Norwich City Academy’s head of football development Steve Weaver has reviewed the Under-18s and Under-23s 2020-2021 season after it drew to a close.
canaries.co.uk: Steve, it was a tough season, but we managed to get through with the pandemic, how do you think the Academy coped over a tough campaign?
SW: “The Academy coped really well in just getting through it, especially the early stages which were very difficult. I think it was the people behind-the-scenes like James Bemment, Jen Rice and Greg Pillinger who just made sure that the environment was safe for everybody to come back. I think in the early days it was probably a bit harder because you were in and out and guidelines were changing so quickly. I think by the end of it we probably came through it with flying colours, or as best as we could’ve done really, or the same as the country in the end.”
Near the end of the season, we saw some normality return, parents were coming to some academy games and things were going back to how they were before, are you looking forward to next season where we might be able to go back to normal functionality?
SW: “The logistical stuff we’ve gotten used to has been difficult, so with housing people in changing rooms you can be in there for ten minutes, certain games we’ve not been able to get changing rooms. We’ve had to turn up and get changed in the car park, so that’s been difficult. It’ll be nice to just walk around, walk in dressing rooms, and have chats without facemasks. It’s not been easy, there’s been times where we’ve thought what the point has been in some of it because it’s been difficult. It’ll be nice to get back to that straightforward normality, everyone eating together, talking together, doing analysis in the rooms together, rather than just sending it out remotely. When we look back and we’ve done some of our end of season reviews, a lot of players have commented on missing the one-to-one interaction that we’ve not been able to give, so hopefully next year we’ll be back to some sort of normality.”
canaries.co.uk: Looking to on the pitch performances, what are your reflections of the Under-18s season?
SW: “The Under-18s season was probably a bit similar to all the others, it starts off pretty well, we got some really good early performances, then as always happens, some of the 18s go with the 23s and the 16s start to move up to the 18s. With 18s football, we pretty much never get a consistent team. I think it’s a bit of a rollercoaster, we’ve had some really good performances, then we’ve had a few head scratchers where we thought we could’ve been better. I think overall, in terms of what we tried to achieve, everyone has played the number of minutes. The average number of games for the first-years has been about 35, which is great. The second-years have played that little bit more and had exposure to the Under-23s. It’s the model we’ve got, and with the 18s overall we’re pleased with the opportunities that all the lads have had and hopefully they’ll benefit from it next year.”
canaries.co.uk: As you mentioned there, we saw a few younger lads come through, the first being the likes of Ola Okeowo, Brad Hills and Lewis Shipley, how do you think them lads coped with that higher level of football?
SW: “It’s really difficult for them, after the first seven or eight games we make it an Under-17s team and with some Under-18s still playing in it, but generally those lads have been in and around it for 18 months. With youth football, you can stay in a team for too long, what we don’t want to do is see their performances going backwards. We get to that October/November time and all the 18s are asking to play with the Under-23s, which puts a big strain on the first years, which they’ve come through. We’re hoping that the benefit of having a really tough campaign and playing the football, having the coaching and getting used to it all will pay dividends for them like it did some of the other lads who got into the first-team.”
canaries.co.uk: Looking to the higher age group, what are your reflections on the Under-23s season?
SW: “It’s probably as results have gone, we had a really settled, small team and we got through in the EFL Trophy and you can see from the performances, the team were pretty high in the league as well. The first-team then went through the injury crisis and four or five of them went with the first-team, then since then we were probably low on numbers with Andrew [Omobamidele], Josh Martin and those lads moving, Reece [McAlear] and Tyrese [Omotoye] had got some football and were away from us for two or three months. That team then suffered a lot, then probably never really recovered in terms of results, but if you were to ask us how well that team has done, it’s had three or four debuts and we’ve ended up with a centre-back playing seven or eight games for a team that’s won the Championship. It’s been a really difficult season in terms of getting players on the pitch, but in terms of productivity it’s probably been a season that we’ll look back on and be very proud of.”
canaries.co.uk: After them debuts, we then saw players like Tyrese Omotoye going to Swindon Town on loan, how do you think that system has fared for players this season? Is it a good reward for their hard work?
SW: “I think with loans is you’d like to think you know exactly, but the problem you have with any loans is the player is coming to the end of their academy journey. You’ve got to do one of two things, you either stay in the 23s and possibly become a bit stagnant in their performances, which we worry about, it’s a bit easy, not testing. So, you can go one of two ways, you’re either in our first-team, or you’ve got to go and get some football in an environment they can teach you away from it. That’s the model we’ve got, it’s not a specific model in terms of, ‘this is exactly what we do’, I think it’s player-led. We made the decision with Tyrese, for instance, that he’s been with the first-team and Under-23s, he’s probably gone past it, he’s still very young as a second-year apprentice, we sent him out to Swindon. I actually spoke to him about it this morning, he said it was a great experience and he learnt an awful lot about the game. Hopefully, he can come back and continue on his journey. The loan system is really what it’s there to do, you’re at the end of your academy journey and what’s next. If you’ve got no first-team route, then sometimes you have to create them opportunities away from the club. That’s the model we’ve worked in the past and it’s worked for us.”