Gleeful Gilly, Wright leaving wins to Farke and Weaver pushing buttons - it's a brave new Norwich City world at Colney
Norwich City Football Club
Forget playing systems, altered recruitment policies and tightened belts - Norwich City's biggest changes are coming at their training base. Michael Bailey gets to sample the Canaries' new reality and redevelopment at Colney.
A lot has been written and said about Colney in the last couple of years – from much-famed facilities that attracted numerous past signings, to the almost neglected state that followed the biggest financial windfalls in Norwich City history.
I distinctly remember getting the chance to scout Ricky van Wolfswinkel ahead of his City move back in 2013 with a trip to Sporting Lisbon’s highly successful youth academy and thinking, ‘Wow – this is what these places should look like’.
Well for the first time since all the talk, the Canaries have a training ground that is starting to resemble an actual home to an elite sports club.
From a show pitch with its own stand and floodlights that will become City’s second venue, to sprawling green fields for which anyone who loves football would make them desperate to stick some boots on and grab a ball – and yet so much building work to complete… You imagine sporting director Stuart Webber is already relishing the time when he shows potential new signings what their training home would look like.
That City fans and some trusting investors showed enough faith to raise £5m through the club’s Canaries Bond in such a short space of time, gives the whole project an air of reward and collateral.
But Colney’s face lift is about so much more than the bricks, mortar and blades of grass.
City’s cultural shift is starting to manifest itself. The very fact David Wright’s Under-18s have endured some heavy defeats is why Matt Gill’s job as Under-23s coach is – in his own words – proving easier than it might.
And you won’t find anyone at Colney bothered about producing a fluent team in the image of Daniel Farke’s senior outfit – not as an outright goal, anyway.
“The facilities we’re creating now are fantastic,” said City’s Under-23 boss Matt Gill – himself a Norwich youth player from the age of nine, back in 1990. I think the investment that’s gone into Colney was needed, but it’s exciting and has added a lot of energy to the staff and players – and it’s an enjoyable time to be in and around the academy.
“There is now a visible pathway for the players and I think that is any under-23 coach’s problem across the country – not having that pathway into the first team.
“For me the promotions of Max Aarons, Jamal Lewis, Todd Cantwell – it’s almost made my job a little easier, seeing that pathway for the lads and those that have worked hard enough to get in. As far as the structure and the way it’s joined up from top to bottom, there’s now clarity – and I think it helps everybody.”
For Wright, the season has been a tough one so far – but he knows the end game.
“Five of my boys have now jumped into the Under-23s working with Matt every day, so we’ve got five players who are doing really well out of my group,” said Wright.
“In terms of results, look at it on paper and you think we’re having a really tough time but I’m really concentrating on making sure the boys perform and if we do that, we will get a couple more boys who take that step up.
“My job is to develop players for Matt and Adam Idah, Ant Spyrou are doing really well. Then you look at Max as well. It’s difficult when you are getting beaten because for such a long time that was my job, to win games. But I’ve also got to check myself that no, my job is to actually develop individuals. Not to create a team. That’s the manager’s job – to create a team that wins games and hopefully gets promoted.
“Whereas my job is to create individuals to give to Matt and send them on to the next step.”
Gill added: “We are all quite competitive as ex-players but ultimately it’s about individuals. I think we all recognised that everybody gets success when Max Aarons plays on a Saturday. Everybody in the academy. That’s what we’re all here for, to help that player get through the academy, through that journey and ultimately end up in our first team or somebody else’s.
“We’ve had a little bit of success lately so we need to continue that.”
Academy manager Steve Weaver spells it out well – a man who has seen how other clubs tackle their youth culture and knows how to compare the Canaries’ approach.
“There are certain things and a culture you’re trying to get into place, and I think it’s a culture that has come from Delia,” said Weaver.
“In my first meeting with her in my first week, she told me we needed to get young players in the team and she felt we could do it – that we owed it to Norfolk and to the area.
“The second thing is creating opportunity and it’s amazing if you create that, what all people can do with it.
“Not everyone has found it easy because you’re putting your head above the parapet a little bit and there’s been a change in culture. A change in, I suppose, going away from a team ethos at the academy to going towards individual players – and you’re now starting to see some of the fruits of that.
“It’s not been easy for Max Aarons and it’s certainly not been easy for Todd Cantwell – we sent him to Holland and told him to grow up.
“And probably with a little bit of resistance. It’s something this club probably hasn’t done before, in terms of sending too many lads out on loan.
“But it’s something that we are determined to continue and we do believe we have a responsibility to any young player that if they’ve not got a future with us, they do have one for someone else and they’ve got a league career in them.
“Maybe culturally it’s been a bit different. We’ve just had a meeting about the next ones, and the pressure is on the coaches, medical staff and sport scientists because it’s about performance – and if the lads aren’t doing what they should be, then there is more pressure but on the staff to make sure that the next ones are there.
“We’ve got good players but I’m a big believer that however the players are and how good they are, you need to push all their buttons to make sure. You’ve got to be prepared for it to be a bit uncomfortable for them. We’ve done that with the older lads, we’ve got a reasonably good group just below that which we’re optimistic over and I think we’ll see more debuts.
“I’m just mindful that it’s a young first-team anyway – we’re going to end up with an under-19 team soon!
“I’m not pushy with Daniel Farke. Our job is just to give him another option and create opportunities. But if we have say 17-year-old right-back now coming through, he might have to go away from here to get better first-team exposure because Max is doing so well.
“So the younger the first team gets, inevitably the harder it gets.”
No one needs to tell Matt Gill how hard things can be at Norwich City, given his own progression through the youth ranks and then return as a professional.
It makes his current situation all the sweeter too.
“I did try to tell the wife this is the best it is ever going to be!” smiled Gill. “I absolutely love my role. Love seeing the boys succeed. Getting their opportunities and seeing new contracts being handed out. So it makes all the hours worthwhile and I’m really enjoying the direction it’s going in.”
No doubt he is not the only one.
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