It’s been a very ‘Scottish’ week or so to be a Norwich City fan. Following Chelsea central midfielder and Scotland international, Billy Gilmour, joining the club on loan for the 2021/22 season, last Friday saw another Norwich City link arise in Scotland – although possibly a little less in the limelight.
Young goalkeeper Daniel Barden became the second City youngster to complete a loan move across the border ahead of the new season – after Reece McAlear had already joined Inverness Caledonian Thistle on June 17 – when the former Arsenal youngster signed for Scottish Premiership side Livingston.
Norwich certainly see value in moving their youngsters temporarily across the border, with Barden becoming the 13th player in the last six seasons to move on loan to the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL). As a Canaries’ fan living in the gloriously grey city of Aberdeen, I thought it was only right to investigate why City have opted to move so many of the clubs’ younger talents to such a “quality” level of professional football, and whether they’ve actually seen any results from these loan moves.
If I were to tell you that these 13 players have gone on to appear a combined 59 times for Norwich City and score 16 goals, you’d be relatively impressed. If I were to tell you that 53 of these appearances and all 16 of these goals came from one player, maybe less so. I’m of course talking about the poster boy of City’s SPFL loanees, James Maddison – although admittedly the competition wasn’t particularly strong for this title.
Before Maddison was excelling for Leicester City and enjoying releasing his own fashion line, in 2016 he was enjoying a half-season of ‘rough and tumble’ football on loan in the SPFL with Aberdeen. Despite impressing with two goals and seven assists in 14 appearances, including a last-minute soon-to-be trademark free-kick against Rangers, Maddison didn’t have it all his own way during his spell with Aberdeen.
Speaking with Stuart Hodge on Episode One of The Hodge on Nodge Podcast, Alex Neil recalled Maddison struggling in his time with the Dons,
“James wasn’t playing, I phoned Derek McInnes in December and he hadn’t played for about four or five matches, and he was talking about how he needed to do a little more work off the ball and learn that side of the game. James came back in the January and basically told me he didn’t want to go back to Aberdeen.
“I think if you were to ask James, I don’t think he would have changed his path for the world because it’s got him to where he is. I think getting things handed to you too easily can be to your detriment at times, and I think he had to work harder to get into that team and be so effective.”
Maddison would return to City to star in Daniel Farke’s debut campaign in English football, before going on to become Norwich’s record sale at the time for around £20m.
The former Coventry youngster wasn’t the only success story during his time in the SPFL though as a number of City loanees have impressed while plying their trade in the Scottish top-flight. After helping City’s Under-18s win the FA Youth Cup in 2013, Carlton Morris enjoyed somewhat of a breakthrough campaign while on loan with Hamilton Academical in the 2015/16 season. The former Canary scoring eight goals in 32 appearances – which still stands as the most prolific period of his professional career to date.
Furthermore, Akin Famewo, Remi Matthews, and, more recently, Aiden Fitzpatrick, have all enjoyed spells of success while on loan in the SPFL. Famewo in particular was labelled “outstanding” by St Mirren manager Jim Goodwin during his half-season on loan with the Buddies in 2020.
However, for all the good times there were also bad… really bad. The remaining six Canary loanees who ventured across the border in search of first-team football earned just 20 appearances, six starts, and a solitary goal between them.
Simon Power was an Ireland Under-21 international before joining Ross County on a season-long loan deal in 2019. The winger’s pace was already well documented across Irish media after being clocked at 37.8kph in a 2019 friendly against Bahrain – Przemysław Płacheta was recorded at 35.22kph in a pre-season test for anyone keeping score. But Power went on to make just one league appearance for Ross County and had his loan deal cut short at the season’s halfway point.
Isak Thorvaldsson had just returned to Norwich after impressing on loan with Joey Barton’s Fleetwood Town at the end of the 2019/20 season. The Iceland youth international was given the opportunity to temporarily join St Mirren for the 2020/21 season. However, after just two substitute appearances his loan was cancelled after allegations of feeling homesick, and the central midfielder returned to his native Iceland for the rest of the season.
On average, a loan to the SPFL will present you with five first-team appearances. Take James Maddison out of this equation and your average won’t even come close to a single appearance. So why do City persist with sending some of the club’s younger talent to Scotland to earn a taste of first-team football?
Simply put, to break them. Scotland provides Norwich City with the idyllic opportunity to push their youngsters in a number of key areas. Firstly, for many youngsters, a move to Scotland provides them with the chance to move out of their comfort zone for the first time. Several City youngsters will be used to the safe surroundings of Colney, where an Under-23’s defeat can be swept under the carpet rather quickly. A move to a lower division offers insight into just what it means to be a footballer and how significant every single result can be.
Speaking on the All in Yellow Podcast, Kenny McLean remembered how much his loan spell with then Scottish Second Division side Arbroath opened his eyes to professional football.
“That’s what made me really stand up and realise where I was at the time and appreciate it more. Because these guys were coming from their work, straight from work to training – it was tough for them.
“We got relegated that year and selfishly I thought, I’m just going to go back to St Mirren, that’s my time done here, but in the changing room after that last game you’re looking around at grown men properly hurt – this was affecting their livelihood.
“This made me think, I need to go away here and do as well as I can, I need to give everything to be as successful as possible because, no disrespect, I didn’t want to be there (in the future).
“It definitely helped me in the sense of, you do need to appreciate everything you’ve got.”
The more commonly appreciated reason for joining an SPFL side on loan is to toughen you up. The style of football across the border can be… physical, to say the least at times. However, providing exposure to this type of football can be hugely beneficial for a young player’s development.
It applies to goalkeepers and outfield players alike. Attackers won’t be mostly dealing with nippy ball-playing center-backs, and likewise, defenders won’t always be dealing with pacey forwards who drop deep or run in behind. Akin Famewo for one had to deal with this while on loan at St Mirren.
“There are a number of positives we can take in terms of the physicality, the way we fought and scrapped for every ball.” The words of St Mirren manager Jim Goodwin in his post-match press duties following their 0-0 draw with Aberdeen in January 2020.
“I couldn’t be any more pleased with those two boys because they won’t come up against too many strikers in this league as physical as what Cosgrove was, so if they can cope with that, they can cope with anything.”
You’ll have to get used to 4-4-2 and a regular dose of longball, but Scotland also provides you with a taste of the elite. Scotland’s Premier League may be quite some way from England’s alternative, but there are some quality players – and teams – plying their trade in the Scottish topflight.
Just a brief flick through several Premier League squads and you see players who developed their careers in Scotland; Andrew Robertson, Virgil Van Dijk, John McGinn and Kieran Tierney to name a few, who collectively appeared over 400 times in the SPFL before moves to the Premier League.
Even today players like Alfredo Morelos, Lewis Ferguson, Kevin Nisbet, Glen Kamara and current Canaries’ target Kristoffer Ajer, are all linked with multi-million-pound moves to England’s top-flight. Throw in the opportunity to play in front of over 45,000 at least twice a season when visiting Ibrox or Celtic Park, and you’ve got yourself a real well-rounded taste of professional football.
Under the guidance of City’s Loans Manager Neil Adams, the club creates bespoke pathways to first-team football at Carrow Road. If youngsters can step up and make the most of their loan move, opportunity or progression awaits upon their return to Norfolk.
For Daniel Barden and Reece McAlear, the route forward is simple. Make the most of their opportunity like a handful of City youngsters have done in the past, or become victims of the professional football league that has broken so many before them.
Only time will tell which they will be.