Norwich City have made producing their own young players a key part of their strategy: their Academy director Steve Weaver tells the Totally Football Show why…
Pop quiz, hotshot: which two Premier League clubs had the most representatives in England’s Under-21s squad for their European Championship qualifiers in September?
Arsenal were one, with Reiss Nelson, Joe Willock and Eddie Nketiah, which you might expect. But the other was Norwich City, represented by Max Aarons, Ben Godfrey and Todd Cantwell.
Injuries kept Aarons and Cantwell out of two subsequent squads, otherwise the Canaries contingent would have rivalled the top six clubs that routinely produce youngsters on an industrial scale, regardless of whether many of them make it to the first-team.
The trio have started nine of Norwich’s 13 Premier League games thus far together, and you can throw in Jamal Lewis too, the left-back who has only missed one fixture: ten times this term, three-quarters of Daniel Farke’s back four have been no older than 21 and one way or another came through their academy.
The concept of filling the first-team with homegrown players is always a romantic one, but equally something that is often a theory that isn’t actually put into practice. Manchester United and Chelsea are doing it this season, admittedly something at least partly motivated by necessity rather than philosophy. At Norwich, it’s all part of the wider plan.
“I tried to change the mentality,” Norwich’s Academy manager Steve Weaver tells the Totally Football Show, “to make us think that every time a player comes in from outside, it’s a slur on us. That we’re not good enough, and we’ve got to change.
“The mindset here was that we would take a lad on loan from a big club. And I thought ‘Well, at the moment that we take a lad from an Arsenal or Spurs or Man United, is that the day we admit we’re not good enough?’”
Is that the day we admit we're not good enough?
Obviously this isn’t a hard and fast policy: Norwich currently have Patrick Roberts on loan from Manchester City, although perhaps it’s telling he’s played a grand total of 24 Premier League minutes this season. But rather that the preference is not to rely on scraps from the big tables. “I think we’ve we’ve just taken that up a little bit and maybe put a bit more expectation on ourselves to produce good kids.”
Weaver arrived at Norwich in 2017, a few months after manager Daniel Farke and sporting director Stuart Webber, so has been part of the club’s transformation over the last couple of years. And a huge part of that has been their focus on youth: every player they take on, right from under-9s level, is viewed as a potential first-teamer, as part of the “succession plan” as Weaver puts it.
Most clubs will have lists of potential replacements for every position if the first-choice is either injured or leaves, but perhaps more than most Norwich place heavy emphasis on whether that replacement is already at the club.
And since the three men arrived, their policy has been to get any talented youngsters out of the youth ranks and into senior football as soon as possible. “We send lads [on loan] to first teams to be in dressing rooms where the manager comes in at half-time when you’re losing and goes mad, when the fans are going mad – you don’t know you’re going to be a footballer until you’ve lived through those moments. And unfortunately, if any academy tells you they can do that through under-23 football, they are mistaken.”
Deciding exactly when to do that can be a delicate decision. Lewis and Aarons all went straight into the Norwich first-team, while Godfrey played on loan at Shrewsbury and Cantwell spent half a season on loan at Fortuna Sittard in the Netherlands.
Playing for our youth teams is quite difficult.
“Todd was very apprehensive about it, a little bit concerned about going abroad,” says Weaver, “but it was the making of him. And he’s a different kid now. He’s always been technically very good, always had ability. But I think he gets it now, that it’s all about end products, influencing the game in the right areas. In his youth days would influence in the wrong areas. He would drop in and get the ball off the back four. You’d say “Todd, not being funny mate. You’re not going to play holding midfielder for our first team mate. So do us a favour.”
All of that is part of the toughening up process, which includes things like not insisting any club who takes a player on loan has to pick them. “It’s not going to build their resilience, is it?” says Weaver, who instead wants them to earn their place, rather than feel like they’re playing by default or contractual obligation.
They also try to toughen their players up in what sounds like a sort of footballing bootcamp, putting them in uncomfortable on-pitch situations and seeing how they deal with them.
“Playing for our youth teams is quite difficult,” says Weaver. “[In training games] we try to isolate our players, so they’re exposed a bit, even at a younger age groups. We’ll play one at the back, or outnumber them in midfield. We’ll expose them a little bit to having to defend one vs one.”
It isn’t an explicit policy to produce players in order to sell them, but that’s an inevitable part of being a smaller club in modern football. “Ideally, you want players those [bigger] clubs want to buy,” says Weaver, which has proved correct in the cases of James Maddison and the Murphy twins, Josh and Jacob.
It feels like Norwich view having young players in the first team is a sign of a club that is working together, all parts working in unison, to be working in, to use a much-mocked but entirely sensible word, a ‘holistic’ manner. Which makes their success sustainable, rather than just as the result of a Hail Mary spending spree or big name loan deals, that even if they do go down this season they will be in good shape to return.
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