Alan Biggs: Could George Hirst be the man to help Sheffield Wednesday get over the play-0ff line?
All the focus is on a huge game at Hillsborough tomorrow and rightly so. Sheffield Wednesday have to believe they'll beat play-off rivals Reading even without certain key players.
That’s why a good manager has a deep squad from which he’ll look to draw the customary positive response in pivotal games.
But it does also demonstrate the sheer scale of the climb facing the club’s academy prospects. Even the brightest of a fine batch.
If you’re good enough you’re old enough, the saying goes. Last Saturday I happened to see Fulham pose a major threat to Wednesday by winning at Newcastle - where the Championship leaders were taken apart by a 16-year-old.
There’s no direct comparison between Ryan Sessegnon (an attacking full back or winger) and George Hirst, although they do know each other as team mates in the young England set up. But it did get me wondering again about the son of David: is he ready to make a first team impact? Ultimately, there will be only
one way to find out.
I doubt that time is now. It would be less than ideal with the pressure on; that’s the way I’d guess Carlos Carvalhal sees it and, if so, understandably enough. But maybe having a young, eager Hirst back on the bench at some stage of the run-in wouldn’t necessarily be the worst option for a side with much-vaunted strikers who collectively (in part through Gary Hooper’s injury and Fernando Forestieri’s stop-start season) are not scoring enough goals.
Does raising the bar bring down the bar on academy kids?
It’s a question you could level at most Premier League clubs. That it can be posed at S6 highlights the financial backing and ambition that has transformed Wednesday under Dejphon Chansiri.
Some contrast from the impoverished backdrop that saw Steven Haslam, Wednesday’s head of academy coaching, establish himself in the senior side around the time of the club’s drop from the Premier League in 2000.
“Paul Jewell called it the Grange Hill team,” says Haslam, who was pitched in along with Alan Quinn, Leigh Bromby, Matt Hamshaw, Derek Geary and Owen Morrison.
Now Wednesday have perhaps an equivalent depth of young talent for the first time since then – behind a first team that is immeasurably stronger.
Some names: goalkeepers Joe Wildsmith and Cameron Dawson, defenders Connor O’Grady and Jordan Thorniley, midfielders Jack Stobbs and James Murphy; and, of course, Hirst, with 29 goals this season. All have had some sort of senior introduction and there are others out on loan. Haslam’s job is to ensure the next step is not impossible.
“The challenge is even greater but it’s something you’ve got to embrace and I still think if the players are good enough they will will come through,” he says.
“Maybe not in the numbers of my time but it’s the challenge for us coaches to raise them to that better level.
“And we’re lucky to work for a club that has ambitions now.”
On Hirst: “George has attributes that give defenders nightmares – and he’s a hungry boy.”
At 18, he’s younger than the rest while still a regular scorer at every level he plays, including young England teams, and the table-topping Wednesday Under 23s for whom he scored a recent hat-trick.
“All different goals, too,” noted Haslam.
“He has a lot of senior strikers in front of him who have proven pedigree. But he’s got good movement, he’s quick and, at 6’ 3”, has an aerial threat. That’s ticking a lot of boxes as a centre forward.”
Bottom line for young George and others is this from Haslam: “When an opportunity arises they need to take it.”
The question is when...