From 49 Portakabins to state-of-art: Inside Norwich training ground
Written by Simon Austin — March 13, 2023
AS Stuart Webber says: “I'm a football fan as well and you don’t pay your money to go and listen to someone like me talking about long-term plans.”
Norwich City’s Sporting Director is clearly proud as he shows me round the club’s state-of-the-art Lotus Training Centre though.
When he first arrived at the club, in April 2017, “we had 49 Portakabins that our staff worked out of, we had a tiny gym and the Academy pitches had a hill in them."
Now there are immaculate pitches, a mini grandstand, a purpose-built gym, a match analysis suite, player lounge and a smart Academy building. Since 2021, the club has also had the futuristic Soccerbot, which develops players' skills inside a ‘360-degree immersive environment.’
In October this year, the final stage of the redevelopment will be complete, with the opening of a "world-class" recovery and hydrotherapy facility. This will feature a swimming pool, aquatherapy areas, individual hot and cold recovery baths, an underwater treadmill and camera systems.
Speaking on Episode #48 of the Training Ground Guru Podcast, which you can listen to below, Webber says: “It was a big attraction for coming to Norwich six years ago - I saw great potential for growth. Part of being a Sporting Director is being able to have that mid and longer-term vision and really creating something that is sustainable and has longevity.
“If you take the gym you have seen today, that will be active, I am sure, in 20, 30 years time, as will the Academy building. I think it’s having that ability to make an impact which make a football club stronger in the short, medium and longer-term.
“This club had talked for five years prior to me arriving about rebuilding the training ground. I remember a very vivid conversation with one of the groundsmen, who said, ‘Ok mate, I’ve heard all this before.’ And I actually said, ‘Yeah, but you’ve not heard it from me.’
“The club had had a few periods of success in and out of the Premier League but didn’t have a lot to show for it. There was maybe a little lack of direction. Ultimately, we thought, ‘Right, let’s simplify this plan. We need to improve this, but do it step by step.’”
The first step was installing floodlights on one of the training pitches, because previously "we had no floodlights round any of the grass pitches."
The floodlights were paid for by TV money from a League Cup game against Arsenal at the Emirates in 2017.
“From that, we set up a Colney Development Group," the Welshman explains. "It was about getting a big long-term plan for this training ground.”
In March 2018, Norwich raised a further £5m through the ‘Canaries Bond’, which proved a great investment for 735 fans, as well as providing a windfall for the club. The money paid for new pitches, an irrigation system, cameras to help with match analysis and the stand next to the main Academy pitch.
The main Academy building, designed by LSI Architects, opened in 2019, complete with classrooms, physio rooms, changing rooms and an office for coaches and staff, alongside a purpose-built gym for the senior and youth players.
Two spells in the Premier League followed, in 2019/20 and 2021/22, and these funded the Soccerbot and hydro centre.
Norwich were the first club in England to install the Soccerbot, which is housed within its own building and was in place for the start of 2021/22. The technology was designed by German sport scientists and psychologists in conjunction with coaches from the Red Bull group of clubs.
I stood on a viewing platform and watched an Academy player step inside a carousel of 32 video panels, each measuring 1m by 2.5m. Different tasks can be set, depending on the needs of the individual player, and they have to react quickly to manoeuvre the ball against flashing targets.
The Soccerbot works to develop cognitive, technical, physical and tactical skills, and coaches and analysts are able to monitor and measure what's going on.
A Norwich delegation visited Borussia Dortmund to see the innovation at work before investing £750,000 to bring one to Norfolk. The club are also funding a full-time PhD student to carry out research on the way the Soccerbot impacts coaching.
Tools like this do always rouse debate within the coaching community, with some arguing that they don't truly replicate the game and are just a gimmick. However, a number of top clubs have invested in similar technology.
The Red Bull clubs, like Norwich, use the Soccerbot. Hoffenheim have the Footbonaut. PSV Eindhoven have Intelligym. Benfica, the reigning UEFA Youth League champions, have the 360 system. All are similar though subtly different (you can see a graphic with some more information at the bottom of the page) and it will be interesting to see the results of the PhD project Norwich are funding.
Developments like the Soccerbot, and the new hydro centre, are all part of trying to stay ahead of the game for Webber. When he arrived, he says it was all about instilling a culture and blasting away any ennui. Now it's about being innovators.
Webber says: “You see lots of clubs get to the Premier League and then lose their status and at the end of it you ask, ‘What have they got to show for it?’
“I was very keen that we have something to show for it, so we have a legacy. We are proud of what we’ve done so far. My philosophy is that, as a Sporting Director, you are here to build something which will stand the test of time. Players don’t."
The 38-year-old also praises owners Delia Smith and Michael Wynn Jones for the faith they have shown in both him and the training ground project.
“I’ve been afforded here the luxury of time to implement a vision," he says. "The vision, ultimately, has been around facilities, youth productivity, improving our scouting, and all of those take time.
“There is a big understanding at Board level. Our owners have been here for 27 years now and been through thick and thin. For them, it’s about having a healthy football club that serves its community.
“When we talk about building an Academy building, they get that it’s for the next 20, 30 years, and that is really important for this football club. The facts are we haven’t got the wealth to compete with most of the people we are trying to compete with, so we have to find a different way, we have to have some different targets within that, otherwise we will just fail.
“It is about having a bigger vision and ultimately that comes from the owners. At least then the new owners, at whatever time, aren’t having to worry about building a new training ground. We want to win as well, but are having to do it in a sustainable way, where we put growth at the forefront of it, so if we don’t get the ultimate goal of achieving on the pitch we grow off it, from an infrastructure or staffing levels point of view.
“What we are ultimately trying to do is build a Premier League club and that’s what you’ve seen today. What we want is when this club gets to and thrives in the Premier League. Because it will happen, for sure, and a lot of the work will have been done before that."