Who’s next off the academy production line? Weaver fires Norwich City home truths
Making Colney a better academy is easier to say than achieve – Michael Bailey catches up with Norwich City’s academy manager Steve Weaver and asks, what’s next?
It’s supposed to take years of patience, process, nurture, stability, focus and faith – yet Norwich City had it nailed in 18 months?
The Canaries’ academy hopes and dreams when sporting director Stuart Webber arrived in April 2017, and then academy manager Steve Weaver followed a few months later, would probably look modest given what has actually played out.
Colney’s redevelopment. Four young players flying for Daniel Farke’s first team. If this had all been the immediate plan, it would have been knocked down for being overly optimistic.
Yet it says a lot about the key figures that they would recoil at the suggestion this is all down to them.
While the bond idea was the spark, it’s the Canaries supporters that have funded City’s new-look training ground.
And although a new approach to loans away from – and attitudes inside – Colney has undoubtedly helped, it’s Jamal Lewis, Ben Godfrey, Max Aarons and Todd Cantwell who deserve an arbitrary 95pc of the credit for proving they have what it takes to not only be Championship players, but ones competing at the top.
“Stuart had a very clear idea when he came in and I’m sure even at first team level, six to 12 months ago everyone was going ‘OK, what’s this? It’s different’,” admitted Weaver.
“But everyone has more belief in it now, that you can do things a different way – and it was exactly the same with the academy. Six months ago everyone was a non-believer or not sure how this was going to look.
“Now there is a clear defined way of how we’re doing it, the disciplines of the place – and slowly but surely we’re having a bit of success lower down.
“Recognition can cause its own problems and some of the young players can get lost in that. It’s a great moment in time where we are now, four lads in the first team. But there might only be one that comes through next year. There might be none. Lads might move on, get injured, different struggles. We don’t know.
“So our plan is to nip that complacency in the bud, look at how we can continually get better and not just live in the moment.
“In anything if someone has been successful and you were to ask who that was down to, it’s actually down to the person.
“All we’ve provided – where we’ve done our job properly – is the opportunity. All the players have that opportunity, not just the ones that have broken through.
“I do hear things from people saying they worked with him, they did this and found that – but no one found Max Aarons. He was a good footballer. It wasn’t that hard.
“What we are here to do is give him enough support to thrive. But Max’s career, Todd’s career, previous players, their careers are down to them.
“Success has a thousand fathers and failure is an orphan – and a lot of our job is dealing with orphans. People have got to realise that.”
As the football dream becomes more lucrative, so the responsibility grows on academies and how they deal with all their young players; young people.
“I still meet players I coached 20 years ago. They’ve got wives, families. And you have that moment where you shake hands for the good or bad times together, and say thanks for it. That’s enough for me.
“The key for us is how we treat the ones that don’t quite make it. That we make sure they leave and pop up somewhere, that we make lads who are solicitors now or accountants, and that’s part of it – certainly this academy and the culture within it.”
There is no ignoring the football either – and the significant cultural shift that has almost certainly made the job of former Under-18 and current Under-23 manager David Wright a tricky affair.
His players have been away on loan, with those below fast-tracked to give them a taste of where they could be – equally how far away they may be from it.
“I’ve got to say, unless we do something extraordinary we will never really be over-competitive in the Under-18 and Under-23 leagues,” acknowledged Weaver.
“Kenny Jackett said to me several years ago, if you’re top of the Under-23 league you are doing something wrong – unless you are Chelsea or Manchester United, with far more resources.
“But we will get senior debuts – if not for us then for someone else. We sent Caleb Richards out before Christmas to FC United because we had two games and they had 10. We sent Devonte Aransibia out to Billericay, the same situation. And then the interest comes.
“We’ve had phone calls on both and it’s a start. They’ve gone out, played well and now other people want them.”
It all paints an intriguing picture over the coming months, with such high and improving standards at first-team level likely to put higher demands on those hoping to break through behind them.
“There’s a bit more ownership on the players to say that this is not enough anymore,” added Weaver. “It’s not about selling a dream, but making them aware of the reality. We don’t see our youth teams as the pinnacle of anything. They are teams to pass through, the end of the academy journey. Max had finished with the Under-23s within six months – and then it’s what now?
“Staff, players, supporters and certainly the owners – I think there has been a sea change here and when you get something that starts to be vibrant, you want to be part of it.
“But that also comes with an element of failures. You can’t hide then. You’re actually playing and being judged every day. Some stay on it, some fall off it.
“With all due respect, the four lads all broke into the first team when there was still a bit of uncertainty. We weren’t flying in the league, yet they came in and the last four to six months has been utopia. We all know that is not usually the case.
“But the level of the team is now chalk and cheese from where it was when Daniel first started. We’re not 14th in the Championship any more. The goalposts have moved. We’ve got to be mindful of that and where we’re going.
“Right now there is a passion here for the next one to come from the academy. We look to the academy first, we produce our own. But that’s not just going to happen – you’ve still got to be good enough. Our job is to support Daniel, not be delusional about it.
“At the moment I can’t sit in front of Daniel and say it’s going to be him, him and him. We’ve got work to do and they’re not ready.
“When they are ready, we will be the first to say to Stuart that we’ve now got to create an opportunity.”
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