Steve Weaver: Looking back on seven seasons at Norwich City

Steve Weaver: Joined Norwich City as Academy Manager in July 2017

Steve Weaver: Joined Norwich City as Academy Manager in July 2017

This is going to be a summer of change at Norwich City, with Sporting Director Ben Knapper putting his stamp on a club he joined in November.

Knapper will soon appoint his own Head Coach, having inherited David Wagner from predecessor Stuart Webber, and there will be other arrivals too. One will be a new Head of Football Development, who will ensure "clear pathways for players transitioning from the Academy to the First Team.”

The role is currently being advertised on TGG and will replace Steve Weaver, who has just left after seven years. Weaver was brought in by Webber in the summer of 2017 and quickly set about revamping the Academy. This involved replacing almost all of the senior staff and rebuilding facilities.

On his watch, 24 homegrown players appeared for the first team, including Jonathan Rowe, Adam Idah, Andrew Omobamidele and Max Aarons.

Weaver tells TGG he had been considering his future for a while.

“I was having second thoughts about what was next and it’s naturally come to an end really,” he says. “My family is in the North West and I’ve given everything to this.

“I think I’ve done this part of my journey and am enthusiastic to do something different. I’m open about what comes next, but I love the grass, I love coaching and love being around footballers.”

The 51-year-old is proud of what he's achieved at Norwich. When he arrived from Huddersfield Town, staff were working out of Portakabins, the Academy pitches had a hill and there were concerns about the club's ability to retain Category One status.

Now they have an impressive new Academy building, state-of-the-art pitches and a record of progressing homegrown players through to the first team.

Arriving at Norwich: 'Bang, they're on this'

Webber and Weaver arrived at the club with a bang. There was an early review of the Academy set-up that resulted in most of the senior staff leaving, including the Head of Recruitment, Head of Sport Science, Head of Coaching and Foundation Phase Lead.

The exit of the Under-23s Assistant proved particularly controversial, as it was a club legend in Darren Huckerby.

“We had to make changes because of financial constraints and I felt we would get more vibrancy from less established people,” Weaver explains. “We were probably also too fat, with too many positions, if I’m being honest.

“It wasn’t a nice thing to have to do, but was probably essential and I think we bore the fruits of that.”

A League Cup game against Arsenal at the Emirates in 2017 paid for new floodlights on the main Academy pitch and the £5m Canaries Bond enabled new pitches, an irrigation system, cameras to help with match analysis and the stand next to the main Academy pitch.

In 2019, the club opened their new Academy building, 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.

“Stuart was like a tornado coming through the place at the start and I was in his wings, helping him,” Weaver remembers. “It gained momentum and people got behind it. Suddenly, they were saying, ‘I’ll have a bit of this, he’s going to be successful.’ It was like, ‘Bang, they’re on this.’”

Norwich City Sporting Director Ben Knapper and Head of Strategy & Innovation John Iga will be speaking at TGG Live in September.

To find out more and to buy tickets, click the button below.

Mina Cup

Weaver praises owners Delia Smith and Michael Wynn Jones for backing the changes.

“Norwich have given me unbelievable autonomy during my time here and it’s been exciting,” the Pro Licence coach says. “Delia said, ‘I’ll support you with whatever you want to do.’

“The Bond was really inventive and now the infrastructure is all there, it’s built. The Soccerbot will be the next big thing. Some of the data coming out of that is terrific.

"John Iga (Head of Strategy and Innovation) is heavily involved with that and he's superb. I worked with him at Wolves and Huddersfield as well and he's helped to develop what I do as well as developing the club."

The Soccerbot was opened at the start of the 2021/22 season and trains tactical, technical and cognitive skills using 32 video panels that flash up different targets and tasks. A student has also been collecting and analysing data from it and will soon publish a PhD.

Academies tend to be judged on the players progressing through to the first team - and Norwich’s record has been very decent during the Weaver years.

“Until last season about 26% of the first team were homegrown players,” Weaver explains. “The current generation is (Jonathan) Tomkinson, (Jonathan) Rowe, Adam Idah, Ken Aboh, Abu Kamara, Andrew (Omobamidele) - a real good group of lads and it’s their time now.”

Weaver moved from Academy Manager to Head of Development In July 2020 and strong relationships with the first-team managers (Daniel Farke, Dean Smith and then Wagner) became more important than ever.

"I had a very good relationship with Daniel (Farke),” says Weaver. “We had an understanding that if I gave him a player he would know he was good enough for the first team, and I knew that he would give them whatever they needed for the next bit of their journey. And he is excellent at working with young players.

“I worked very closely with Dean Smith too and we had an abundance of lads who came through.”

Stuart Webber: ‘A force of nature’

Weaver is inextricably linked with Webber, who was the dominant football figure at Carrow Road for six-and-a-half years before departing in November. They have had significant periods apart, but worked in tandem at Wrexham, Wolves, Huddersfield and Norwich.

They first met at Wrexham in 2003, when Weaver was Head of Youth and Webber a trainee groundsman.

“He was 19 and a football nut,” Weaver recalls. “He’d just come out of groundsman’s college and used to do that in the day and then come out to watch games with us in the evenings.

“You could tell he had a good eye and was eager to learn. He was ambitious too. Wrexham was a really good club, because we adopted everyone. Pretty soon he got his coaching badges and was taking our Under-12s.”

When Weaver left the Academy to become Wrexham’s Assistant Manager, Webber took his old job.

After that they went their separate ways - Weaver to Manchester City, Blackburn Rovers and then Wolves (where he was a Development Coach for five years, working closely with manager Mick McCarthy and gaining promotion to the Premier League); Webber to senior recruitment roles at Liverpool and QPR - before they were unexpectedly reunited.

“I was watching a Youth Cup game against West Ham and Jez Moxey, our Chief Executive, walked in at half time and said, ‘I’d like to introduce you to Stuart Webber,’” Weaver remembers.

“I said a couple of expletives and and Jez said, ‘Do you know know each other?’ It turned out Stu had interviewed for the Sporting Director job, which had gone to Kev Thelwell, and got Head of Recruitment instead.

“Afterwards Stu told me, ‘Weaves, I didn’t want to say anything, because I wanted to get the job on my own merits.’ That’s him all over.”

The Welshman was hailed as a messiah during his early years at Norwich after leading the club back to the Premier League in his second season. After a second relegation and failure to return to the top flight, he was heavily criticised though.

“There’s that old proverb - ‘Success has a thousand fathers, failure is an orphan,’” Weaver says. “What I know is that a motivated Stuart Webber is a force of nature. He transformed the club and is an outstanding Sporting Director.

“People criticise some of his recruitment, but he didn’t get (Gabriel) Sara wrong, did he? He didn’t get (Marcelino) Nunez wrong. But everyone has a shelf life. The one thing he has never had is money. He has been great at getting promoted but then your young players are being touted to leave and your hands are tied.”

Wrexham: Hotbed of football

The list of alumni from Wrexham in the late 1990s and early 2000s is incredible. Four of their youth coaches - Webber, Thelwell, Lee Congerton and Mike Rigg - went on to become Sporting Directors. So too did Josh Marsh, who was a youth player under Webber.

Then there is Steve Cooper, the former England U17, Swansea City and Nottingham Forest manager; Peterborough boss Darren Ferguson; Heads of Performance Adam Owen and Damien Roden; and Simon Davies, now Academy Director at Tottenham. They were all there at the same time.

Weaver joined as a youth player in 1988 and signed as a pro before a cruciate injury put an end to his career before it had really started. It was manager Brian Flynn who encourage him to coach and gave him an opportunity. Suddenly a new career was born and there was no better place to be.

“I did my full badge at 21, my A Licence at 23," Weaver says. "I was there from 16 to 35 and did pretty much every job except manager. Young coaches now don’t get the access to the senior staff that I had.

"I'd be sat in the manager’s office with Brian Flynn, Joey Jones, Kevin Reeves, Ian Rush came later on. Joey was a European Cup winner and Kevin had been a £1m player. There were phone calls from all the leading managers.

“I can remember we played West Ham in the Cup and we went over to their hotel the night before and had a beer with Harry Redknapp and Frank Lampard Snr. I was also very lucky that in my early years I worked with a guy called Cliff Sear, who had been at Chester and Crewe and had found Ian Rush, Danny Murphy. Cliff had a wonderful eye and that influenced everyone."

The staff were friends but were ambitious and pushed each other hard.

“Sunday mornings we’d get in early, set up our sessions and there was a burger van that would come in and do a breakfast for us. There would be me, Stu, Coops, Adam Owen. The atmosphere was good. We tended to win a lot at that time. It was a social place to be and we’re all still close now.”

Core values for young players

Things have changed a lot for players since Weaver was working at Wrexham. For example, Joey Jones was a European Cup winner with Liverpool, but went on to become U18s coach, reserve boss and caretaker manager for the Welsh club. He had to keep working to support his family.

“I remember having one conversation with Joey in the middle of the pitch about mortgages," Weaver says. "He said, 'I’ve got a couple of years left to pay off mine.' I looked at him and said, 'Joey, you can’t be serious?'

"They had to work and bridge the gap from playing to coaching and I’m not really sure that’s in the game now. I turn up to facilities now and they’re world-leading and I still hear some complaints. I'm like, 'Really?'”

Weaver says the core values for players remain the same as ever.

"I have no interest in winning in youth football, because it's about developing people and players" Steve Weaver

"The best players are the most coachable," he says. "Nothing comes to you, you have to grasp it. Andrew Omobamidele is a really good example. He came over from Ireland and would be in the gym at seven in the morning.

"He'd come in with Dave Wright (former U23s boss) and Alan Neilson (PDP coach) and do some circuits. Ken Aboh would come in with Alex Matos at half seven and go on the rebound boards. They were making the most of the opportunities available to them."

Weaver also says it's called youth development for a reason.

"I have no interest in winning in youth football, because it's about developing people and players," he says. "I would sooner lose and make it hard and put an arm around them afterwards and say, 'It's hard, playing up.'

"Hence why our 18s never win. If you explain that to the parents they will understand it, eventually, most of the time, and what you end up with is a good player and a good human being.”

Indeed, Norwich's U18s are currently 11th of 13 teams in the Premier League South table, with 17 defeats from 24 games.

Now it's back to his family in the North West. He'll miss Norwich, but there are things to look forward to as well.

"Norfolk is a beautiful area and Norwich is a big club, it really is," he says. "There are a lot of good people there and good foundations for the future. The biggest problem with Norfolk is that I haven’t been able to nip and see a game though, because it's so far to the other clubs.

"For the first 20 years of my career I’d watch two or three games a week, minimum. The North West is the mecca of football in the whole world and I'll be able to get back to watching a lot of games again."

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