens Park Rangers and then Wolverhampton Wanderers, director of football at Huddersfield Town and now for five years overseeing Norwich’s football operation. “What Kenny Dalglish said has always stuck in my mind,” he says.
Webber is now preparing to climb Mount Everest in his bid to make every moment count
Make every moment count. So now Webber is preparing to climb Mount Everest. “I don’t say this in a macho way but it doesn’t scare me,” he says. “I’m very philosophical. I could die but I go out running three days a week along roads, I only have to slip, a lorry takes me out and it’s game over. I was in London the other day and a mad man could shoot me. If the worst happens [on Everest], at least I’d have been trying to achieve something amazing.”
Webber and his wife, Zoe Ward, Norwich’s executive director, have a six-year-old, Sebastian. “I want to show him that you can achieve anything in life but you have to go after it, make some sacrifices, be brave,” Webber, 37, says. “If it’s just a case of staying alive, never taking any risks, I’m not sure how inspirational that is for him.
“My dad left home when I was five. We had intermittent contact for the next ten years. When I got to 16, 17 I made what was a tough decision that I’m not sure I wanted him in my life. I use it to drive me with how I am with my boy. I’ve never had that father figure in my life and that makes me a better father because when you have your own child, I realise how important the father figure is.
“I didn’t have a great deal of praise growing up. My mum, bless her, had to work two jobs. We lived in the middle of nowhere, a little village called Cwmsymlog, just outside Aberystwyth, so I had a lot of time on my own. That’s where the walking passion comes from. Being up mountains by my own does not scare me one bit.
Dalglish told Webber that life is not a rehearsal when they worked together
ALEX LIVESEY/GETTY IMAGES
“I don’t want to be known as just being a guy who has worked in football for a few years. I get introduced, even at a wedding, ‘This is Stuart, he works for Norwich City’ or ‘He used to work for Liverpool.’ It’s like my identity is just around my job and I really dislike that. I don’t want to finish at 60, and the best years of my life have gone, just working. I want to do something else. I can’t sit still in the house. I can’t be comfortable being comfortable. It’s always been what’s next?”
So he is preparing hard for Everest (8,849 metres). Webber climbed Mount Kilimanjaro (5,895m) in January, Snowdon (1,085m) in February, and in June heads to Ecuador to tackle Cotopaxi (5,897m) and Chimborazo (6,268m), then it’s on to Mont Blanc (4,809m) in September, and Island Peak (6,160m) in the Himalayas in November. Then Everest.
“I ask the experts, I picked the brains for two hours of Kenton Cool, who is presently on Everest going for his 16th summit,” Webber says. “When the day comes to climb Everest I want to be overprepared. I don’t want to put myself at risk. I don’t want to put others at risk. I don’t want on my conscience that someone has died trying to save me because I didn’t do enough work.”
Webber and Ward have launched the Summit Foundation to help young people to “reach new heights”, drawing on the publicity around his Everest mission. “Zoe said, ‘If you’re going to put your life at risk, you should do it for a cause’,” Webber says. “We have to help. Don’t turn away from social issues on your doorstep. Football is so powerful at changing society. Look at Marcus Rashford [tackling child food poverty].
Webber says that Norwich are lucky to have owners like Smith and Wynn-Jones
GEOFF CADDICK/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES
“I had a conversation with Dennis Wise two weeks ago because he brought a team down here to play and I was telling him about the charity, and he is involved with loads of charities. Dennis said one of his charities provides minibuses for underprivileged schools and there’s one particular school which had a lot of disability children.
“They gave them this bus and they wouldn’t go in it, so Dennis asks the kids, ‘Why don’t you go in it?’ They’ve gone, ‘Because everyone sees it as the special bus.’ Dennis says, ‘What will make you go in it?’ They said, ‘We want a picture of footballer on it because then we become the cool kids.’ That’s the power of football.”
Harnessing this power, Webber and Ward held a fundraising dinner at Delia’s restaurant at Carrow Road on Thursday attended by everyone from Norwich’s manager, Dean Smith, to club legends such as Chris Sutton and the club’s owners, Delia Smith and Michael Wynn-Jones.
Some Norwich fans have reacted critically to the Everest mission, arguing that their sporting director should be focused exclusively on recruits and results. “My life isn’t to appease Norwich fans,” Webber says. “If Norwich lose on the Saturday does it ruin my next couple of days? Yes, absolutely. That pain will never leave when you lose a game but is it the only thing in my life? No.”
Webber’s three-year deal expires this summer but in November he agreed a one-year rolling contract that takes effect from the end of this season. “I’d been very clear when I signed that [earlier] contract that I’d leave in June 2022 because I wanted to have some time away,” he says. “Delia and Michael didn’t want me to leave. So I said, ‘Listen there’s only one thing which matters to me in this negotiation, it’s not about money, titles or kudos. The only thing I want is the chance to go and achieve a dream and my dream is climbing Mount Everest. Before that I’m going to need some pockets of time off’.
Webber has made a name for himself with his astute siginings, such as the free-scoring Pukki
“If someone wants to criticise me for doing two hours in the gym at 5.30am I’ll take that all day. If someone wants to criticise me for going on a run at 10pm, bring it on. I’d never do a climb at a time when it’s business critical. Some people said, ‘You did Kilimanjaro in January.’ Yes, I did, because we had zero funds to sign a player. What am I going to do? Sit in my office for 30 days? When I do Ecuador, it’s in June. When I do Mont Blanc it’s the September international break. When I do the Himalayas it’s during the World Cup.
“I also find it disrespectful to the wider staff of the club and we have an executive of six people who run this business. If I was off for ten days with Covid during January, everyone would say, ‘#hopeyougetwell’. I sleep easy at night because ultimately as I said to Delia and Michael, ‘If 90 per cent of me isn’t enough, it’s fine because I’m already ready to walk out the door. I’m ready for the next stage of my life.’ But they wanted me to stay and I’m incredibly grateful to them for that.
“I don’t think Delia and Michael ever get the respect they deserve. They’ve done a quarter of a century at one football club, given everything to it, had success as well, and people are quick to wash that away and go, ‘We just want some more money’. To do what with that money? What is success?
“With what’s happening with Chelsea recently everyone goes on the moral high ground, saying ‘it’s a disgrace’ but it wasn’t the shock of the century that that money potentially came from other ways which maybe are not everyone’s cup of tea.
“We played Chelsea at home [on March 10] and there was a poignant picture. We were 2-1 down, four minutes to go, and we make a substitution, Jonny Rowe, who is 18 and from our academy. Stood next to him ready to come on are Romelu Lukaku and N’Golo Kanté, a £97.5 million striker and probably the best defensive midfield player in the world. That’s a moment where you think, ‘This is tough’.
“That’s where we’re trying to get to. To get there without massive finance is incredibly difficult but you still strive to do it. Is it a straight fight, us versus Chelsea? Of course it isn’t but we can still get ‘wins’ in that game. An 18-year-old coming on is a ‘win’ for us.”
Balancing the books is a win. Having good owners is a win. “Be careful what you wish for,” Webber says. “For every success of a Manchester City, we can unfortunately name as many who have chased the dream and it’s turned into a living nightmare for them. Look at Derby County. They’re going to be League One next year but that’s not right.
Gilmour has found it tough going at Norwich during his season on loan from Chelsea
“Ipswich Town are in League One. At least with ours there’s a real steady [stewardship]. Delia and Michael genuinely love and care for the club. It’s like their child. Ask any staff who works here or fan who has engaged with them and they’ll say, ‘We are lucky to have them’. They can’t live for ever. I’m sure people might look back at this time and think it wasn’t too bad actually.
“What I’m obsessed about is: are we constantly making the club better, are we in a good financial state, growing the academy, the training ground, the community project? This club will be here for the next 100 years if we make sure it stays in a healthy shape. That’s why I don’t get angry or upset if we get relegated because I look at it and go, ‘Norwich City and football will go on for ever, long after I’ve disappeared’.”
Webber worries about the game. “I don’t envy the modern-day player,” he says. “They get built up so quickly and they get dismissed twice as quick. So many of them just get caught up with the ego. When their standards drop, they haven’t got the coping mechanisms, and that’s when they look for something else, substance abuse, just a way out, escapism.
“We see this of so many of our young footballers: they can’t have enough likes on their social media, there’s not enough good news articles about them, and it’s very hard for them. They have the safety net of money, and everyone in society think money makes you happy, but you can still be lonely with money.”
Norwich try to juggle their resources with loans. Their midfield has never recovered from Oliver Skipp’s return to Tottenham Hotspur, while Billy Gilmour has failed to settle fully during his loan from Chelsea. “Oliver Skipp is a huge miss,” Webber says. “I’d be gobsmacked if he’s not getting an England appearance in the next couple of years.
“Billy’s had a tough ride. Everyone forgets how young he is, just turned 20 this season, his first full season being properly established in the first team, a lot of hype surrounds him because of Scotland [and that display against England at Euro 2020].
“Has it been as great for him or us as we’d have wanted? No. But every day he trains right, the lads love him. He is a top pro and we’ve been fortunate to have him. On the inside here, you’re a bit like, ‘I’m not sure why the fans are really going after him’. Billy will learn from this year. It’s been a good experience for him whatever happens to the team now. It is very different playing for Chelsea where they’ve got the ball for 75 per cent of the game, got world-class players everywhere he looks. He doesn’t have that with us.”
The Scotland midfielder may, of course, stand in the way of Webber’s beloved Wales on the road to the World Cup. He missed Wales’s run to the semi-finals of Euro 2016 because Sebastian was born. He will miss Wales at the World Cup, if they defeat Gilmour’s men or Ukraine in the play-off, because he will be in Nepal.
He will follow events from afar. “There’s a better phone signal in the Himalayas than sometimes in my office,” Webber says, laughing.
Will he be restless after Everest? “100 per cent. If I’m lucky to get there, and even luckier to get back down safely, it will be, what’s next? Even my head now is going, what’s after Everest? I’ll be 40, what am I going to do? It might be a career change.” Life’s not a rehearsal.
For more information go to: thesummitfoundation.co.uk