A season that had so much potential for City’s Under-23s was cruelly ended after a gruelling penalty shootout defeat in Wolverhampton last Tuesday.
Wolves were always going to be a tricky opponent but in reality, the 23s shouldn’t have been facing them in the semi-final. The Canaries spent the majority of the season in second place in the table but unfortunately slipped to fifth late on, relying on Burnley to slip up on the last day to guarantee that play-off place.
A second-place finish would’ve been ideal as it would have given them an opportunity to play in front of their home supporters and play, in theory, slightly weaker opponents. However, it wasn’t to be.
As with all academies, and by their very nature, the player turnover is massive and only five City players who played last week featured in the last game of the 2020-21 season. Those five were Joe Rose, Jon Tomkinson, Nelson Khumbeni, Tony Springett and Tom-Dickson Peters.
Unfortunately, the 2020-21 season wasn’t as successful as this season, the Canaries finishing 11th with the same points tally as last place in the table.
So what made this campaign so much better?
If we cast our minds back to last summer, Norwich purchased Liam Gibbs and Flynn Clarke. Those two were brought in to originally play Under-23 football until January or until the end of the summer, with a potential of first-team involvement in their second season. They also replaced the creative holes left by Zach Dronfield (released) and Reece McAlear (sent out on loan).
Throughout the season, Gibbs has been deployed as a defensive or box-to-box midfielder. Primarily at the start of the season, he was playing the defensive role but was also expected to play as a ‘quarterback’.
This role is all about picking up the ball from deep areas and building the blocks that connect defence to attack – similar to Moritz Leitner in 2018-19. Gibb’s technical quality reaped the rewards, as he accumulated eight assists this season – the third-most in the league alongside Tony Springett.
In March 2022, Gibbs told @Norwichyouth (Instagram) that Norwich was the ‘best move for me’, following interest from Leeds United. He has been a constant figure in the Under-23s team this season, playing 26 games and, in total, 2,275 minutes. With the first team needing a midfield revamp, Gibbs will be an option that Dean Smith may consider through pre-season.
And then there’s the technician from Peterborough, who goes by the name of Flynn Clarke. After impressing with Posh last season, Norwich quickly seized the opportunity to purchase him in June 2021.
After scoring three times in his 2020-21 EFL Trophy campaign, Flynn should be aware of the challenges that first-team football brings, but it should also give him confidence that he can perform at that level. One of his goals against Cambridge Unites was an absolute worldie.
Before scoring eleven goals this season and contributing five assists, Flynn initially found it difficult to make an instant impact – not unusual for a new, young player, trying to establish himself in a team with no familiar faces.
In addition to that, he picked up an injury before the start of the Under-23 season, meaning he had to work hard to get back into the team. A free-kick away at Newcastle, which earned the Under-23s a point, was the turning point of a promising season for Clarke.
One particular quality of Clarke’s that has stood out this season is his versatility. He has been used as an attacking midfielder, a striker and box-to-box midfielder, all of which have enhanced his understanding of the game.
There were occasions at the start of the season when he would play ambitious passes in the box-to-box midfielder role, and the passes wouldn’t always be successful. With him predominantly playing as an attacking midfielder for most of his short career, those ambitious passes will always be in his game as creating opportunities is in his footballing DNA.
It’s been an interesting dynamic watching the Under-23s attack this season as the front three have always been flexible. Clarke has been part of a rotating front three, which has a huge impetus on staying close together in order for them all to link up and create opportunities.
However, he’s a more effective operator in the attacking midfielder role as he thrives off the responsibility of delivering high-quality moments.
The 23s season started with a convincing win against Southampton B, with Abu Kamara securing a hat-trick – two of which were penalty kicks. That game was to be the last we saw of Dan Adshead until April as he departed on loan to Gillingham. On that day, Jonathan Rowe and Tony Springett played. Nine months later they made their EPL debuts.
The following game saw the Under-23s playing Stoke at home under the Carrow Road floodlights. Unfortunately, it ended in a 1-0 defeat, but there were loads of positive positives that night.
Across the majority of the season, they have operated in a 4-1-2-1-2 shape, meaning there is a huge emphasis to play through the middle of the pitch, with the full-backs providing the width. This system has worked magnificently as Norwich have been the highest scorers in the league.
A sign of a good coach is keeping things simple, and Alan Nielsen has successfully managed to create dynamic and effective wide partnerships.
For example, Josh Giurgi’s main traits are his directness and his raw pace. He’s usually partnered up alongside Regan Riley, Liam Gibbs or Joe Duffy and these three players often dominate central territory.
This results in Giurgi having the freedom to perform many sprints during a game while one of the central midfielders will cover, so they prevent an overload by the opposition. This is similar to the other flank where Springett provided width, while the left-back Saxon Earley covers.
This has been a successful plan that’s worked this season, due to the fact it makes the team balanced. When Giurgi and Springett attack, they’ll be covered by their fellow teammates a large majority of times.
The advantage of the 4-1-2-1-2 system is that when the strikers are accompanied by the wide players you have up to five players (two strikers, an attacking midfielder and the two wide men) in the final third.
By September 10, 2021, the Under-23s had played four league games and had gained three wins against Southampton, Sunderland and Aston Villa. One player who stood out across those games was the captain Jonathan Tomkinson, who was nominated Player of the Month for August.
He scored a late winner against Sunderland, to make it 4-3 in added time. The clean sheet against Southampton helped his cause too.
The Under-23s took calculated risks on the ball this season. Nine times out of ten, they would begin transitions with the centre-backs looking to play a penetrating pass to break the lines. Whether the opposition pressed the Under-23s high or not, the team would still show high levels of bravery to play through them, which earned them their rewards.
The season started off well and the team were going from strength to strength. It took a powerful West Brom side, to break the Canaries’ winning momentum. Despite giving away sloppy goals, the power of West Brom’s midfield was too difficult to contain.
Three defeats followed – against Fulham, Reading and Burnley – and they were faced with the challenge of having to overcome a losing streak – not necessarily an unhealthy challenge as it gives the Under-23s a perspective of what that it could be like in first-team environment. Although winning is always a positive in football, the art of learning is even more important in development football.
The Burnley game was also the start of an impressive run of games for Jon Rowe. He went on a 12-game run in which he provided a goal contribution. Once again, credit is due to the Under-23s coaching staff for implementing Jon in an attacking formation – using him as a right-sided striker alongside Tom Dickson-Peters.
It’s not just this season that Rowe has impressed though, he’s always been on the radar. For him, last season was a mixture of Under-18s and Under-23s football – netting six times in the 2020-21 Under-18 Premier League and once in Premier League 2 Division 2.
It was always going to be interesting to see how he would develop this season, considering he has always been so comfortable on the right-wing. He’s translated his direct, energetic and skillful traits into the striker role and it benefited Norwich hugely. He’s a player who has an abundance of confidence and has a mentality to always strive for the best.
For the 23s to regain their winning momentum after the Burnley defeat, it took appearances and goals from Todd Cantwell to steady the ship. He played for the Under-23s twice in two weeks in October and was involved again against Nottingham Forest at Carrow Road. However, it wasn’t Todd in the goals that night – instead two quick-fire goals by Rowe and Kamara helped them to a 4-2 victory.
From 29 November to 17 December, the Canaries were scoring a high volume of goals. Fourteen in three matches, pushed them up to second in the league by Christmas.
During that period of the campaign, the 23s looked exceptionally fluent and confident in what they were doing. Partnerships from back to front were linking nicely and the midfield looked stronger as each game went on.
However, when January came, the English pyramid was starting to look at City’s young and attacking talent.
One player who would depart on loan was Thomas Dickson-Peters, a player who was the top league scorer in January with a healthy return of 13 goals which still leaves him the second top scorer this season.
He departed for Gillingham, a team that had numerous gutsy characters but a lack of quality, which ultimately led to them getting relegated to League Two next season. Tom had serious interest from other League One and Two outfits in January, but chose Gillingham mainly because the ex-manager Steve Evans sold the club to him – weeks later he was sacked.
Tom brought a lot of important qualities to the Under-23s, with his link-up play and his ability to hold onto the ball becoming a real strength. With the raw pace of Rowe and the intelligent movement of Dickson-Peters, it made the Under-23s multi-dimensional in attack which, in turn, made them a strong outfit in the league. Tom also showed his defensive intelligence this season too, demonstrating he can lead pressing patterns.
The 23s accumulated ten extra points this season from scoring late goals – past the 75th minute. This was replicated in the first home game back after the winter break, as Abu Kamara netted twice.
That was Friday 21st January – the day the first-team beat Watford 0-3 away from home!
A month on from that Burnley win, the 23s went to Villa Park – attempting to solidify their play-off hopes.
Two teams go up from Premier League 2, Division 2 – one automatically and the other through the play-offs. At that particular stage of the season, it was mathematically impossible for Norwich to go up automatically as Fulham were 20 points clear.
Unfortunately for City, they were defeated 2-0 by Aston Villa on 21 February in the most unfortunate of circumstances – missing numerous chances, in particular from Christos Tzolis.
They went into their next match, at home to Newcastle, looking to put the previous week’s misfortunes behind them but unfortunately, it wasn’t to be – losing 4-3. One positive to emerge from that match was Shae Hutchinson scoring a brace – a nice story considering the troubles he’s had to go through with two kidney transplants.
Shae’s character and mentality to fight through those challenging times were admired across the board. He was released by the club in February and is now playing for Braintree Town.
Following that demoralising defeat to Newcastle, the 23s then travelled to Fulham – the champions-elect – and managed to show their resilience and spirit, coming away with a crucial 2-1 away win, the goals from Tony Springett. One of the goals was an awesome team goal, performed by Liam Gibbs, Christos Tzolis and of course Tony Springett. The pass from Gibbs was outrageous!
Two weeks later, they went to play-off rivals Stoke City and demolished them 4-0.
Throughout January 2022 to April 2022, a partnership was blossoming. Springett and Clarke combined for six goals in eleven games which brought a renewed energy to the side. The pair share a real bond off the pitch and it translates onto it.
Three games before the play-off defeat to Wolves Under-23s at Molineux, Norwich appeared to have no possibility of playing Wolverhampton but three winless games meant they only secured play-offs via goal difference.
After such a good season, it wouldn’t have been calamitous if City missed out on a play-off opportunity.
So then came the eagerly anticipated play-offs, which unfortunately went the way of Wolves.
The Canaries showed their ambition to be with England’s finest academies as they played a strong line-up filled with first-team experience. The likes of Rowe, Springett, Omotoye, Adshead and Bali Mumba were all involved.
Towards the end of the season, Wolves developed into a wonderful Under-23s side who were combative off the ball and creative on it. Not only did they have a successful league campaign, but they were also runners-up in the Premier League Cup, losing on penalties to their Black Country rivals, West Brom.
In the Wolves game, the 23s were second best throughout. Wolves retained the majority of possession in the first half and created clear-cut chances – City were fortunate to go in only one behind.
The second half was much improved though and the intensity and bravery to get tighter to Wolves midfielders was there. Not only was it an improved performance off the ball in the second half, but the Canaries also created a good volume of chances, eventually leading to a goal from Tyrese Omotoye.
With legs cramping up, fatigue settling in and energy dwindling, the game went all the way through extra time and to a penalty shootout.
This was a game between two teams, who were arguably the strongest teams in the play-offs – considering Norwich spent a huge chunk of the season in second place.
Despite there being an abundance of research that goes into penalty shootouts, it’s still based on luck and Wolves converted all five of their penalties, with Norwich scoring four – Flynn Clarke being the unfortunate player to miss.
In terms of next season, I’d expect Jon Tomkinson, Dan Adshead, Liam Gibbs, Jon Rowe, Tony Springett and Flynn Clarke all to be involved in first-team preseason with a high possibility of them playing first XI football next season at Norwich, or out on loan.
Therefore, this means there will be a group of Under-18s, who will transition into the Under-23s squad next season. Joe Duffy (midfielder), Brad Hills (defender), Oscar Thorn (forward), Jayden St-Paul (goalkeeper), Finley Welch (midfielder) are some examples.
Finally, I must mention Nelson Khumbeni, Josh Giurgi, Reece McAlear, Ola Okeowo and Sol Alidor-Hamilton who will all, unfortunately, leave us this summer.
They are all fantastic footballers and fantastic people who deserve the best in their future careers.