Norwich City banking on a ‘grow your own’ policy
There are, Norwich City chairman Alan Bowkett jokingly suggested this week, probably more seals in the North Sea than young footballers in Norfolk and Suffolk eligible to join the club’s academy.
It was a reference to the current regulations governing the geographical area from which a club can recruit its youngsters.
The 90-minute rule states that an academy player must live within an hour and a half’s travelling time of his club. It means much of the Canaries’ catchment area – said to be the smallest of the 92 League clubs – is occupied by a huge expanse of water.
And, though the seal is no slouch when it comes to ball control, he is unlikely to fit the bill as a Premier League footballer.
All that is about to change, however, after City’s announcement that they will apply for the highest available status in a new academy system to be introduced next season.
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The elite player performance plan, backed by the Premier League and Football League, will establish a four-tier system – and City intend to be a “category one” club, which will free them from the 90-minute rule and enable them to recruit nationally once again.
The aim is to transform Colney into a conveyor belt of talent to keep the first team supplied with quality players and cash in on the occasional star product, as they did in times past with Darren Eadie, Keith O’Neill, Craig Bellamy and Robert Green.
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The City team that won the South East Counties League title in 1996-97, the last season before the current academy system was introduced, included three future internationals in Green, Bellamy and Chris Llewellyn, as well as Darren Kenton, Darel Russell and Adrian Forbes, all of whom went on to play a significant amount of first team football for Norwich and other Football League clubs.
Under the 90-minute rule, they would have been beyond the catchment area.
The effect of the rule has been to reduce the flow of young talent into the first team. Of the 18 on duty in Saturday’s Premier League game at home to Arsenal, only substitute goalkeeper Declan Rudd came through the academy, as did the next in line for the gloves, Jed Steer. With midfielder Korey Smith sidelined after an ankle operation and striker Chris Martin now loaned out to Crystal Palace, senior representation from the youth ranks this season has been minimal.
To change that, academy manager Ricky Martin wants to produce one first team player per year under the new set-up, an aim shared by the chairman and the board.
Said Bowkett: “It is going to be the foundation stone for the next 10 to 15 years of how we’re going to compete in the Premier League.
“The key thing for us is that under the current 90-minute travelling time, we have a catchment population of 2.7 million. I think Wycombe Wanderers have a catchment area of 16 million.
“Just by the spread of being able to recruit nationally, by the law of averages we will get a better choice of candidate coming forward.
“If we look at pre-1997 and the great players that we generated in Craig Bellamy and Chris Sutton, we intend to do that again.”
Running a category one academy will cost City about �2m per year, �750,000 of which will come from the League.
“We will be investing a considerable amount of money, time and effort to achieve category one status. We have no doubt that we will achieve it,” said Bowkett.
“But as I keep explaining to everyone I meet, and all our directors, we have to continue that expenditure whether we’re in the Premier League or the Championship.
“I don’t think we’re going to get relegated but even if we did, we would be putting youth development before transfers.
“We’ve done all the calculations and that’s why we’ve decided to go for category one. That way we can be competitive and get over the next 10 years. Even if we were a yo-yo club – and I’m not saying we would be – we would still maintain our category one status.
“It is more important for us than anyone else to have national coverage. We have the lowest catchment area of any of the 92 League clubs so this one way of compensating for that.”
Bowkett said manager Paul Lambert was “very supportive” of the new academy plan.
He said: “There will be an academy board which Paul will sit on with his colleagues to decide the quality of candidates coming in, programmes and so on, but Paul is of the firm view – and this goes back to his experiences in Germany – that if we are to compete we have to have our own young, hungry players.”
• MAMMA MIA! IS IT JUST ABOUT MONEY, MONEY, MONEY?
An air of mutual admiration pervaded the Norwich City annual meeting, but the one topic that elicited a few dissenting voices among the audience of 500 was that of ticket prices.
The scrapping of a season ticket discount in certain age groups and the cost of casual seats at Carrow Road were issues raised, either tentatively or more forcibly, by shareholders towards the end of the evening.
One speaker, Peter Wolsey, told the board not the forget the “absolute loyalty” of fans in darker days and urged them: “Let us not get into the position like the rest of the Premier League clubs where it’s all money, money, money.”
Mamma mia! Shock over, the equilibrium was restored when another supporter spoke of his disappointment at such a comment, of the great value of the Norwich & Peterborough Stand season tickets he and his son enjoyed, and how he would willingly pay more for them – just possibly a dangerous suggestion.
One was reminded of the spoof Points of View sketch on Not the Nine O’Clock News when one viewer, appalled at the TV licence fee of �32, suggested it should be �400.
He wrote: “I would willingly sell my house and all its contents to help the BBC.”