This is a memo for all Championship football clubs: if you dream of the Premier League but are unsure how to get there without an influx of parachute payments, just look to hire Borussia Dortmund II’s coach.
It worked for Huddersfield, a surprise package in 2017 when they reached the promised land via the play-offs under David Wagner. Lightning struck twice when Norwich City poached Daniel Farke, Wagner’s replacement. The Canaries were drifting and struggling, not spending much after their last relegation from the top flight in 2016; they surged to the Championship title last May.
Wagner was undoubtedly hired off the back of his best friend Jurgen Klopp’s early success at Liverpool, but without him doing so well in West Yorkshire, it is difficult to imagine Farke coming to England, too. Both are unique but there are obvious parallels: they each stuck to their tactical principles from the start, even when a high intensity pressing game, perfected by Klopp at Dortmund and taken on throughout their system, was predicted to fail in the Championship.
When they got to the Premier League, neither succumbed to external pressure, sticking to their beliefs despite not having the money to buy players capable of competing in the top flight while playing such an open, risky system. Huddersfield completed a miracle by surviving in 2018, but Wagner departed before relegation last year. Farke, suffering from similar difficulties at Carrow Road, seems powerless to stop Norwich going straight back down but has received the same levels of praise for his personality, attitude and footballing philosophy.
Norwich may just be four points adrift of safety, but they have been rooted to the bottom all season. Despite the plaudits for the way they play, the form of striker Teemu Pukki and emergence of Max Aarons and Todd Cantwell in particular, moments of joy have been few and far between. Beating Leicester City suggests they cannot yet be written off, but their victory at home to Manchester City in September will surely go down as the season highlight.
The trio of players who have stood out sum up best the work Farke has done since arriving. Aarons and Cantwell have been nurtured excellently, while Pukki, who has often struggled to leave a mark at previous clubs, has come of age under his tutelage; 29 Championship goals last season have been built on by 11 in the Premier League. There is a real chance that all three will be poached in the summer if and when relegation is confirmed.
The bigger problem for Norwich will be interest in Farke himself, though.
To call Norwich one of the best sides to ever be bottom of the league is rather patronising. It is a compliment shrouded in negativity and a tag they would rather go without. The fact of the matter is they are where they are because of their limitations. Farke has long since said this season would be tough and, ultimately, likely to end in them returning whence they came. In this day and age, spending around £2m on new players as they have, while even Sheffield United, the team everyone backed to be in Norwich’s position, have broken their transfer record twice, is never likely to be enough.
But the future is bright if they can keep everyone together. The parachute payments they’ll receive should make them a force to be reckoned with in the Championship. It would be worth it from a business sense to cash in on their best young talent, but if they can keep Farke then they simply have to. There will be a number of Premier League clubs changing managers in the summer as usual, and the German will be high up on every list.
Sean Dyche and Burnley are an example to all in Norwich’s predicament; as they were beating Middlesbrough in the play-off final in 2015, the Clarets were heading the other way after struggling to compete in the top flight. They stuck together, rebuilt and came up as champions a year later, and have been to Europe and back while cementing themselves as a Premier League mainstay.
If that can happen, Farke may see reason to stick around. His vision has always been long-term and shared by the powers that be, which is why there hasn’t been one note of panic or suggestion that a change could be in the offing this season.
Of course, all is not lost for Norwich just yet; they still have the small matter of an FA Cup quarter-final against Manchester United to come, and relegation is far from certain. But the reality will soon dawn and both players and manager will have decisions to make. He has been a breath of fresh air for English football generally, and absolutely deserves the opportunity to take the next step and prove he can thrive at the top level. That could be in the Premier League, or abroad if the right opportunity shows itself.
Wagner is back in Germany, currently with Dortmund’s rivals Schalke. Norwich haven’t done enough in the short-term to progress, but a few years could help them. Farke can lead that project, but he should have plenty of options ahead of his next move come the end of the season.
Harry De Cosemo is on Twitter
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