When conversing with Jimmy Unwin, the man who coached Todd Cantwell through his teenage years at Norwich City as well as ferrying him to and from a specific football performance school, you’re reminded that some people are just destined to play football for a living.

No matter how many keepy-ups we mere mortals can perfect in our back gardens, despite that seven-a-side performance which merits an immediate post-match analysis in the car ride home, some, like Cantwell were born to do it.

Because alongside being the “maverick” player that every coach in Norwich’s academy knew of, who could run games and thrive under pressure, there was hard work, curiosity and an insatiable obsession with making it. All the talent Cantwell possessed was matched with a willingness to stretch those abilities as far and wide as they could possibly reach.

“I remember one time I got a phone call from the school asking if I could have a word with Todd,” Unwin recalls. “Every free minute he had, he was jumping the fences to practice on the astro. The school said, ‘tell him to come and get a key and he can practise any time he wants!’ That was his thirst to be a footballer. He was just so hungry to make it.

“Todd was part of our first cohort at Norwich that went into a specific school programme. I used to pick him up every morning on the drive through his home town of Dereham. We used to have like 30 to 45 minutes a day in the car with him just asking questions about football and what he needed to do to improve. The kid was absolutely football mad.

“He used to ask me questions all the time because I was around the first team. ‘What’s Wes Hoolahan like? What’s he doing in training? What's he doing differently from others’?

“If we gave him a challenge or highlighted something he needed to improve, Todd would always go away and do it. For me, alongside all his talent, that was his main attribute at that age. Curiosity and hard work.”

Those qualities were honed under the tutelage of Unwin and others within the Norwich City Academy and have started to shine very quickly at Ibrox. This is a player who was always destined to play on the big stage.

Todd Cantwell is described as confident, wildly-talented and sometimes misunderstood. Even if it’s not taken long for those preconceptions to dissipate since his move north of the border in January.

Any meek reservations regarding Cantwell’s transfer were founded in stereotypical concerns surrounding work ethic and attitude, to explain a tricky 18 months endured after his early success in the Premier League and Championship with Norwich.

Very quickly, evidence completely to the contrary has quietened those noises.

“I think you’re seeing some things that maybe you weren’t aware of with Todd in terms of his work ethic and his willingness to win the ball back,” Michael Beale said last month.

He’s repeatedly noted that Cantwell’s ‘surprised’ observers not so much with his expected talent on the ball, but everything else his game encompasses.

Rather than shy away from hard work Cantwell always appears to seek it out. A passage of play during Rangers’ recent 4-1 win at Easter Road packaged up these themes nicely. Cantwell regains possession and then rides three challenges while the ball remains stuck to his boot as if attached by Velcro.

Only Malik Tillman has made more possession-adjusted tackles and interceptions (6.07) than Cantwell (5.94) in the squad, while the new arrival sits third in possession-adjusted pressures. 

Unwin, now a professional development coach at Cambridge having previously spent six years working within the Norwich academy set-up, knows the individual as well as the player more than most.

“He's a luxury player and he's got unbelievable talent, but alongside that he puts such a shift in because he just loves football and being involved in the game,” he says.

“So, wherever the ball was, he was trying to get it, that’s why we played him in centre-midfield. Todd would often be in different areas of the pitch trying to win the ball back.

“He's a maverick and sometimes, mavericks get misread. Todd just wants to express himself. He was always hard-working, doing anything he could to become a footballer.”

Throughout Unwin’s conversation with the Rangers Review, maverick is the word he often resorts back to, as if engaged in a secret game of word association.

“Todd stood out because he had his bleached blonde hair. But he also stood out because he was smaller than everybody. He was known as little Todd,” Unwin adds.

“But within the coaches, we always thought we had a gem in there as well because of how much skill he had and the way he could solve problems.

“We trained Todd up the age groups now and again and everybody within the academy knew just how good he was. At points, he’d show off which was the best thing about him. Todd loved showing his skills and trying different things. Everyone in the youth set-up knew who he was because of his attributes.”

With that pressure comes expectation. Glasgow’s goldfish bowl proves an immeasurable method of comparison to most other football clubs even if Cantwell’s no stranger to standing out and facing scrutiny. The only area Unwin’s willing to criticise is his choice of attire.

“I don't think any pressure playing in the academy ever got to him, because he played for fun,” he continues. “Todd had the right mindset, whereas some boys who maybe had some talent and had a chance of being players put too much pressure on themselves. Todd's family are excellent. His dad, Steve and mum Jackie, they're great people.

“He’s from a town that’s only 20 minutes from Norwich and he played for a one-county club because everyone in Norfolk is a Norwich fan. He faced greater scrutiny as he's a local boy.

“He is flashy. He is one of those who wear rubbish clothes in my opinion and he is eccentric, but like, so what? He's a maverick and he wants to be different. I love that he's brave enough to do that.

“Because he's so eccentric he never missed an opportunity to showcase his talents. That's what I loved about the boy.”

Beyond the hard work and talent, the other main talking point amongst Rangers supporters has been Cantwell’s positioning. Most presumed he’d play high off the striker as part of the attacking unit instead of the slightly deeper role assumed, connecting play in midfield and being involved in “every aspect” of the game as Beale explained recently.

Rangers Review:

“I think he’s a very interesting player a little bit deeper on the pitch, certainly when playing against a low block because he’s able to bring the ball and connect the midfield and the forwards,” the manager commented.

Throughout his time in academy football, Cantwell was a player who the team was built around, not an attacker only complimenting certain aspects. Unwin describes him as a problem solver, who wants to be as involved as possible throughout a match.

“For us, we were always building a session or a team around him because of the talent he had,” Unwin adds.

“I played him in the centre of midfield as much as possible, so he'd be on the ball. The main information for him was to go and get the ball off the defence and then try and make us play, knitting the units together. He’d be the one taking the ball off the centre-backs and then breaking the back line.

“For me, he's stagnated a little bit in his career because he's not played as a No.10 and has been moved wide instead. Playing in the middle suits him down to the ground.

“He could always get about the pitch really well and put himself into areas to make things happen. He’s not had that freedom he now has at Rangers at points with other clubs. Playing in that role can kick him on to the next level.”

Cantwell’s playing style is a product of experience. Unwin describes a stage in the midfielder’s development when the body-feinting, solution-finding style he plays with really started to develop.

READ MORE: How Todd Cantwell and Malik Tillman can thrive in the same team

“When he came to the youth development stage at under 15 or 16, all the other boys had gone through their growth phase but Todd was still small. So he had to work out different ways to adapt to that,” Unwin says.

“I’d like to say it was borne of coaching ideas but it was Todd, he just played differently. He could play one touch, two touch and then beat certain people. He was always finding different ways of doing things.”

All of this ties to the here and now, the anatomy of Cantwell’s move to Rangers at such a critical juncture in his career. Now 25 and making up for lost time following the disappointing end to his spell with Norwich.

Working with Beale was a huge factor in the player's decision to come up the road. And that all, in some way, makes sense after the conversation with Unwin.

Managers are products of their environments and Beale’s background in youth development and enthusiasm for fast, possession-based football, married with the unique advantages a club like Rangers can offer, made this move too appealing to turn down.

Tellingly, Cantwell has spoken of the importance of a player believing in their manager since his move to the club.

“I think he's at a crossroads where he needs to sort of kick on,” concludes Unwin.

“Mick done all the hard yards as a coach, he understands what makes the players tick. His reputation down here is outstanding in terms of looking after players and making training enjoyable.

“I've heard his training sessions are unbelievable from players that have worked with him. That's what Todd needs, he needs to be enthused with every training session, he needs to be challenged.

“So for Todd, to play in a role where he can go into different areas of the pitch and get on the ball, that will really kick him on because he’s got a coach who understands what he needs.”

Cantwell’s ending at Norwich led him to say via Instagram that “the situation and the way I was treated will be revealed and my fans and fans of the club will know the truth.”

You sense for the bubbly, enthusiastic football consumer Cantwell is, those 18 difficult months will have hit him more than most.

Already at Rangers, he’s playing with the tangible enthusiasm and verve that Unwin saw every day on the road to school and beyond.

Perhaps, for all he knows, Cantwell is back jumping over the astro fence, desperate to use every second he has to make this move a success.