As Alex Neil hopes to bolster his squad ahead of the coming season, the rising stars of the future once again unsurprisingly pops into the mind of fans – however, probably more-so than usual with City’s Championship status.
The usual argument is further repeated as to why they should be given their chance to shine whenever the current squad is facing tough times – they impressed in preseason, they’ve done well on loan, they’re better than so-and-so (insert name of player disliked here), and the usual “they care more about this club and want to go out and prove themselves”.
And then there’s the all debated question of “Are they really good enough?” when it came to Alex Neil naming his 25-man squad to compete at the top-level last season – many were surprised to see a lack of faith in fringe players or stars from the under 21 squad. Some of which would be taking a step up from League One to the Premier League if they were chosen to represent their club.
The end result saw only Harry Toffolo named as backup for Martin Olsson and Robbie Brady in left back – although the 20-year-old was eventually sent out on an emergency loan to Rotherham United, before dropping down a league to play for Peterborough United.
For me personally, last season was not the time – that understandably is debatable whichever side of the argument you represent. Loan spells during 2014-15 consisted of Oxford United, Swindon Town, Blackpool, York City, Scunthorpe United and Wigan respectively. To see players jump up from League One or lower (bar Championship side Wigan) to the Premier League seemed ambitious, possibly accomplishable but something unworthy of being rushed.
If anything, it would have reminded me of the 2009-10 squad – where at the time, the rising stars could grab a chance to play for Norwich’s first team in League One and then develop as they aim for promotion to the Championship, whilst City’s pace and back-to-back promotions caught the likes of Tom Adeyemi and Korey Smith off guard and eventually saw them leave the club during the following seasons.
However, now with the jump less ambitious following City’s relegation to the Championship and with no limit to the number in a Championship squad, there may be a chance to mix things up with who represents the Canaries as Alex Neil hopes to compose a squad with the ability to bounce back up to the top flight.
Looking at those who secured loan spells away from Carrow Road last season – it is obvious some questions about their quality when tested in the league’s can now be answered:
Carlton Morris settled in to his temporary home up in Neil’s previous club, Hamilton Academical, where he secured scored eight goals in 32 appearances. Some may argue he needs a decent spell in England before being risked, others may say his effort in Scotland argues his ability to perform.
Josh Murphy, on the other hand, finally experienced a decent time away from NR1 to be able to prove his ability outside U21 games, with the 21-year-old scoring seven in 46 appearances for MK Dons and being named as Don’s Player’s Player of the Year.
Whilst Jacob Murphy made the most of his time away from his twin brother and joined forces with James Maddison at Coventry, who would eventually sign for the Canaries, with both players making the most of the second division – Murphy scored nine goals in 40 appearances, whilst Maddison scored three in 24 appearances.
League One was also home to Louis Thompson – a player some would say has become forgotten since his arrival to the club in 2014 from his boyhood club, Swindon Town. Since joining up with then-manager Neil Adams, Thompson must have felt he never left Wiltshire, with the midfielder being loaned back to Swindon for the past two seasons, having been a fans favourite with his brother Nathan. The first loan was part of the deal arranged by former Canary and now Swindon Chairman, Lee Power. The second was the result of City’s promotion to the Premier League – a promotion which saw Louis Thompson drop down to the Under-21s, something which Harry Toffolo admitted, whilst also on loan to Swindon, is different to the game played in the Football League:
This is a different tempo, it is men’s football so it is a lot more physical and it is dealing with that – that is what separates the best from the rest.
It is men’s football and some of the boys in there (the dressing room) have got mortgages and houses. When you play under 21s you are pretty much playing with your mates.
This of course saw the midfielder snapped up quickly by his old club but as an accomplished and highly rated 21-year-old midfielder in League One – one might say that it’s time to see him deliver at a new stage. Goals may come far and few but as a midfielder, he is as versatile as can be, willing to attack and defend, with one able to potentially suggest Alex Neil’s choice of using him as a left-back in City’s friendly against Walsall and a right-back against Dukla Prague is a quality picked up from his older brother, who is also a defender.
With a club like Norwich and the hushed nature of club’s transfers, everything is up in the air apart from speculation regarding the players who found their feet in the Premier League whilst others of the team struggled, with Nathan Redmond the first to depart the club over the off-season. Though it would be fair to speculate positions could open up for the chance of youth.
But then it comes to the likelihood of such thing happening – does Alex Neil rely on experience or does he look for the next generation of footballers?
When he took over Hamilton Academical as a player-manager in early April 2013, the average age of the side was 21-year-old. With the Scottish side slightly smaller in size to a City squad, it could be seen that Neil and his predecessor Billy Reid were reliant on young players to name a matchday 16. Obviously with transfer windows closed when Neil took temporary charge of the Accies, he had to stick to the squad formed by Reid for the remaining month, but still 11 players under the age of 21 at the time played a part during the month of which Neil took charge, including Stephen Hendrie at the age of 18, who has now signed with West Ham for £1 million. Whilst the following seasons in charge before his arrival to Norfolk in January 2015, the average age of the squad moved to 24 as the youth developed and Neil brought in experienced heads as the Accies were welcomed into the Scottish Premier League during his last season in charge.
Since joining Norwich, the average age of the squad is seemingly the result of keeping long-serving players, with the average age of the squad being around 27-years-old in the past few seasons. His signings also slot into that scale – Robbie Brady, Andre Wisdom and Patrick Bamford seemed the rare exceptions, the signing of Ben Godfrey and James Maddison saw a plan for the future. But when the 35-year-old can put a finger on the date is unbeknown to everyone. Although, Neil’s latest signing of Sergi Canos from Liverpool, following a successful loan spell at Brentford, could suggest Neil is looking open to giving the youth a go, and almost certainly, he is finding players who have proved themselves in the Championship.
It is clear that as a young manager who is certainly still learning during his time in the job, Alex Neil relies on the older generation and understandably so when battling it out for promotion, followed by survival in the Premier League. However, his time at the Accies hints at the possibility of welcoming rising stars into the line-up if they can prove themselves and with no limit to the line-up and depending on Neil’s take on the Cup competitions, there may be a chance for a mix up in the format.
There is another option. The English Football League Trophy. It’s a touchy subject of those protective to the Under 21s and B Teams – however, for me, I’m on the opposite side of the debate, the one of the lower leagues. Let’s not forget, it wasn’t long ago since Norwich made their way into the semi-finals of the tournament (previously known as the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy) in 2010, beating Brentford, Gillingham, Swindon Town, before falling at the hands of Southampton during penalties.
Where League 1 and League 2 teams used to be divided into North and South sectors to play for a regional place at Wembley – the reformatting has meant 16 invited category One Academy Teams have been invited, rumours surround Norwich becoming the next to be invited due to speculation of teams declining their invite. Of those teams, six of the starting eleven must be Under 21.
The competition has been changed into one that sounds like the World Cup or Euros, with teams organised into “16 groups of four teams” who will win points as they play each other, with the top two teams progressing to the “knockout stage”. That remains regionalised and so does the second round – after that, it seems the regionalised aspect of the tournament disappears.
Invited teams have since been rumoured to turn down their invitations to join, including Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham, with the likes of Everton, Swansea and Stoke all choosing to accept their invitation to compete.
If Norwich are to be given the invitation and should they accept it, a new challenge will open up as to whether – as mentioned above through Harry Toffolo’s quote – Under 21s can play the “men’s game” or whether by the end of the tournament, more complaints are driven through the success and almost hijacking of the cup from the clutches of the League 1 and 2 teams.
It’s fair to say that the whole debate regarding whether players who have previously gone out on loan are ready to step up to the plate but there’s many encouraging aspects to look into and maybe something positive could actually come out of City’s relegation back to the Championship.