Sheffield Wednesday: Teen starlet leads the way for Owls

Young goalkeeper Joe Wildsmith
Young goalkeeper Joe Wildsmith
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He is one of their own and featured prominently in Sheffield Wednesday’s march to the Capital One Cup quarter-finals.

It has been a meteoric rise to prominence for Joe Wildsmith, culminating in him recently receiving an England Under-21 call-up.

In the space of six months, the lifelong Owls fan has gone from being a valuable member of their development squad to back-up goalkeeper, leapfrogging Lewis Price, a vastly-experienced player, in the pecking order.

Head coach Carlos Carvalhal has shown a willingness to put his trust in youth and handed Wildsmith his fifth start of the campaign in midweek, having opted to rest Keiren Westwood, who is nursing an ankle problem.

The 19-year-old could be forgiven for thinking this first-team football lark is easy as he recorded his third successive shut-out. He commanded his area with authority and handled everything Arsenal threw at him.

The Gunners posed little threat, with Wildsmith forced to pull off only one meaningful save, tipping over a Per Mertesacker header in the dying embers of the tie.

His rapid progress to the top is a big coup for the club’s academy, who have nurtured his talent for seven years.

“When we saw Joe coming through in the Under-18s, we knew that he possessed the ability to make the step up,” Owls youth coach Neil Thompson told The Star. “He is very calm and collected.

“Joe has had the opportunity, grasped it and got the recognition at international level but he has to keep progressing and have the thirst to succeed.

“You have got to have the appetite to not rest on your laurels. All we ask of the young players is to keep driving to be the best that they can be and be fully committed to it as you are a long time retired. We want them to go and enjoy it as it’s the best living in the world.”

It pleases Thompson, who is coaching the Owls’ Under-21s following Lee Bullen’s promotion, greatly to see academy products Wildsmith and Liam Palmer pushing hard for starting spots.

“They are fantastic and the pair have done really well,” said Thompson. “They have both got great attitudes and don’t want to rest on their laurels.

“They want to be the best and that’s what all the young players in the academy have got to aspire to whether they are nine, 10 or older.

“You have got an opportunity at this club. It is up to them. If they are good enough, the opportunity is there and I have told them it is worth fighting for.

“Being a footballer is a brilliant living but it takes hard work, commitment and you have to make sacrifices for it but the rewards are fantastic. There is nothing better than playing football in front of big crowds at Hillsborough as we saw the other night.”

The challenge facing Thompson and company now is to develop a steady production line of homegrown youngsters for the first-team. There are a crop of teenagers, including George Hirst - the son of Wednesday legend David - Matt Penney and Connor Kirby, who penned pro deals last week, blossoming in the U18 and U21 sides.

Thompson said: “It would be great if we could create a conveyor belt of talent here. We think we have one or two decent groups coming through.

“But you don’t get carried away with it and you have to be patient. Everyone has to buy into your philosophy.

“We want players to come through and get into the manager’s first team as quick as we can. When that will be, we will have to wait and see.

“A year in the life of a 16-year-old or 17-year-old is a long time. They go through a lot of changes both physically and mentally. You can’t expect too much from them too early.

“They are going to make mistakes but making mistakes is a great learning process. When you make a mistake, it is dissected. If you do well all the time, sometimes you become a little complacent.”

Has the academy’s philosophy altered since Carvalhal’s arrival?

“We have tried to change it in the last few years in terms of playing through the thirds and wanting them to play in the right manner,” said Thompson. “When we present a footballer to a first-team manager, they have got to be able, if they can, to do the lot. If the manager wants to play out through the back, play long or play through the thirds, then that’s what they need to be able to do.”

Given chairman Dejphon Chansiri has bankrolled a big recruitment drive, does Thompson think it will become incresingly difficult for Owls’ kids to breakthrough?

“That’s no different to any other football club who wants to be successful,” he said. “We have got to keep raising standards from coaches to the standard of recruitment. We have got to try and produce those players who can cope with the first-team.”

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