Webber and Weaver talk Colney culture, category one status and their hopes for Norwich City’s academy future
- Credit: Sonya Duncan
Few things stir Canaries passions quite like the club’s academy – Michael Bailey spoke exclusively to sporting director Stuart Webber and new academy manager Steve Weaver on what its future looks like.
It hasn’t been a quiet time at Colney – even excluding the sizeable first-team changes.
Since the summer there has been shock at departures that included Darren Huckerby, persistent rumours over the club’s ability and desire to keep hold of its coveted – and expensive – EPPP category one status, all sitting under the shadow that is the Canaries’ current financial plight as they adjust to life without a Premier League parachute.
And yet, spend time with the two men now acting as custodians of City’s youth development system and there is no hiding their passion for giving young players a chance.
“I live in Chester, so I haven’t moved down here to go category two or anything,” said Weaver.
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“I have got to say from the moment I met Delia and the board, it’s actually been the opposite – they realise with the financial implications that the academy becomes more important, not less. They are more and more adamant about developing young players.
“I know he’s not one of ours, but you can see the way James Maddison is playing. He’s a young player that’s come in and I think the club has allowed him to develop. It’s the same with the Murphy boys. So we’ve got an ideal opportunity to enhance that and make it better.
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“I’m a developer. I’ve worked at clubs that have been obsessed with youth development, so I just see the benefits of it in terms of what it provides the community.”
Webber goes a step further: “This is a community club and let’s not forget the academy is the heartbeat of the community. It’s right that a Norwich boy has the opportunity to play for his football club if he’s good enough. If we take that away then let’s scrap calling ourselves a community club and just call ourselves a business.
“I think we’ve got a duty for that but at the same time, we’ve got to make it work. It can’t just be ‘nice to have’ – and I think too many clubs probably run academies like that, or because this or that club has it. For us, we’ve got to take it seriously and that’s something we do. If we have a plan and we stick to it, believe in it and invest in it, and we give the head coach the ability to play these players and support those decisions as a club, I think we can make it work.”
The plan has come with bumps in the road. Weaver described things being on a “grand scale” when he first arrived at Colney in September – something duly noted in a summer review that saw jobs cut and other personnel replaced.
“How can you get team spirit if your squad size means you’ve got eight players sulking every Saturday because they’re not involved,” said Webber.
“And it’s the same with staff. If you’ve got two coaches at every age group and they’re coaching 14 players, there’s one coach who’s either joining in five-a-sides or doing nothing, so his motivation goes down.
“There’s been lots of change, which is never nice and not easy. We’ve let a club legend go, and sometimes the easy thing is to keep people like that and people who have been here a long time.
“But after a long review, we felt we needed to do something. Whether we’re right or wrong, the academy wasn’t producing to the level of investment we were giving it. People will say Josh and Jacob Murphy, and that’s great. That’s two players in however long. But fundamentally, that’s not the level it should be for the money being put in.
“So we felt we needed to change it and we felt we needed to do it now, because in youth development people have got a horrible habit of always talking about the future – the under-12s are great, the under-14s are great. We actually need it to produce a lot quicker than that.
“If people just wanted us to make the easy calls, then we’re probably the wrong people. But we’ve done it, we make no apologies for it and hopefully the proof will be in the pudding that will justify not only the change with Darren, but all the other changes that took place in the academy and at Colney as a whole.”
Those changes will be bricks and mortar, should City secure the funding they need for stages two and three of more modest redevelopment than had previously been planned.
But the changes won’t include the Canaries’ prized EPPP category one status – despite ongoing rumours about City’s intentions following a similar move from Webber’s former club Huddersfield Town, who have recently dropped from category two to four and with it scrapped every academy age group below under-18 level.
In fact the Terriers’ loss has arguably worked out as City’s gain, given Weaver and Dean Wright’s subsequent arrivals.
“It’s potentially a couple of players as well,” added Webber. “Obviously they all became free, which was a call they’ve made. Ironically I spoke to the chairman there, Dean Hoyle, about their decisions and they’ve got their reasons for that, and I respect that they’ve made a decision.
“They haven’t sat on the fence. They have gone and taken action, which I think is pretty brave and a bold call, but that is what’s right for their club.
“We’ve benefitted because we’ve now got Steve and we’ve Dean here, with hopefully a few players to come.
“It’s a call they had to make. I understand why they made it. But they are in a completely different situation to us because of their location. It’s tough for them to compete with all the clubs around where they are – although they do have the current England Under-19 goalkeeper, which isn’t bad.
“But for us that’s not an option. We want to grow our academy, not close it or downsize it. What other clubs do is their business.”
As for Weaver, he plans to make sure the changes at Colney aren’t limited to bricks and mortar.
“There is going to be a slight cultural shift,” he added, with ex-Huddersfield colleague Wright coming in as his assistant at Colney yesterday, while Ipswich’s former head of academy recruitment Steve McGavin also remains heavily linked with a move.
“You’ve seen an awful lot of lads go out on loan and they’re thriving. Even the ones that are substitutes getting on for bits, they are 18-year-old kids learning their way.
“The model that’s always been successful for us is that we’ll say to the players if there’s not an opportunity for them here, then we’ll give them opportunities out and about and hopefully from the experiences they gain, they can come back here and add value to the club.
“We’re not here to build a great under-23 or under-18 side. We’re here to get players in our first team – and players who can make us better. Then if we can’t make players for Norwich City, at least we can start a career and if there’s a sell-on or we can sell one or two, get some money back.
“But I know under Stuart and what they’re trying to achieve, young players will get a chance here.”
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