Feature: Rise of the Sheffield Wednesday young guns

Neil Thompson
Neil Thompson
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Managers are judged on results and delivering instant success. It is such a ruthless industry that it is difficult to plan for the future. You never know whether you are coming or going.

Managers are judged on results and delivering instant success. It is such a ruthless industry that it is difficult to plan for the future. You never know whether you are coming or going.

Although academies are there to produce players for the first team, big clubs seldom put their faith in youth when money and jobs are at stake.

But there is certainly a talented batch of youngsters coming through the Owls ranks.

Midfielder Connor Kirby and forwards George Hirst, Fraser Preston and Jordan Lonchar have all shown great promise ... and there are many others.

Wednesday’s Under-18s and U23 teams performed superbly last season.

George Hirst

George Hirst

While the U18s finished second in their league to qualify for the play-off semi-finals, the Owls development squad claimed two trophies. Wednesday, led expertly by Neil Thompson, secured top spot in the Professional Development League 2 North division and the club also triumphed in the play-offs.

Thompson’s side held their nerve in the end-of-season knockout tournament, defeating Millwall and Hull City at Hillsborough to seal the double.

“We played some good football last year but there were times when we had to dig deep,” he said. “It is not always possible to play the beautiful game.

“Sometimes you have to defend well, keep your shape and play on the counter-attack. Sometimes you have a lot of possession and have to be patient.

We’ve come a long way in the last three to four years with what we are trying to do but there is still a lot of work to be done

Neil Thompson

“It is about teaching them all the facets of the game. There is not just one way of playing.

“It is about finding the right balance in each game and I think we had a mix of everything last season.

“We achieved as much as we could have done. We finished top of the league and the lads played fantastic to win the play-offs. Hopefully it will make us a more attractive proposition to players.

“We want to create good footballers and good people and I think we are doing that.

Fraser Preston

Fraser Preston

“It is great what we achieved but we have to build on that.”

Thompson is hungry for more success.

He said: “We’ve come a long way in the last three to four years with what we are trying to do but there is still a lot of work to be done.

“Our target is to improve the players individually. We want them to develop and progress technically, tactically, physically and mentally. When they fall short in one or two areas, that’s obviously what we try to improve and make better.”

Boss Carlos Carvalhal has demonstrated in the past he is not afraid of giving youth a chance. He has fielded a number of home-grown players since becoming Owls head coach nearly two years ago, including Hirst, James Murphy, Jack Stobbs, Joe Wildsmith and Cameron Dawson.

The law of averages says it is unlikely all of Wednesday’s youngsters will make the step up but there is a clear pathway.

Jordan Lonchar

Jordan Lonchar

“We are looking for players to kick on and get in the first-team squad,” admitted Thompson. “There is nothing better than a player coming through the youth system, whether it is the U18s or U23s, and breaking into a first-team environment.

“Sometimes they go straight into the first team. Sometimes they have to go out on loan. Each individual develops at a different rate.”

The next generation will have their work cut out trying to force their way into Carvalhal’s plans. The Owls look set to significantly strengthen their team this summer in the club’s quest to mount an automatic-promotion push.

If the young guns are to experience men’s football, it might be that they have to leave Hillsborough on a temporary basis.

Thompson said: “Hopefully one or two lads will be pushing to get a little nearer the first-team squad but there might be one or two who go out on loan next season. We will assess that when we come back for pre-season.”

Versatile left-sided player Matt Penney and midfielder Sean Clare were sent out on loan to Bradford City and Accrington Stanley respectively last term.

Penney was hardly given an opportunity to showcase his ability, making just one substitute appearance in the Bantams’ run to the League One Play-off Final.

But Clare was regularly involved at Stanley, playing nine times and scoring once before a foot injury cut short his loan stint. His Owls contract runs out at the end of the month.

Thompson is open to letting more of Wednesday’s starlets go on loan but stressed: “When the lads go out, they need to play.

“Matt Penney didn’t get as much game-time as we wanted at Bradford but that’s the way it is. It was a good experience for Matt and I’ve no doubt he will have learned a lot from being in and around a first-team environment.

“It was frustrating for Matt in terms of not playing more games but being around a first team who are successful adds to your knowledge and character.

“But at the end of the day, there have to be clubs wanting to take the players and it has to be right deal for everybody.”

For more news from Hillsborough click here

Connor Kirby

Connor Kirby