Sheffield United: How an NFL great is helping shape Bramall Lane's next generation
But when it comes to identifying what separates the best from the rest, Sheffield United’s academy coach, who has dedicated his entire adult life to the beautiful game, thinks the NFL legend understood more than most.
“He once said ‘winning isn’t everything, but wanting to win is’. It’s a nice line and one I’ve always remembered because, more than anything else, it really hits the nail on the head.”
Wadsworth, together with colleagues Travis Binnion and Derek Geary, have spent the past nine months relaying Lombardi’s message to United’s next generation at the club’s Shirecliffe training complex. Clearly, with its under-18’s set to appear in tomorrow’s Professional Development League Two play-off final, to very good effect.
Unbeaten since December and crowned champions with three matches to spare, the youngsters’ results have mirrored those achieved by Chris Wilder’s squad at first team level. A point Wadsworth, previously assistant manager at Newcastle, is keen to stress.
“It’s important that we look at what the lads up there are doing and also try and take things from their approach,” he says. “Because, ultimately, it is our job to try and provide the manager and his staff with players they can use.
“Listen, I’ve been in football a long, long time now and it gets to a stage where you’ve got to be a winner, you’ve got to be able to cope with pressure and have that streak in you that wants to get results. Some people might try and tell you otherwise but, the funny thing is, I’ve yet to come across a team that wins things that doesn’t have good players.”
Wadsworth brings a wealth of experience to his role at the Steelphalt Academy and, alongside John Dungworth, provides Geary and Binnion - the academy’s manager - with an invaluable source of knowledge. Aged 66, Wadsworth represented Scunthorpe as a player before becoming one of England’s most respected coaches; joining Robson at St James’ Park following a spell as a match observer for England’s senior team.
Speaking last month Binnion, who is expected to join Geary in the dug-out for this week’s meeting with Coventry City, used the phrase “talent needs trauma” to explain United’s pioneering approach to youth development. Despite running contrary to the idea that aspiring professionals must be given the best of everything and wrapped in cotton wool, Wadsworth is adamant it makes perfect sense.
“If you get called into the first team, you’ve got to be able to look after yourself and cope with pressure situations. If, by that time you can’t, then the chances are you won’t survive up there very long. Managers, who want to get results and who need to get results, are going to look for people with that capability. Chris (Wilder) certainly does and look at the success both him and his staff have had.”
“Steven Gerrard made a comment on television a few weeks back which illustrate this perfectly,” he adds. “He said he doesn’t like the word talent because, when everything else was stripped away, that wasn’t what really made the difference to his career. He explained how, every single day in training at Liverpool, he wanted to be the best player in the session. He gave it everything and, if he wasn’t, he went in the next day and made sure that he was.
“Every player who gets to this stage has obviously got ability and talent. It’s that extra little bit that often decides whether someone will make the grade or not.”
Which begs the question: Can tenacity be taught?
“You can encourage those traits to come out and you can work on it with people,” Wadsworth continues. “I do think you need a little bit of it in you anyway to begin with because, yes, if it’s not there then it can be difficult to teach. But you can certainly develop it within people and help them to bring it out.
“Over the course of my time in football, I’ve probably given debuts to 70 or so lads and that’s a big number. Developing players is something I’ve always enjoyed, it’s been a real passion of mine. Travis has instilled the right values here as Nick (Cox, now of Manchester United) did before him. Derek, John and a whole host of others are also doing really good work. They know what’s required.”
Wadsworth, who also worked for the likes of Scarborough, Carlisle and DR Congo before joining United’s academy in 2015, uses a series of fact-finding missions he has made to South America to illustrate the wisdom of this emphasis on personality and character.
“Everybody seems to have this idea that all they’re bothered about is skills and technique. Trust me, that’s not the case at all. I’ve been over there numerous times in the past 15 years or so and they want winners.
“Argentina, you can see the attitude their players have. That doesn’t just appear overnight. The same goes for Uruguay who have reinvigorated their national team by bringing players through the system and Chile too.
“All of them want brave footballers and we want brave footballers here. Bravery comes in many forms, we’re not just talking about smashing opponents. Bravery is also showing that desire, no matter what the situation, to receive and get on the ball.”
United progressed to the PDL2 final after beating Charlton Athletic, who finished second in the competition’s Southern Section, 18 days ago. City, who like Geary’s side won their group, overcame Sheffield Wednesday at the semi-final stage.
“The lads have done remarkably well this season,” Wadsworth says, “Especially when you consider that, for much of the time, people like your Regan Slater’s and your Jordan Hallam’s have been playing for the under-23’s. They’ve acquitted themselves in the right manner, played some really good stuff and shown the right attitude. Now they’ll be looking to finish things off on a high.”
n PDL2 U18 Play-Off Final: Sheffield United versus Coventry City, Wednesday 10 May, Bramall Lane, kick-off 7pm. Admission is free.