Over the course of the last twelve months, I’ve heard many media outlets say that there is a lack of academy talent at Norwich City, certainly with regard to producing players ready for first-team action.
I don’t consider this to be accurate.
There is a ‘conveyor belt’ in operation but there has also been hesitation from the first team management to offer opportunities to those players as they prefer to rely instead on experience.
As many people are unaware of the academy’s best players, I thought it might be useful to go through some who could impact the first team.
The Irish Under-21s defender’s game is all about high levels of managed aggression, pace, and strong tackling, which makes him a good one-on-one defender. In addition to that, he shows tactical intelligence and bravery to drive the U21s up the pitch, often providing the team with an extra man in possession.
Emmanuel also has wonderful mental characteristics, which will stand him in good stead if/when those first-team opportunities arise.
Emmanuel Adegboyega has been a star player for the U21s.
Another player who has been hovering around first-team football for a while now and who made his debut against Fulham in the Carabao Cup, where he was arguably Norwich’s best player. The Warner dilemma is an interesting one as it challenges the club’s philosophy.
Currently, as has been discussed, there is very little resell value in the current first-team, especially with regard to the defenders, and it contains four centre-backs with similar playing styles – players who like to dominate their defensive area by winning challenges, blocking shots and heading away crosses.
But none of those four are particularly quick, which (as we have discovered) is problematic when it comes to counter-attacking situations. Players like Adegboyega and Warner are effective in those scenarios, which makes their continued omissions more questionable, especially as successful teams have different players with different strengths in each position.
Also worth noting is that Norwich have, at the moment, arguably the best defender in League Two. Hills has played in almost every game for Accrington Stanley this season – 17 games in all competitions to be precise – and has played every single minute of those games while accumulating four clean sheets, scoring once and assisting once. Despite Hills getting experience at a lower level, the idea of him being in the first-team in the near future may be far-fetched but it proves the academy system is working, and he could be a viable option over the next two years.
To delve even deeper into future defensive options, the club recently handed a professional deal to Charlie Wilson, who has been the academy’s most consistent player since his arrival in April. Add to that, Waylon Renecke, who represented his country, South Africa, in the Under-17s African Cup of Nations last summer. Norwich have invested heavily in the left-footed defender and are reaping their rewards with the defender adjusting perfectly to under-21 level at both left back and centre back.
In summary, contrary to the thoughts of many, the depth of academy talent at centre-back is quite remarkable.
Moving onto midfield, City have a wonderfully talented midfielder in Welch. Twelve months ago, his stock in the game was so high that England Under-18s were monitoring his progress. Arguably, Welch’s greatest strength is his versatility as he performs at a high level in every position he plays in. At many other Championship clubs, he would by now have had an opportunity to perform on the first team stage.
Other players, like Ken Aboh, Guilherme Montoia, Pedro Lima, and Adian Manning, are also close to reaching that same level but probably still need to go up a few more gears. However, to counter this, it is worth noting that Jamal Lewis and Max Aarons probably were not 100 percent ready for first-team football when their opportunities came, but they took them. The club’s commitment to those two players worked and ended up earning over £20 million in profit.
Moving further down the age groups, there are more wonderfully talented players with masses of potential, such as Uriah Djedje, Miles Bracking, and Elliot Myles. The conveyor belt is still producing but it does need to be managed better.
Ironically, alongside all of the question marks over the academy’s ability to produce new talent has been the amazing success story of Jonathan Rowe – a player who came through and who is now the Championship’s joint-third top goalscorer with seven goals and an assist. Rowe will arguably go on to make the club millions or become an integral part of Norwich City’s future.
Jon Rowe has been a shining light in the 23/24 season. Credit: bbcsport
Claims that Stuart Webber’s reign has been underwhelming when it comes to academy development ignore the success stories of Jamal Lewis, Todd Cantwell, and Max Aarons, and if you focus your mind back to the first half against Leeds (h), three of the four attacking players were from the academy and contributed to a good attacking performance.
For me, that was an example of the academy pathway flourishing and first-team recruitment declining.
However, I do agree with the sentiment that the club is blocking pathways for the younger players to develop. The centre-back position – as discussed above – is the perfect example. Experience, even when playing poorly, is favoured at the expense of young talent.
If Norwich are still in a poor league position come March, and still opt for those experienced players over the younger centre-backs, like Warner, it will be a huge, wasted opportunity.
But the influx of experienced players on relatively long-term deals has stalled the trajectory of their development and/or a major avenue of cash flow. It is highly unlikely that anyone will buy a 33-year-old, for £10m but young players with promise and bright futures could move on for significant sums.
It also poses another major question:
How can Ben Knapper generate funds for a rebuild when half of the first team is over 30? Add to that the Attanasios’ apparent reluctance to invest in the team at the minute.
The answer is player sales, and the only two who are currently in that bracket are Gabriel Sara and Jonathan Rowe. But to show faith in academy players who are hungry to make an impact could help add to that currently very small pot of saleable assets.
I sense though a reluctance from the first-team coaching staff to offer these lads meaningful opportunities as they expect those experienced players to be consistent performers despite them being the complete opposite in recent weeks.
It is only a small sample size admittedly, but we have seen proof that Jon Tomkinson can perform to the level against Burnley – the best side in the Championship last season – and that Warner can thrive against Premier League opposition.
So, one final thought. For me, the conveyor belt is not short of academy talent but it needs to be nurtured with high-level coaching and inspirational figures who are capable of galvanising that talent. Then we have a chance.