Michael Bailey: The focus sharpens on what is going on below City’s first-team surface

Alan Fleming was on target for Norwich City's FA Youth Cup hopefuls in the last round's win over New

Alan Fleming was on target for Norwich City's FA Youth Cup hopefuls in the last round's win over Newcastle. Picture: Nick Butcher - Credit: Nick Butcher

In his latest weekly column, Norwich City correspondent and PinkUn Show host Michael Bailey reflects on the renewed focus on what happens below the Canaries' first team.

Watford have had a few things on their plate in recent weeks, what with sacking a hugely promising manager that had his head turned and getting a little too close to the scrap just above the Premier League trap door.

But one of their more eye-catching moves came at the end of January and away from the first team frenzy, with news the Hornets were overhauling their EPPP category two academy and bringing in a B-team.

The theory is from next season Watford's new side will help bridge the telling gap between Under-23 football and the first team, which for the Hornets is of course the Premier League.

It is part of the Hertfordshire club's response to the same issues that saw both Huddersfield Town and Brentford scrap all their teams below Under-18 level; issues that continue to dog youth football in this country.

'We'll be introducing a new B-team that will play friendlies against EPPP category one clubs and that type of opposition,' Watford's fancily-titled UK football recruitment director Andy Scott told the Hertfordshire Mercury – with Scott effectively ensuring everyone will compete at a higher level than they should.

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The Under-23s will make up the B-team, the Under-16s will predominantly play Watford's Under-18 fixtures and so on.

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Rangers have opted to do something similar, taking their Under-23 side out of development football and instead organising their own fixtures against other clubs – something that may well have helped convince Glenn Middleton of something he didn't really need convincing about: moving to his boyhood club.

'If you're playing against the likes of Manchester City, Bayern Munich or Ajax – as we did recently – it's going to give a better standard of opposition and allow us to develop those players early enough to enable them to play first-team football further down the line,' added Scott.

It all filters nicely into Norwich City – a Championship club with no blank cheque that is still adamant it wants to maintain the highest category of academy it can, and in turn either make revenue for the club or players for the first team. In some cases, both.

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Let's be honest, there are only so many hours in a working week and having been consumed by the Canaries' first team in recent seasons – a squad dominated by long-established players, new signings and past FA Youth Cup winners – taking in City's development sides seemed a bit of a separate issue.

Indeed, that feeling may well have permeated into Colney at times, where there was a real willingness to have all players in close proximity to each other – yet it did little to help drive those younger players towards real first-team contention.

Maybe now, with Colney switching to a greater degree of separation yet a more trustworthy path forward – and first-team entry level – for progression, there may be more who are desperate to make the cut and likewise, are given the chance.

It doesn't take watching many Under-23 games to see how far removed that level is from competitive action for a first-team squad, be it in League Two or non-league football.

Using that to judge exactly how close the likes of Tristan Abrahams and Devonte Aransibia are to even the fringes of Farke's squad is hugely difficult – even when you have Steven Naismith or Matt Jarvis alongside them.

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But there is a change taking place. The 2013 FA Youth Cup winners are grown men that have all gone out on their own, one way or another. That ship has well and truly sailed.

Likewise City's Under-18s put in a stirring performance at Carrow Road on Wednesday to dump Newcastle out of the FA Youth Cup and propel themselves into the last eight; a young bunch that includes some real shining lights.

It all punctuates the current times – where there is a renewed focus on Norwich City's academy to produce and refine new names for City fans to follow, but also a fresh and urgent impetus to prove itself worthy of commitment – be it financially from the club or emotionally from the supporters.

Norwich would appear to prefer loaning out their talents to prove themselves, rather than the hassle and logistical nightmare a B-team might provide – logic that has proven well-founded so far, given the progress of numerous players headlined by Ben Godfrey.

With Norwich accepting the reality of their league standing and economic situation, plus a sporting director in Stuart Webber driven to make the most from the potential at the club he left Huddersfield to take on, what happens below the first-team surface is now most definitely worthy of your attention.

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