Last weekend, Cheyenne Dunkley ‘liked’ one of my tweets. You probably haven’t heard of him.
Neither had I until six days ago prior to my inaugural visit to Oxford’s Kassam Stadium, an innocuous ground possessing only three stands in the suburbs of the city. My first experience of it turned out to be both a pleasant yet eye-opening one.
What was the tweet? I had praised Dunkley – Oxford United’s excellent centre-back – amongst others, for his resolute performance in a convincing and significant 2-0 victory, a result that had propelled them to within two wins of promotion to League One.
Dunkley was conspicuously and relentlessly superb, winning headers, thwarting attacks and demonstrating a cool composure when in possession.
His performance made me think. The Saturday before I had been present at a frantic Carrow Road, witnessing the bumbling Sebastian Bassong fluff his lines in his audition to convince City fans he was a reasonable replacement for the injured Timm Klose.
As we all know, Bassong was shockingly poor that afternoon, losing possession to the terrific Jan Kirchoff in the build up to Sunderland’s decisive second goal whilst frequently being profligate and careless when he had the ball. (It’s only fair to note at this point that he was significantly better at the Emirates).
The gulf between the two defensive performances was profound: Dunkley was like a combination of the resolute Alastair Cook and the more finessed Ian Bell in footballing form, whilst Bassong represented a nervous, inept figure comparable to the hapless Adam Lyth in last summer’s Ashes.
He looked out of his depth.
Don’t get me wrong: I am acutely aware that defending against the lively Jermaine Defoe is considerably more challenging that suppressing the limited threat of Hartlepool’s attackers, a job Dunkley was able to conduct with palpable ease. But the Oxford defender genuinely looked a real talent, possessing the range of attributes required to cut it as a top centre-half.
Simply offloading Bassong in the summer and making a surprise move on Oxford’s Dunkley is not my suggestion. However, Dunkley’s performance was fundamentally microcosmic of the talent that exists amongst the lower leagues that undoubtedly needs to be gambled on to a far greater extent by teams such as Norwich City.
We all know the Jamie Vardy story. Hollywood beckons for the Leicester City talisman, whose humble beginnings at Halifax then Fleetwood have surely instilled a fervent sense of hope and inspiration into numerous lower league players. His talent was taken a punt on by Leicester City and the divisive Nigel Pearson – and the rest is history.
Should Norwich City miraculously remain in the Premier League come the summer, this concerning and augmenting sense of obliviousness to lower league ability needs to be relinquished by Alex Neil. The talent is there.
It wasn’t just Dunkley who impressed from Oxford, but also midfield’s Chris Maguire, the tenacious winger Alex McDonald and the goalscoring and enterprising Kemar Roofe.
City have attempted to scout lower league talent and subsequently attract it to Carrow Road. We recently signed James Maddison from Coventry City, whilst also bringing in the talented Ben Godfrey from York. But, rather than giving them a chance, we promptly sent Maddison out on loan and insisted the Godfrey wasn’t yet adequately prepared for first-team football.
Granted, Godfrey and Maddison are both young, and Neil’s actions that suggest their level of unpreparedness may be warranted but that’s not to say we can’t attract more experienced lower league players – such as Dunkley – who possess both the ability and sufficient time on the pitch to succeed at City.
Whilst Timm Klose’s arrival has been an unambiguous success and clear boost to our survival ambitions, our other attempts to bring in big names from either abroad or the top leagues have largely failed. Ricky van Wolfswinkel, Gary Hooper, Kyle Lafferty and most recently Steven Naismith… the list goes on.
Let’s give the lower leagues a chance. It’s not just League Two and the Conference – attempting to obtain top Championship and League One players surely has to be a policy that Neil and other Premier League managers pursue.
The signing of Ryan Bennett has been a success for Norwich, whilst Russell Martin has proved he is a dependable right-back in the top flight. Both came from lower league clubs.
We all know Norwich struggle for goals. Dieumerci Mbokani and Cameron Jerome have had their moments, but the overlooking of the likes Burnley’s Andre Gray, Huddersfield’s Nakhi Wells and Brentford’s Alan Judge by top tier managers such has been astounding.
Inevitably, not all lower league acquisitions will come to fruition in a quest for Premier League safety, but the talent does exist and gambles should be increasingly taken.
League One equally possesses a multitude of talent and ability. Whether we stay up or suffer relegation, players such as Will Grigg and Paddy Madden have scored goals consistently in the third flight and should surely be considered by Neil as well as other lower to mid table Premier League managers.
Terrific defenders are out there too, such as Dunkley and his excellent centre-back partner Jake Wright, as well as Gillingham’s young John Egan and Plymouth’s Curtis Nelson.
Not all talented lower league players will be successes for bigger clubs. Many will inevitably not possess the required ability to succeed in the top flight or Championship. But nonetheless, regardless of Norwich City’s division next season, the relinquishing of this palpable sense of apathy towards the lower leagues is surely a change we would all welcome both for our club and English football as a whole.
Gambles need to be taken in the modern game, and who knows: we may even find the next Jamie Vardy.
Follow Will on Twitter @WilliamThomasJ