'It's been an interesting season' – U23 evolution points towards a bright future for City's academy
Norwich City Under-23s head coach Matt Gill talks to David Freezer about his first full season in charge of the development squad, during a time of change and additional attention for the Canaries’ academy set-up.
It’s been a season of change for Norwich City’s under-23s as adjustments to the club’s academy approach continue to take shape.
Youth development is about more than results and table positions but head coach Matt Gill has just about managed to keep his team in a positive place.
Heading into their final game of their campaign on Monday, away to Aston Villa, the young Canaries are eighth in and still have a slim chance of snatching fifth place from Reading.
However, cost cutting elsewhere at Carrow Road and Colney has put fresh emphasis and attention on the academy production line.
While promotion back to the top flight of Premier League Two would be a positive, Gill is well aware that his role is to step up the individual development of the club’s promising youngsters with a view to first-team opportunities.
With sporting director Stuart Webber and academy manager Steve Weaver making clear that they see the loan system as a key part in preparing youngsters for that step up, it means that the U23s can often look particularly youthful.
Take Sunday’s 2-1 victory over Wolves, the U23s’ 10th and final Carrow Road game of the season, when the average age of the team was just under 19 – discounting returning first-teamer Marco Stiepermann, 27, who was making his injury comeback.
With players such as Todd Cantwell, Diallang Jaiyesimi and Louis Ramsay all out on loan, and the occasional inclusion of senior players searching for fitness – including Russell Martin, Matt Jarvis and Michael McGovern this season – it’s not always easy for Gill to find a winning balance.
“It’s been an interesting season,” City’s U23s boss said.
“Obviously with having so many out on loan, we have some boys that dip in and out from the 18s, people like Max Aarons and Timi Odusina have been with us most of the season, Bilal Kamal is another under-18s player.
“We had four or five 18s on the pitch at the end of the game against Wolves, which is great development, getting them ready for next season in the 23s.
“All in all I’ve been really pleased with the lads, we had a spell where we didn’t win a game for a few, went on a really good run – I think you’re going to get that at this level with the way we’re doing stuff, with the strategies were using, loan strategies or playing in the 18s or 23s.
“We’re going to get dips here and there when the personnel changes so much. But at the end of the day it’s about their personal development and what’s right for each individual case.”
In contrast to last season, when cup competitions saw the U23s play a full schedule of 40 matches, Monday’s game at Villa Park will be the 28th and final game of the campaign for Gill’s squad.
They have won eight and lost eight of their 21 PL2 games so far, with former Leyton Orient striker Tristan Abrahams top scorer on nine goals, ahead of Todd Cantwell, who scored six in 18 before joining Fortuna Sittard on loan in January.
U23s keeper Aston Oxborough has recently signed a new contract and could be a candidate to go out on loan next season, alongside the likes of Abrahams, Adam Phillips and Savvas Mourgos.
Asked specifically about Abrahams, after scoring in the win over Wolves, Gill said: “We’ll have to wait and see, obviously we sit down and chat about individual cases, we have loan meetings.
“I think it’s good that there’s competition for places, Adam Idah obviously got a hat-trick against Spurs (U18s) last week, took his goals extremely well.
“So competition is the best place for us as coaches but also for the boys, they need to push each other, it can’t come from the coaches every day.
“So it’s a good position to be in with those two pushing themselves, with Pierre (Fonkeu) and a few of the second-year (scholars) now stepping up, it sets us up for a good pre-season and then I think we’ll get into that August sort of time and we’ll be sussing out who’s going to be here and who’s going on loan.”
With the much-publicised bond scheme recently raising an impressive £5million to fund new permanent academy buildings and a state-of-the-art gym at Colney, there is plenty more change on the way.
The bond hitting its upper threshold could even allow the club to install floodlights and spectator seating for the main pitch, with just higher profile U23 games to be played at Carrow Road.
All of which offers a tantalising future for the players Gill is helping to follow in the footsteps of Josh Murphy and Jamal Lewis into the first team – which has now featured an academy product for 100 successive games.
• Follow Canaries correspondent David Freezer on Twitter @davefreezer