Interview with David Wagner: A phone call from Delia Smith changed Norwich’s season

David Wagner is feeling in high spirits ahead of the play-off matches against Leeds United – Jason Bye for The Telegraph

Seven years after leading Huddersfield Town to the Premier League, David Wagner is dreaming of a new Wembley fairytale.

Sitting in his office at Norwich’s training ground on a glorious spring afternoon, he takes a quiet moment to reflect on the season ahead of Sunday’s Championship play-off semi-final first leg with Leeds and a return to Carrow Road for Daniel Farke.

Even by the chaotic standards of the championship, Wagner’s first full season was a rollercoaster of emotions. One, he hopes, with a happy ending.

Football loves a revival story and on November 5, after a 3-1 home defeat to Blackburn, Norwich found themselves 17th in the table as fans demanded the sacking of their manager.

Still, Wagner recovered and made an impressive recovery. He picked up 56 points from 31 games (15 of which were unbeaten at home, including the win over rivals Ipswich) to take Norwich within three games of the promised land.

“If you think about how the season started, and my start 18 months ago, it’s a very exciting story,” he told Telegraph Sport. “We want to create something extraordinary and very special. The Premier League is the place you want to be.

“Being promoted at Huddersfield was something remarkable and I feel blessed to have a second chance to experience it again.

“We have a 25 percent chance of promotion and the first step is to make that a 50 percent chance. I’m not a dreamer, I work to make things happen.”

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Wagner turned things around at Carrow Road after a poor start to the season – Jason Bye for The Telegraph

Self-confidence boost from the most famous fan

Wagner points to a surprise phone call from co-majority owner Delia Smith as a huge turning point in the season.

It came after the defeat at Blackburn, which marked the club’s worst start to a Championship season since relegation to League One in 2008. Sporting director Stuart Webber, who appointed Wagner, was also on his way out and the situation looked bleak.

“Delia doesn’t call me often, it was actually the first time,” says Wagner. “It was one of the moments that gave me a super boost.

“Delia told me she completely believed in me and had to keep going. She did it at just the right time when I might have needed a boost and support from the owner who makes the decisions.

“This was something that really helped me and I’m happy for her that it’s paying off for her too.”

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Norwich City’s majority shareholder and most famous fan Delia Smith called Wagner to let him know she was supporting him – PA/Nick Potts

Three team meetings followed in the Norwich analysis theater over the next four weeks, which Wagner emphasizes were crucial. Calls for unity and individual responsibility were the main thrust of the conversations, and the results were clearly visible.

Since November 5, only Leicester, Ipswich, Southampton and Leeds have taken more points in the division.

‘Hopefully promotion is the icing on the cake’

There remains some skepticism about the 52-year-old among the fanbase and local media, but Wagner believes tangible progress has been made.

“Despite the bad results, I was still looking for solutions, instead of losing my head. “I still tried to guide the club through a crisis with calmness,” he said. “We were missing key players due to injury, so we knew what our problems were.

“It was a very difficult period for the entire football club. Looking back, I think we can say that it was a club that was anything but united.

“It was everyone against the board, the sporting director, me, the owner. It is a huge achievement to recover from this, and hopefully promotion is the icing on the cake.”

Wagner has seen marked improvements from last season, when Norwich finished a disappointing 13th. He says his side is in the top three for fitness in the league. Led by coach Andy Hughes, they scored 18 goals from set pieces.

Wagner also notes the impact of goalkeeping coach Paul Clements and first-team coach Narcis Pelach, who have worked alongside his trusted No. 2 Christoph Buhler since their arrival this season.

“My coaching staff is the best I’ve ever worked with, and that makes you a better manager,” he says.

“This is the best and most competitive championship I have ever seen. Much better than when I was in Huddersfield seven years ago.

“The number of top quality individuals – players and managers – is just incredible.”

Norwich have a number of players who have caught the eye this season. Gabriel Sara, the Brazilian midfielder, was excellent with 13 goals and 12 assists. With a £6 million contract from Sao Paulo, Sara is seen as potentially a better candidate than former players James Maddison and Emiliano Buendia.

US international Josh Sargent scored 16 goals, while ultra-consistent midfielder Kenny McLean was named Player of the Year.

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Gabriel Sara has stood out with thirteen goals and twelve assists this season and will play a key role in the play-offs as Norwich return to the top flight – PA/Rhianna Chadwick

‘We are super ambitious’

When we visit Norwich’s training ground, the mood is high. Donuts are available in the canteen as part of Jonathan Rowe’s recent 21st birthday celebrations, and the players all eat together after training.

Weekly routes are plastered all over the walls. The morning we attended there was an end-of-season psychology meeting, followed by a session for the squad’s wide players.

Sam McCallum, the full-back, is in the practice pool as Hughes watches a set-piece drill with him on screens.

It all now comes down to two games with Leeds – relegated from the Premier League last season and managed by Farke, who spent four years at Norwich.

Wagner insists the pressure is solely on their opponents. “Either Leeds or Southampton will fail to get promoted and that is something that I think will cause them a lot of problems,” he says. “Leeds is a big club with big players, big money and big pressure.

“When you consider the financial strength of the other clubs in the play-offs and the points they have collected, I think it is fair to say they are the favourites.

“We are the underdogs and we have no problem with that. We are not afraid of anyone. We must be humble, self-centered and try hard.

“We are super ambitious and would like to make something special happen.”

And with that, Wagner picks up his electric bike and helmet before cycling back to his apartment in Norwich. These are the moments he lives for, and a repeat of 2017 is tantalizingly in his grasp.

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