Billy takes a close look at one of City’s heroes of 2019/20…
As Todd Cantwell is of a similar age to me, I feel compelled to tell the anecdote of when his Dereham Town under-10s side (I think) obliterated my Sunday league team 7-0.
It’s only when you grow older and watch someone your age score against Chelsea, Arsenal and Man City that your mind recalls mentions of a young footballer called Todd, whose talent was well known by everyone in my age bracket.
It’s not easy progressing through Norwich’s youth-system with a revered reputation – just ask the Murphy twins. The expectation that they’re blessed with natural ability and a general tendency from Norfolk football fans to over-hype exciting, attacking players results in an immense amount of pressure being applied even before they’ve smelt the scent of Pukka Pies and Carling that lingers within Carrow Road. So much so, it was cited as a major factor – alongside the lure of Premier League football – in the Murphys departing the county, just twelve months apart.
As there were two, it was arguably exacerbated. Football’s fixation with footballing brothers and the beauty of homegrown siblings carving their surname into their clubs’ history has never disappeared. You only have re-watch Match of the Day’s analysis of Newcastle’s midfield duo Sean and Matty Longstaff to understand this obsession.
But Todd, like most, didn’t have a brother to progress with and one could argue he had even more critics to prove wrong. But this didn’t stop him in his pursuit of first-team football.
His loan move to the yellow and green of Dutch side, Fortuna Sittard was, in many ways, ideal. It allowed Todd to develop and express without the eyes of Norfolk’s footballing fans gazing upon him like a goading father.
In the Netherlands, not only was it a beneficial non-footballing experience for him, but on the pitch he was allowed him time, space, and autonomy to showcase his technical talent. Had this experience occurred in say, Colchester, I’m not entirely sure he would have had that same freedom.
On his return from the Netherlands, he was integrated into the first-team set-up and I was fortunate enough to witness both his first competitive and league starts, watching City’s unconvincing 3-1 win against Stevenage in the League Cup and, more importantly, the three points they picked up at the Madejski in that 2-1 victory.
It was in Reading where Todd made a real impression. Cutting inside from the left to regularly occupy the more familiar central attacking midfield position, he found Teemu Pukki within just 14 minutes after picking up a loose ball in the centre of the park. He made a bright start to life on the left-hand side of Norwich’s 4-2-3-1 system and showcased how, in many ways, he is the antithesis of his confrère – Onel Hernandez.
While Onel likes to pull out wide, Todd prefers to tuck inside. The Cuban is far more accustomed to playing the role of a natural winger, making runs towards the by-line before cutting the ball pack for a pass, shot or cross. Cantwell, on the other hand, moves inside to the half-spaces to allow a full-back – typically Jamal Lewis – to occupy the space left by the midfielder’s movement.
This provided Daniel Farke with two different options in this position. Little did we know, but both would spend the final six months of the 2017/18 campaign preparing for 2018/19. Todd, as mentioned previously, was out on loan, while Onel was a January signing and was given the second half of the season to settle into English football before the inevitable departure of Josh Murphy.
After a successful run of games in the side, Todd found himself on the sidelines after picking up an injury, allowing the Cuban to make the position his own. When he returned from injury, he struggled to make the impact he had done previously, finding himself subject to the ‘Murphy treatment’ as some of his own fans continuously criticised him.
I found myself, for the majority of that campaign, ‘backing him up’. Many fans weren’t convinced that Todd had the physical attributes to compete at such a level, preferring Onel, who offered natural pace and directness that no one else in a yellow shirt could provide.
Still, to this day, I’m not convinced Todd’s best position is out on the left. Admittedly, Farkeball favours attacking midfielders playing in the wide spaces as, in possession, the structure of the team fluctuates into pervious movement. This allows players, such as Todd, to find space in their more habitual centre of the pitch.
However, in a divergent system, where the requirements of wide players are more typical, there is no doubt that Todd would be positioned in his natural number 10 role.
The physicality of the Championship certainly exacerbated his lack of strength. He was often being bullied by more physical full-backs and struggled to shield the ball in an effective manner, and so the displeasure was voiced.
Todd’s season ended arbitrarily. Despite being the sole Norfolk-born academy product, his final Championship minutes were spent unsuccessfully deputising for a suspended Buendia on the right-hand side of midfield.
There was also discourse surrounding his contract, with murmurings of disagreement over wages – something that bemused many Canary fans as it was clear he hadn’t hit the levels the other members of the self-declared ‘boy band’. Jamal Lewis, Ben Godfrey and Max Aarons had all either received youth or senior international call-ups. Todd had not.
It seemed as if a Murphy-esque exit was on the cards for Todd. While there was evidently a talented footballer there, the jury was still out on whether he had other requisite characteristics to compete at that level. It would hardly have been a surprise had he flown the nest and developed away from the expectancy Norwich fans have of their young talent.
But from this point onwards, Todd has been on an upwards trajectory. He eventually signed a new three-year deal and regularly featured during pre-season, where – to apply a footballing cliché – he looked a different player.
He appeared to find more effective pockets of space and when he was pressed by an opponent, had the upper-body strength to withstand such pressure. His combination play was quicker and he was playing with an assurance we simply hadn’t seen before. It shouldn’t have been a surprise when he was handed his first Premier League start in the opener at Anfield – but it was.
Nonetheless, it was on home soil where Todd made an impression. Within City’s first three home fixtures, he’d picked up two goals and two assists, against opposition including the Europa League and Premier League champions.
The stature of teams Todd faces often dictates his performance. His next three goals would come against Everton, Arsenal and Wolverhampton Wanderers, but he hasn’t registered an assist since the opening home fixture against Newcastle United.
There is though no doubt that playing in front of the so-called ‘bigger teams’ correlates with bigger performances. It’s part of Todd’s persona and character – he wants to impress. You only have to watch his preparation for taking a penalty against Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup to comprehend this.
The general footballing public then take note. They haven’t bothered to watch the 2-0 away defeats to Crystal Palace and Brighton, instead tuning in when there is easier access against teams with a higher profile.
Pre-pandemic, there were various rumours linking Todd to £30 million moves to a host of top clubs. This, in addition with there being a plethora of young English attacking midfielders, seems an unlikely eventuality.
City have to be vigilant when it comes to Cantwell’s contract. While they insist they will not have to sell players this summer, if he does remain a Canary, a new contract has to be a primary discussion. With two years remaining, unless Norwich can negotiate a deal in the region of £30 million, his value would descend precipitously with only a year left.
At just 22-years-of-age, Norwich have an undisputable talent on their hands and will be pivotal in any hope of a great escape. There is still, however, a long road ahead in Todd’s development if the Dereham Deco tag is to have any real substance.
“The Revere End is a podcast curated by two members of Norwich band, The Revere. You can follow them on Twitter @therevereend and listen to their weekly podcast on Spotify and Apple.”