Cox: Kids can be a hit like Britt with United

Nick Cox
Nick Cox
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Ian Wright, Miroslav Klose, Rickie Lambert and, most pertinently, Britt Assombalonga all took unconventional routes into the game.

Rather than graduating from one of its most prestigious finishing schools, this eclectic quartet all clawed their way up through the lower leagues or combined sport with shop or factory work before establishing themselves on the scene.

And, having cemented their position as the region’s leading centre for youth development, Sheffield United hope their pioneering ‘Futures’ programme, launched in tandem with a local college last week, will ensure they also become the first port of call for players who, despite boasting the necessary potential, have - for a variety of reasons - slipped beneath the radar of the region’s other clubs.

Assombalonga’s story - he used a similar scheme at Watford to carve his own professional career before completing a £1m transfer to Peterborough - is proof that recruitment, particularly at lower age levels, remains far from an exact science.

Nick Cox traced the Congolese’s progress during his nine year stay at Vicarage Road.

Now, in his present guise as manager of the Redtooth Academy, he is confident that United’s exciting new initiative will also unearth some unpolished gems.

“Not everyone is fortunate or lucky enough to be attacked to an academy right from the start,” he told The Star. “Everyone develops at a different rate and there are a whole host of factors why they might not get picked-up even though they have a real talent.

“Perhaps, for instance, they’ve not been physically strong enough to really impact upon a match even though they’re technically proficient. They might have the strength but lacked the right guidance to give them the right skills.

“Hopefully, that’s what this project will enable us to do. Give those youngsters who haven’t been given an opportunity, or not seen their first one work out, another chance. Because, and I’m convinced of this, there will be some really gifted footballers out there.”

United Futures, which is scheduled to welcome its first intake later this year, combines sessions at the club’s academy with studies towards a BTEC Level Three Diploma in Sport, Performance and Excellence at Sheffield College’s Hillsborough campus.

Assombalonga, now regarded among the most exciting centre-forwards in the Football League, completed a programme called Hertswood Impact devised by staff at Hertswood Academy and Vicarage Road and Cox said: “Britt just hadn’t been given an opportunity to showcase what he could do, at one of the main clubs in his area.

“But when he was, he blossomed really quickly and went through the ranks at quite a rate.

“The issue Britt had, probably, was he’s from North-West London where the competition for places at an academy is really strong. There are so many clubs, like Tottenham and Arsenal, scouring in that area and so not everyone gets picked out.

“But he had the right attitude and seized his opportunity. And that is the key for any young footballer. Being handed an opportunity.”

“People like Britt, though, have experienced life outside of football,” Cox added.

“They know the value of having a football career and understand how fortunate you are if you enjoy one.

“So, when he was given that chance, his committment was absolute.”

United, who have been responsible for producing the likes of Kyle Walker, Matthew Lowton and Kyle Naughton since being granted academy status, reiterrated their own committment to home-grown talent soon after appointing Nigel Clough as manager nine months ago.

Louis Reed, Otis Khan, Diego DeGirolamo and Connor Dimaio featured for United last season - but Cox is adamant that United Futures can also benefit Bramall Lane in other ways.

“We might have someone on the course who shows a particular aptitude for coaching so we could see them taking that path,” he said.

“Also, because of the nature of the qualification they will be working towards at college, we could find someone who can have a good career in the commercial or another department behind the scenes.

“Either way, those on the scheme know that they are going to be equipped with the knowledge and information to do something in their chosen field.

“Football clubs can’t make players because, ultimately, that is down to the individual. But what they can do, and I think this goes for any professional or business, is provide them with the environment to succeed.”

n Applicants have to pass practical trials and a formal interview before being offered a course place. Forthcoming assessments are scheduled for Sunday July 20 and Saturday July 26. Email anthony.tunstall@sufc.co.uk for more information.