Being an academy footballer with aspirations of becoming a first-team regular must be a tough gig.
Chasing the dream with statistics stacked against you, working relentlessly, attempting to showcase your talent, and all against a backdrop of increasing wealth and foreign influence the higher you climb the pyramid.
Success stories are few and far between, and for every example of a player breaking through, there are hundreds who drop out of the game altogether despite having dedicated a significant time of their young lives to football.
Every club is seeking to construct a steady production line but with no real guaranteed recipe for youth development, many end up taking the alternative route of purchasing players for obscene money.
The pressure that top-level managers operate under and the attraction of illustrious additions are two factors that restrict the introduction of young players.
And with patience not in great supply, both from supporters and those who occupy the corridors at power, waiting for a player to become the finished article is a difficult concept while attempting a push for promotion or attempting to survive relegation.
In a time of crisis, the question posed of Premier League managers is this: do I opt for a £20m player or an academy prospect? Sadly, the answer is too often the former because of a fear of being accused of lacking ambition or not progressing rapidly enough.
At Norwich City, however, an altogether differing culture is being created. Stuart Webber’s arrival in NR1 triggered a bold new one, which was driven by the club.
Previously, the philosophy adopted by the first-team was dictated by whoever was occupying the dugout. Often, those on the terraces would be unable to spot a continuity in playing approach.
A graphic illustration of this was evident post-Paul Lambert, and the appointment of Chris Hughton highlighted the lack of philosophy. From the offensive approach installed by Ian Culverhouse and Gary Karsa we then went straight into the pragmatism of Hughton. It displayed the club’s lack of identity at the time.
But this newfound approach is designed to be sustainable and regardless of who leaves or joins, that club-driven philosophy and culture should remain intact.
No position within the club is superior. Instead, departments that once operated individually are now weaved together, with this approach being dependent on communication.
To take the Academy as the example – by installing Steve Weaver as its ringleader that critical communicative link was maintained. Trust is massive in football and Webber has worked with Weaver previously; a simple set of dots were connected.
Upon his arrival, the objectives were clear: to bridge the gap between the first team and the academy while attempting to deliver the cultural and philosophical objectives across the club and develop a pathway.
Now, the Colney redevelopment is underway and four academy graduates are playing a massive part in the first-team, which underlines how the approach has altered. The key for Weaver, his academy staff and Stuart Webber is to ensure complacency doesn’t become an issue.
At this point, it’s worth recollecting the quotes from former caretaker manager Alan Irvine, when he bemoaned the lack of talent among the ranks at Academy level. Yet, the quartet currently impressing were all members of the Academy at that time.
So it begs the question, what has changed?
The new philosophy is one of possession-based, technically emphasised football, and was laid bare when the club tweeted out a video of a goal in this week’s Under-23 encounter with Leicester. It was a remarkable comparison to phases of play seen at Carrow Road this season.
The Academy was being run as a completely separate entity to the first eleven on the pitch. No longer.
Now, the players run around pitches occupied by younger age groups, Daniel Farke is insistent on watching all age groups play when time allows. Inclusivity is the order of the day.
Creating an environment of opportunity is entirely dependent on having a head coach with a track record of developing and entrusting young players – and Farke has that.
This statistic show that in the last ten years, only six players have transitioned from the youth ranks straight into the first-team*, who have gone on to make more than ten appearances. In total, these players have made 362 Norwich City appearances. Chris Martin leads the way with 102, with the Murphys making a collective 122.
In this campaign, the academy graduates have already notched up 105 appearances between them, roughly a third of what had been achieved in ten seasons has been done in two under Webber and Weaver’s stewardship.
However, expecting a constant stream of talent from here is unrealistic.
In future seasons, Norwich may only bring one player through the ranks, some seasons there won’t be any and occasionally there will be a multitude. But ensuring the pathway is maintained is integral, regardless of the division.
Providing that opportunity to young hopefuls does remain the hardest aspect of their development.
Attitudes have altered with regard to this progression, with the loan system now being embraced, and the focus has shifted from youth league or cup success to individual development. A culture of winning at academy level isn’t now the focus, but instead, it’s now about moulding a player’s tactical, technical and psychological game in order for them to become a better footballer.
The dream of being a pro is one shared by young boys and girls up and down the country. At Colney however, the focus is on ensuring the reality is patently clear rather than selling players a dream that is simply unattainable.
At Colney, every player has an individual development programme, designed to place them in the best position to fulfil their potential.
From the Under-13s to the Under-23, whether they are seen potential first-team talent or simply to raise some cash to reinvest into academy recruitment, that planning is pivotal to the long-term maintenance of the academy.
Being Category One is pivotal in that it ensures they play in the Premier League 2, competing against the best academies and best young talents in the country. And possessing a younger Under-23 squad provides those 17 and 18-year olds with opportunities to see how close, or how far off, they are.
Once more, the focus is on opportunity and exposure rather than winning and David Wright [Under23 Head Coach] has a crucial role. He has seen a lot of his prospective talent depart on loan, with the two development squads containing the same players.
Recruitment wise, City possess two Icelandic players in their Under-18s and a growing Irish contingent in their Under-23s; Simon Power, in particular, being one they hold high hopes for.
Ultimately though, whatever structures are in place, any player’s success will be dependent on a foundation of graft and resilience. The recognition of setbacks is important but it’s the bouncing back and improvement that is key.
The Academy is vital to the togetherness which is being strategically sculpted by the football club.
A cohesive unit is dependent on all areas of the football department playing a role. There’s something magical about witnessing an academy graduate fulfilling expectations and pulling on a first-team shirt. Max Aarons’ development has been joyful to watch, as has the way we have watched Todd Cantwell grow as a player and as a person.
Those who bemoan Cantwell’s mistakes will be the same ones celebrating his success, and if the last campaign taught us anything, surely it’s that patience is needed.
The nurturing of young talent has made City the envy of some of their counterparts – desperate to be informed of the secret – but talent only expresses itself in an environment of improvement and freedom.
Why did Anthony Spyrou execute that back-heel to assist the goal in midweek? It’s because he’s been allowed to express rather than be stifled.
Growth of our Academy is something for City supporters to be immensely proud of. In a period where the club needs bang for their buck, patience and player development is pivotal. Now it’s about consistently maintaining this supply line.
*Doesn’t include players who have moved away and then come back to play for the club such as Jamie Cureton or Angus Gunn.