Blades Fans Column: Saluting the production line of young Sheffield United footballers

A few days before the Steel City Derby I was talking to a Wednesday-supporting friend (I do know a couple) about the contrasting productivity of the two clubs' academies over the years.

Thursday, 12th October 2017, 7:52 pm
Updated Monday, 11th December 2017, 7:10 pm
David Brooks is the latest United player to shine after graduating from the club's Academy

Between us we came up with four graduates of Wednesday’s Academy currently playing pretty regular league football – Liam Palmer, Joe Wildsmith, Richard O’Donnell and Mark Beevers.

There may be more, but I’m not an expert. They could count Jamie Vardy, I suppose, but they released him at 16 because he was too small.

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On the other hand, there are currently seven former United youth players with Premier League clubs (Harry Maguire, Kyle Walker, Kyle Naughton, Phil Jagielka, Matt Lowton, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Aaron Ramsdale) and four at Championship clubs (Billy Sharp, David Brooks, Kyle McFadzean and Stephen Quinn). In addition, United have George Long, Ben Whiteman and Louis Reed out on loan in Leagues One and Two.

Aside from this bunch, there’s Jordan Slew at Rochdale, Nicky Law at Bradford City, Ben Purkiss at Swindon Town, Jacob Mellis at Mansfield Town, Michael Tonge (still playing!) at Port Vale, Diego De Girolamo and Connor Dimaio at Chesterfield, Elliott Whitehouse at Lincoln City, Otis Khan at Yeovil Town and Jonathan Forte at Notts County.

And don’t forget Joe Ironside, Callum McFadzean, Kevan Hurst, Ryan Cresswell, Graham Kelly, Connor Brown, Adam Chapman, Kingsley James, Terry Kennedy, Ben Starosta, Jordan Chapell and Evan Horwood, who are all playing at a decent non-league level. Hurst and Cresswell both had long Football League careers. Aaron Barry and Keith Quinn are playing in Ireland, whilst Liban Abdi is in Norway, Aymen Tahar is in Portugal, Matt Harriott is in the USA, and Nick Montgomery is still playing in Australia.

All these names (apart from Jagielka, Tonge and Montgomery, who came through when it was a Centre of Excellence) have graduated from United’s Academy since it opened in 2002. Count them – 41, I believe, and there are probably others I’ve missed. It’s not just all about boys recruited at seven or nine years old either; United have an uncanny knack of picking up kids rejected by Premier League Academies (Jagielka, Tonge, Brooks, Whiteman, Khan amongst them) and turning them into professional footballers.

Some clubs don’t believe in Academies (Premier League Huddersfield Town have just downgraded theirs from Category II to Category IV, which effectively means neglecting anybody under 16), whilst others, such as Chelsea and Manchester City, spend millions on theirs, win the Youth Cup every year, yet never use any of the players they produce. Some Blades fans even believe ours is a waste of money, but the sale of a player every year or so to the Premier League brings in more than enough to pay for its upkeep and develop others to take their place.

The credit for this goes to the original Academy managers John Warnock and Ron Reid (appointed by Neil Warnock, I think), followed by John Pemberton, Nick Cox and now Travis Binnion, aided by Derek Geary. There are not many things a football fan likes to see more than a home-grown player making it into the first team and doing well. David Brooks is United’s latest star in the making, and with Chris Wilder and Alan Knill advising him he’s got the best possible chance of turning what is still only promise into something more tangible.

If you want to learn more about the way United’s Academy is run, read Henry Winter’s excellent article in The Times of September 23rd. You have to register to read it online.