Following an offer from the club to my son to celebrate his eighth birthday with a stadium tour of Carrow Road before the U23’s match against Southampton, Team Head made its way down to Carrow Road. I won’t spoil it for anyone intending to go in the future but if you love the club and its history, it’s well worth a visit.
What struck me most was how “Norwich” the tour was. And for once I mean that in a positive way. Being “Little Old Norwich” has been seen as a negative thing in recent years, with sentimental appointments in key positions leading to bad decisions.
Had this tour have been at Old Trafford or The Emirates I’m pretty sure it would have been slick, tightly-scripted and packed with clinical facts from someone with a background in tour-guiding. This could not have been further from the case at Carrow Road. It was warm, off-the-cuff, and packed with personal anecdotes from David and Judy, two club stalwarts with many a tale to tell, including some behind the scenes stories that probably wouldn’t make it to an “official” tour script. These were fans talking to other fans, and it felt more like a chance for them to share their stories with friends than a tightly-worded, timed march around.
We were lucky enough to get a look at the changing rooms and the birthday boy was delighted to have a picture and a chat with Russell Martin, who was as gracious and professional as you would expect. Russell knew the guides, as he seems to know everyone at the club, and a convivial atmosphere was felt as the group of 15-20 tour goers wandered around the inner sanctum of the stadium, mingling with the early arrivals such as Russ, Michael McGovern and Glenn Middleton with no indication that we were unwelcome or in the way; the players happily chatting as they started their preparations.
This is the kind of “Little Old Norwich” that we shouldn’t lose. We want to be progressive and professional but we want to keep that sense of togetherness that the bigger clubs don’t have. Despite the adoring looks on the kids’ faces as they briefly hung out with their heroes, there was never any sense of “them and us” between players and supporters. As we continued our tour, we caught sight of Stuart Webber, and he too gave us a smile and a wave whilst juggling his mobile and laptop as I imagine he spends about 23 hours of every day. And at half-time, we spotted Daniel Farke just behind us in the directors box and when he saw me pointing him out to my boy he gave us a wink and a wave that made Che’s night every bit as much as his chat with Russ.
From a footballing perspective the game was not what I was expecting. I’ve been far from a regular attendee at U23 level for a few years now but gone is the transitory feel the squad used to have. Before it was very much a hotch potch of out-of-favour first-teamers and a few youngsters to make up the numbers. Now, with a slimmer first-team squad all regularly involved in the Championship, Matt Gill has a regular squad of youngsters to work with and the only over-age players involved were Martin and McGovern.
The team lined up in the 4-2-3-1 formation mirroring that currently favoured by the first team, but it quickly struck me how differently it was being employed by the U23’s, particularly with regards to the defence. When in possession we played the patient build-up that Farke favours but essentially did so in a back three with one of the full backs pushing on to create width. This was made possible by the intelligence of holding midfielders Adam Phillips and Devonte Aransibia dropping deep in order to drop in to the back line should we concede possession.
Aransibia was not someone I’d seen before the game but he was impressive both in terms of physique, and intelligent positioning, regularly filling in gaps, or covering for defenders. Strong in the air and the tackle, he needs to be more consistent with his touch and distribution but he is capable of being a force in the middle of the park. He’s an interesting one to watch and could be an under-the-radar player to emerge.
His midfield partner, Phillips, was given the captain’s armband ahead of Martin, which speaks volumes for his maturity, and for Gill’s commitment to this squad of players being HIS squad and the impetus on the occasional interlopers from the first team squad being very much on them to fit in with the U23’s and not vice versa. When Phillips went off, the impressive Max Aarons at right back took over the captain’s duties.
Phillips is a proper player. Great range of passing, fluid on the ball, and a happy knack of winning slide tackles in the middle of the park and not just taking the ball but emerging from the tackle with the ball at his feet. He set the tempo for the team and looks to me to be pretty much first-team ready.
Russ, far from being sidelined by this seeming demotion, is having every ounce of his experience and leadership utilised by Gill, and he looked vital to the way the team were set-up. His fellow defenders, Max Aarons, Bilal Kamal and Timi Odusina are all promising but need a lot more work, and possibly a bit more muscle to get them close to the first team. Martin guided them through the game like a parent holding his children’s hands to get them safely across the road. Equally impressively he did so without being overbearing and whilst he looked after the defence he didn’t bark orders all around the pitch, allowing Phillips to chivvy along his troops.
At one point I wondered what Martin was doing as whilst as a team we were clearly following the Farke template of possession, Martin would regularly switch this up and bang a long ball into the channel or try and hit the striker, even when a clear and simple short pass was on. I then realised that this was by design, and Martin was working Tristan Abrahams as he learns to play the lone striker role.
Abrahams has the build of a boxer, with lean legs and an upper body that suggests he doesn’t shirk his duties in the gym. A willing and mobile runner, he lets defenders know he’s there. His touch is good but he’s not ready to start in the Championship yet, which is why Martin is giving him a variety of balls to hold up and control, as opposed to simply linking up short passing moves all the time.
Fair play to Matt Gill for taking the long term view here because at times, either Martin or Abrahams sacrifices possession in these situations but ultimately it will help develop Abrahams far more than having less service, less work and less involvement.
Todd Cantwell has had a little bit of the spotlight recently after being rewarded with a place on the bench against Hull. There’s more than a little of Maddison in Cantwell, with great close control and footwork, and an eye for a pass too. Cantwell, like Phillips, doesn’t look too far off being a viable first team option.
Savvas Mourgas, a summer recruit from Arsenal’s development squad is a lovely footballer, with great close control and a good range of passing. Like many of the youngsters, he doesn’t always make the best decisions in terms of final balls and when to release a team mate, but as and when he gets his head around that we could have a hell of a player on our hands.
It’s a testament to how good the attacking options are that Louis McIntosh and Pierre Xavier Fonkeu didn’t start but both came on in the second half to good effect. McIntosh is a tidy, dynamic mover in the attacking third and scored a peach of a free-kick. Fonkeu has pace to burn and loves to harry defenders, clearly looking to impress. His journey following his summer move from Belgium will be fun to watch, as he has the raw materials to be a real handful at any level.
And I’ve saved the best for last.
Glenn Middleton is one whose name has been mentioned in dispatches for a while already despite only being seventeen. An old-fashioned chalk-on-his-boots winger, Middleton has an incredible burst of pace and close control. He has the presence of mind to get his head up and pick his cross rather than just flash the ball across the box. And he works back to help out defensively, nipping in to steal the ball away from ponderous opponents on several occasions.
In the second half he was moved across to the right wing and although not as fluid as on his natural left side, Middleton is perfectly capable of playing with his right peg and fired several good crosses in. Whilst he’s not the biggest lad, what he lacks in inches, he makes up for in pace and ability. I’d be surprised if he didn’t make the step up to the first team sooner rather than later, despite his tender years. He’s simply too good not to.
Overall I was hugely impressed with many things last night. The tour was great. The atmosphere at the club was warm and, dare I say, content. And Matt Gill, more than ably assisted by Russell Martin in the role of on-field general, is shaping a very talented group of young players to work hard for each other, and give them opportunities and situations to prepare them for the next level.
The Webberlution is clearly taking shape and the grassroots evidence was on show at Carrow Road that night. When married with the essential ingredients of a galvanised, appreciated fanbase fully backing a squad they are increasingly taking to their hearts it’s a potent combination for the future.