To Norwich City fans, the town of Odessa in West Texas may sound vaguely familiar: it’s entirely isolated for dozens of miles in any direction, surrounded only by perfectly flat fields, and is considered a sleepy backwater by much of the rest of the country.
And yet, much like Norwich, more than 20,000 people will appear every other week, as if from nowhere, to converge on the local football stadium.
However, fans of Odessa’s Permian Panthers* don’t turn out for a professional sports team, or even a college team, but rather their high school American football team. Week after week, the residents of Odessa stake their pride and livelihoods on a group of athletes no older than 18 years old – a phenomenon that takes place across the state of Texas but that which must be totally alien to most English football supporters.
Except Norwich’s, of course.
When City won the FA Youth Cup four and a half years ago, 21,595 supporters turned up at Carrow Road to watch the young Canaries – the second-best Youth Cup attendance this decade – with more than 3,000 following the team to Stamford Bridge. For reference, Chelsea attracted just 5,000 fans for this year’s final with Manchester City.
On Tuesday night, Norwich Under-18s kicked off this year’s Youth Cup campaign in front of approximately 250 hardy souls who braved the freezing conditions to see their team run out 4-1 winners, thanks to a hat-trick from Republic of Ireland international Adam Idah.
This is of course great for the club, whose academy is in good shape. Although both currently third-bottom, City’s U18s and U23s are still slogging it with the best teams in England in their respective leagues, the academy remains at Category 1 status, supporters are genuinely interested in the fate of the youth team, and they are now in the Fourth Round of the Youth Cup too.
But besides all this, one player (two if you include Angus Gunn, but I don’t) from Norwich’s academy – Josh Murphy – has played for Norwich in the league all season.
Perhaps it was an unreasonable expectation (and I’m not blaming the individual players at all), but I think the 21,000 fans who watched in awe as a group of 18-year-olds won Norwich their first piece of national silverware in 28 years were probably expecting a little more.
Of the starting 11, Cameron McGeehan, Harry Toffolo, Carlton Morris and the Murphy twins are still playing professional football. Of the six others, Cameron King plays for Shamrock Rovers, Harry Randall for Bishop’s Stortford, Kyle McFadden for Sligo Rovers, Ben Wyatt for Braintree, Cameron Norman for Needham Market, and goalkeeper Will Britt for Salisbury.
The club have spent millions on academy resources, the board are desperate to bring young players through (as shown by the ultimately futile appointment of Neil Adams as manager) and, worst of all, each and every season ticket holder is asked to donate £19 to help improve our youth team. So where’s the return?
Well, as it turns out, Norwich now have a whole host of players aged 21 or younger ready to take the reins. With the Premier League money about to run out, here are four reasons to remain excited about the future:
- Jamal Lewis, firstly, has just returned from a knee injury after an extremely promising pre-season, with Daniel Farke already ruling out the possibility of sending him out on loan. We could really use a decent left-back right now too, so Lewis’s astronomic rise is not only promising but really quite fortunate.
- It’s hard to believe James Maddison, while not an academy product, is only 21 – especially considering how many tricky scenarios he has heaved his side out of already this season. It will be interesting to note the level of interest for him in January but his link-up play with Alex Pritchard last Saturday seemed to get a lot of people (myself included) excited. If we can keep the two of them together for at least the next year and a half, then maybe the bright lights of the Premier League will roll back into view again soon.
- Shrewsbury remain second in League One with Ben Godfrey (who City signed from York when he was 17) and Carlton Morris still getting regular playing time. (A side note – would you take Carlton Morris back at the club right now? He’s always had a modest scoring record wherever he’s been – four so far in the league this season – but we are desperately short of options up front at the moment. Feel free to comment.) Godfrey, meanwhile, has been playing at defensive midfield rather than at right-back for the Shrews, a position at which we are woefully lacking – I’ve omitted Louis Thompson from this article because he’s been injured for so long but that is a seriously promising partnership (as long as Godfrey isn’t sold to Swansea, Southampton or West Brom, who are all reportedly interested).
- 19-year-old central midfielder Todd Cantwell, meanwhile, was shortlisted for the Premier League 2 Player of the Season Award last year, and was even part of the senior squad for City’s games with Nottingham Forest and Preston last month (Adam Phillips, also 19, a summer signing from Liverpool, was also on the bench against North End.) And finally, although slightly further back from the first team, Scotland U19s winger Glenn Middleton has played every single game in Premier League 2 with the U23s this season, despite being just 17 years old.
It’s an academy worth celebrating then. And a collection of young players tantalisingly close to understanding what so few kids outside of Odessa, Texas can – how it feels to step out on to a football pitch every other week with more than 20,000 people cheering you on.
*I haven’t plucked this team out of thin air – they are the focus of H.G. Bissinger’s book Friday Night Lights, which is a must-read if you have the faintest interest in American football.