‘We had to discover if James Maddison was good enough’: Prospecting for talent at Norwich City has its pitfalls
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Stuart Webber has a wide-ranging brief as Norwich’s football figurehead. He tells Paddy Davitt first team progress and academy development go in tandem.
Work smarter, work harder applies to Stuart Webber and his academy coaches as much as the young talent they are trying to mould at Norwich City.
Webber admits the Canaries have failed to produce enough homegrown gems in recent times, but now it is imperative they break the cycle.
“For a club like us who invest so heavily in the academy we have to get it right and support the first team,” he said. “We can’t afford two expensive left-backs, eight expensive midfielders. We have to fill in the gaps with younger players who cost less in wages.
“We have to recruit younger and create a culture in the academy. The age group coaches have to feel that pressure and responsibility to make them good enough for the first team. Too often in this country we coach teams, not individual. You need a level of raw material but they need to develop players.
“That applies from right at the top of the game down to the academy; this culture that you are in a hard industry and you have to work hard and when you reach a level, work even harder.
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“My role is about succession planning. We have to plan for when a Russell Martin or a Wes Hoolahan retires or a player leaves. We can’t go, ‘He’s finished and we knew about that for the past three years. Why haven’t we done something about it?’ But it is tough.”
Webber instigated a root and branch review of City’s youth system upon becoming the club’s newly-created sporting director.
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“When we reviewed it, it was obvious to me there was an issue with the discipline of players,” he said. “A lot of these lads maybe don’t come from fantastic backgrounds, so we have to give them manners, where they might not have had a role model or a parent to look up to. We have to make them rounded individuals and from that the football builds.
“Players generally fail because, mentally, they are not in the right place. They all have the same physical and tactical capabilities. I believe we can teach players to be good professionals.
“You see someone like Russ playing a few games for the Under-23s. What a great lesson for the young lads in the same team to see a Scottish international and how he prepares right before and after games.
“You look at how the academy is measured and audited nationally and in terms of producing players we are not good enough. The facts are there. There are reasons for that. When you are in the Premier League it is not easy to blood young players, because the priority is to stay up. The same applies when you are in the Championship and going for promotion.
“It is a bit of vicious circle, hence perhaps why I am here now and able to look beyond Saturday to Saturday.”
Webber is an advocate of the loan route to apply the finishing touches to those on the fringes of the first team, under the guidance of loans’ manager Neil Adams.
“We have seven out at the minute. They will all be back here next week for a period of training,” said Webber.
“We do not forget about them. We watch them every week. Neil Adams talks to them every day. Daniel can now see them first hand and mark their progress and see how they are developing physically and tactically.
“That is what I mean by investment. When we have a 19-year-old Ben Godfrey playing every week in a team at the top of League One then it is a case of how can we get him to be a real first team option for us? We need a clear plan for him and then for us to be able to monitor it.
“I remember when I first came in, with someone like James Maddison, we had to discover if he was good enough. Hand on heart did we know that last April? In my opinion there wasn’t a plan for him. He was loaned out to Aberdeen last season and played in a wide midfield area. Why? I have no idea.
“Then he came back here and had a couple of little substitute appearances. We had to assess what we had in the building and not be too rash.
“If we had signed an attacking midfielder in the summer then James might be out on loan now and no further down the line in his career.”