As soon as I walked into his office at Sheffield Wednesday’s Middlewood Road training ground, Dean Ramsdale wasted no time in making me feel welcome.
The Owls’ Academy manager came to greet me near the door, smiled, shook my hand and offered me a drink all in the space of ten seconds.
Thursday afternoon was the first time I had met Dean in person. I could instantly see why he is such a popular figure behind the scenes.
Allied to being very thorough and meticulous with his planning and preparation, Dean is also a thoroughly friendly, engaging bloke. His experience, drive and determination have immensely benefited Wednesday’s youth department.
Dean moved to the Championship club in September 2012, boasting a 20-year background in youth development. Dean and Head of Academy coaching Neil Thompson have overseen a remarkable transformation in Wednesday’s fortunes.
Gone are the days when the club would struggle to attract the most talented young players in the area. Now that Wednesday have achieved category two Academy status, improved their recruitment and brought in ex-footballers such as Steve Haslam and Danny Cadamarteri to assist with coaching, things are blossoming.
Dean believes parents and children are looking at the club in a far more positive light.
“I’ve tried to change the culture and alter people’s perceptions of the place,” he told The Star. “I would like to think we have started to do that.
“I certainly get a vibe when talking to people on match-days that there has been a little bit of a shift.
“It is much more of an open-door policy now. We want better interaction with parents and children. We want feedback whether it is good or bad.”
It has taken a lot of time, patience and resources but the Owls Academy is beginning to reap the rewards of the procedures Dean and his coaching staff have introduced. But, as Dean is keen to stress, it’s not been just down to him, it’s a team effort.
“There has been a lot of hard work that has gone into improving on what we had,” said Dean. “We had to make sure we restructured one or two departments and make them a lot tighter and better.
“Neil [Thompson] has been invaluable. I have put the policies and procedures in and what he’s done is put them into a technical programme and we have got good coaches now.”
Listening intently to our conversation was Neil, sat on another chair in the room.
The former Barnsley player and Leeds Academy manager interjected, saying: “From a technical point of view, I just felt the coaching programme was a little loose and it wasn’t tight enough in terms of the quality of coaches.”
More than a year has passed since Wednesday’s Academy was awarded category two status under the newly-implemented Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP), a long-term strategy designed to take youth development to the next level. Under EPPP, category one is the highest grading and four the lowest.
When Dean arrived, his short-term goal was to make sure they moved up from four to category two. The higher a club’s category, the more backing they receive as part of the EPPP programme, with the Premier League and Football Association investing more central income than ever before in youth development programmes.
“It was vital we achieved category two status,” admitted Dean. “What it has allowed us to do is to forward plan as we know we’ve got at least three years of money while we maintain that status.
“We’ve got that substantial money coming into the department and the club match it. A category two budget is run at £1 million a year from the income that you get in and what the club give you in the shortfall.
“You’ve got to be competitive. If we were in category three programme as a Championship club, there is a club who aren’t too far away from us [Sheffield United] who are in category two so we might lose players for that reason.
“We are in a position now where our category allows us to compete, not just with United, but also Leeds, Huddersfield, Derby, Nottingham Forest and all the other clubs in the area.”
Competing with United matters to Dean.
He said: “When I went down to London for the audit, I bumped into United’s Academy manager Nick Cox. I said to him, tongue in cheek, ‘I don’t think you are going to have it as easy as you’ve had it in the past with what’s happening at Wednesday’, and we believe it.”
Wednesday have also forged closer links with Manchester City, picking up four 16-year-olds who left the Premier League champions at the end of last season. Goalkeeper Brad McDonagh, left-back Josh Stachini and forwards Devante Hyman and Mason Duffy have signed two-year scholarships.
Duffy has already featured at under-18 level for the Owls while Stachini has appeared in the club’s development team. Dean claims “there is no way” the quartet would have joined them two years ago.
Neil said: “The biggest part of any academy is recruitment. If you don’t get the raw material, you are not going to develop the players. It is a massive part. If you don’t have the raw material, they go elsewhere.
“There has got to be a good learning environment at a club and it’s got to be enjoyable because that’s when players come back and you sign them.
“The four lads who have come in from City see what we are trying to do. We have good staff working here who will teach them the game. Ultimately that’s what they’ve got to learn.
“We haven’t got a massive training ground like City but there is an opportunity for the players to get into the first team. It may be two or three years down the road but there is natural route here.”
Producing home-grown players is crucial to Wednesday’s future. Some of their notable recent success stories include Liam Palmer and Jack Stobbs. Worksop-born Palmer landed a string of top awards last term, including the Player of the Year prize, while teenger Stobbs, who has been on the club’s Academy books since the age of nine, made his senior debut as a substitute in their penultimate league match.
The question is, who will be next off the production line?
Neil said: “I don’t have a crystal ball and that is the beauty of the system.
“We will have someone in the Academy who is just under the radar at the minute, who is doing okay, but one year will pop out. They are the ones you’ve got to keep an eye on.
“It might be this year, next year or in three years’ time. Who knows.
“We’ve got one or two nice players in there. We need more. We can just try to provide the raw materials for the manager to use and then when that player gets an opportunity, they’ve got to take it. Ultimately it is down to the player. When they player gets there and trains in the first-team environment, it is a culture shock.
“You hope through their academy time that you are teaching them how to play the game and teaching them good values. You don’t get it right every time, but that’s what you try and teach them. It’s not an easy game. It’s tough. It can be pretty brutal. It will come back and kick you in the teeth if you don’t work at it.
“I remember when Fabian Delph trained with the first team at Leeds and he blew them away because he had no fear. Players wouldn’t go near him in training because he made them look silly. He was tiny but an incredibly skilful player.
“Everyone develops and matures at different rates. Coping with the demands of the game, both mentally and physically, is a different kettle of fish at senior level. We try and be quite tough with the lads when they are out on the field as we want them to go into the first-team and do well.”
Given the huge strides the Owls’ Academy has made in recent years, it seems only a matter of time before another teenager graduates from the system.