Loans the way forward for the next generation

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TO play or not to play? That is the question.

Danny Wilson’s brief this season involves not only bringing Championship football back to Bramall Lane but also weaving several youngsters into the fabric of the squad which delivers it.

A task so onerous, most managers would refuse to accept it. But Wilson insists it’s not beyond the realm of possibility.

Sheffield United’s youth system at Shirecliffe is, without doubt, the club’s greatest and most enduring achievement in recent years.

Eight graduates appeared at senior level during the 2011/12 campaign. Ten the year before that.

The prominence of the roles players such as Elliott Whitehouse, Callum McFadzean and Joe Ironside should enjoy, however, is a matter for debate.

Many of its most celebrated alumni have, of course, swum rather than sunk after being thrown in at the deep end.

But for every Nick Montgomery, Kyle Naughton or Phil Jagielka, there is a Kyle Walker and Stephen Quinn - superb performers who benefited from spells elsewhere before being assimilated into the first team.

United’s League One status is a double-edged sword for those looking to establish themselves at League One level.

Financial constraints mean they are likely to be granted greater opportunities as coaching staff are prevented from dipping into the transfer market at the first sign of a bump or bruise.

The knowledge that their reputations depend on getting United out at the second attempt, combined with the fact that patience is regarded as a dirty word in the modern game, means Wilson and his colleagues invariably prefer to rely on more experienced options.

If time wasn’t of the essence, if every defeat or draw wasn’t greeted as if it was the end of the world as we know it, then things might be different. But they aren’t.

Hands up who would be willing to swap a top-two finish this season in favour of furthering a teenager’s education? Quite.

The two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but you get my drift.

Wilson, speaking earlier this month, admitted supporters will always cut ‘their own’ more slack than folk drafted in from elsewhere.

But neither do graduates of United’s youth programme operate in a bubble whenever they set foot on the senior stage.

They’ll hear every moan and groan with the same clarity as their more battle-hardened colleagues.

Their bodies will always be willing.

But their minds, still coming to terms with the psychological demands of professional sport, might not.

Which is why the timing of their promotion is every bit as important as the schooling they receive on the training pitch.

And, if possible, loan spells arranged with other clubs so they can make their inevitable mistakes elsewhere.