Canaries caught out by reserve judgment

David Cuffley It will not figure on the new Norwich City management team's current list of priorities as they try to steer the club away from the trapdoor leading to League One, but one matter that should be addressed in time for next season is the almost total absence of reserve team football over the past six months.

David Cuffley

It will not figure on the new Norwich City management team's current list of priorities as they try to steer the club away from the trapdoor leading to League One, but one matter that should be addressed in time for next season is the almost total absence of reserve team football over the past six months.

The Canaries confirmed at the Football League annual meeting in June that they had pulled out of the Football Combination and announced they would be seeking to arrange “more regular championship reserve fixtures, and more suitable opposition on a regular basis”.

City's reserve talent, it was argued, needed to be stretched at a more senior and competitive level than last season's programme of 18 Combination East Division matches.


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But since the start of the current season, Carrow Road has staged just four reserve team friendly matches for public viewing.

The most recent was 10 weeks ago, billed as a showpiece occasion against an Arsenal team of youngsters.

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It attracted a crowd of more than 7,000 and brought a 4-2 victory and a hat-trick for Luke Daley.

The first game, back in September, was a 2-1 win against Ridgeons League Premier Division side Kirkley & Pakefield.

Between those two games, there was a 1-1 draw against Colchester United and a 2-1 win over Southend United, two sides City would, in any case, have played both home and away had they stayed in the Combination.

Sketchy details did emerge of an away defeat at West Ham, a game City neither announced in advance nor commented on afterwards, but other than references to the odd behind-closed-doors game at Colnitz, that's about it.

Talk of regular games against Premier League or Championship clubs seems to have been just that - talk.

Bryan Gunn's two immediate predecessors as first team manager both made it plain they were unhappy with the standard of Combination football.

Peter Grant admitted towards the end of the 2006-07 season that he was not convinced of the value of some of the fixtures the reserve team were fulfilling, but City did not withdraw from the league that summer and Grant was gone by October.

Glenn Roeder went much further by stating that he had never put any store on a player's performance in the reserves and that such games were little more than a fitness exercise.

It is true that Combination football had become a rather less attractive proposition than in the days when teams such as Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham, West Ham and Ipswich brought a sprinkling of first team players to Carrow Road.

But surely even last season's programme of 18 Combination matches offered a more useful workout for players on the fringe of first team involvement, and promising Academy prospects, than the current diet of barely any games at all?

If it was such a poor league and the opposition not worth playing, why weren't Norwich champions on a regular basis?

The current totesport.com Combination, as it is now known, includes reserve sides from fellow Championship clubs Ipswich and Watford, who did not see the need to withdraw, as well as League One sides Colchester, Peterborough and Southend and League Two leaders Wycombe.

We have been left with the absurd situation where City are paying salaries to a group of players who seldom, if ever, kick a ball in a proper game.

Stuart Nelson, Simon Lappin and Robert Eagle and even under-employed striker Arturo Lupoli - who has started no fewer 19 first team matches on the bench -- must be desperate just to play a game every now and then.

Senior players coming back from injury this season, such as Gary Doherty, Adam Drury, the now departed David Bell and, more recently, Carl Cort, might certainly have benefited from a few reserve games.

And the best youngsters, such as Daley, Declan Rudd, Korey Smith, Tom Adeyemi and Damon Lathrope, would probably welcome a bit more experience beyond their current Academy and FA Youth Cup schedule.

Given City's financial situation, one wondered at the time if pulling out of the Combination was a cost-cutting measure to save on the expense of travelling around the South-East.

But if it was, the alternative - a busier home programme of friendly games - has yet to materialise.

t A PITY YOUNGSTERS CANNOT PLAY IN PARK

It is unfortunate that City Under-18s have missed out on the chance to play at Goodison Park in the FA Youth Cup.

Everton's FA Cup fourth round replay against Liverpool means the young Canaries' third round tie has been diverted to the Stobart Stadium - Widnes' Rugby League ground - on Thursday (7pm).

Goodison staged the biggest night in City's youth team history back in 1983 when Dave Stringer's team beat Everton 1-0 in the FA Youth Cup final replay in front of a crowd of more than 20,000, thanks to a Paul Clayton goal. after the original two legs produced a 5-5 aggregate draw.

It would have been a great experience, more than a quarter of a century on, for Ricky Martin's lads to play at Goodison after their home victories over Wigan and Stoke in previous rounds, but Widnes it is.

Legend has it that Paul Simon's song “Homeward Bound” was inspired by a grim night spent at Widnes railway station - or even written there.

Here's hoping the City youngsters have a more joyful return journey.

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