Norwich’s young talent has played a key role in the club’s promotion bid this season. Adam Bate spoke to sporting director Stuart Webber to discover how turning to the academy has helped the Canaries reconnect with supporters after losing their way…
Norwich’s rise to the top of the Championship table can be explained in many ways. Teemu Pukki, the 28-year-old Finnish striker, was picked up on a free transfer and is now the top scorer in the league. Emiliano Buendia has been a revelation too. As for the signings from Germany, they have been crucial in transforming this club’s fortunes under Daniel Farke.
But the success is being built on the foundations of a defence from much closer to home. Academy graduates Jamal Lewis and Max Aarons are the players who have provided the energy and quality in the full-back positions that has typified the enthusiasm of this Norwich team. Since December, they have been joined in defence by fellow youngster Ben Godfrey.
It should be much harder to rely on youth in positions where consistency of performance is essential and the onus to complete 90 minutes is great. The trio continue to make it look easy. Farke recently referred to them as his young dogs, all appetite and no fear. “We can play this situation with a smile on our face and less pressure than other clubs,” he claimed.
When the players are as gifted as Godfrey, Lewis and Aarons – all three have been linked with Premier League clubs this season – perhaps the decision was made for the manager, but this commitment to youth has come about by design. Stuart Webber, Norwich’s sporting director, recognised the need for change soon after his arrival in April 2017.
“There were players here who thought they should be in the Premier League and had maybe lost a bit of the hunger,” Webber told Sky Sports. “So when I came in the attitude was to make the academy work. We have a category one academy and we invest a lot of money in it. But when I came, what were we getting from it?
“The Murphy brothers (Jacob and Joshua) were regulars but I think Chris Martin was the only regular prior to that. What were we doing with it? What was the plan? It was about joining it up. People talk about the role of a sporting director and how it undermines the manager but there has to be someone creating that bridge for these players to walk over.
“The problem is that if you ask any manager in the world whether they want an 18-year-old kid or a 28-year-old striker who has won promotion four times they are going to go for the 28-year-old striker. Why wouldn’t they? If you are a manager it’s your head on the block so you’re going to go for the safe option. That’s just what happens.”
Norwich vs Swansea
March 8, 2019, 7:00pm
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Identifying Farke was important. Here was a coach with a proven record of helping to develop young players at Borussia Dortmund. But the real trick was giving him trust and time. Lewis made his debut last season and Todd Cantwell, another product of the academy, got a taste of it in the FA Cup. But it was this season that Norwich really doubled down.
Josh Murphy and top scorer James Maddison were sold on the back of a bottom-half finish and not everyone was convinced about the direction of travel. “We lost some big names and everyone gets fixated on Murphy and Maddison,” said Webber. “I understand that because we lost 25 goals in a team that wasn’t scoring enough goals. I completely get it.
“I am big on clarity with supporters because they pay their money so I wanted to tell them the truth that we needed to invest in youth and balance things up. It is all stuff that people are happy to hear but they want to win as well. So it was hard but we were confident that people would start to see progress this season. You just need a bit of time.”
Blooding young players can help to buy that time. Norwich fans have seen journeyman midfielder Marco Stiepermann morph into a star, while Mario Vrancic and Moritz Leitner have also shown why they were so highly rated in their youth. Pukki is a cult hero already. But it’s the young flyers making their way in the game who have been the biggest thrill.
At least three of Aarons, Lewis, Cantwell and Godfrey have started each of Norwich’s last 16 games. For the draw away to West Brom, Farke picked the lot. It’s an inspiration for the kids in the academy and a source of immense pride among supporters. “As a fan, nothing connects you to the club like seeing your own boys playing, that’s just a fact,” added Webber.
“Our young players will run through a brick wall for this club because they feel like they owe something back whereas senior players might walk around the wall or walk the other way. The youngsters bring an enthusiasm to training every day. Hopefully, they know now that they will get a chance and they will get a chance at a big club in front of big crowds.”
Norwich vs Hull City
March 13, 2019, 7:00pm
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With the trips to Anfield and Old Trafford that are potentially awaiting Norwich in the Premier League, those crowds could be about to get a lot bigger if they can just maintain this form for a little longer. Promotion would also improve their prospects of keeping hold of their best players. Whatever happens, it is now a priority to ensure that the pipeline of talent keeps flowing.
The club is in the final stages of a £5m project to transform the academy facilities at their Colney Training Centre with work set to be completed in the summer. That will help to hone the next generation of heroes at Carrow Road. But for now, all the focus is on the group of youngsters hoping to carry this club on the road back to the Premier League.
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