Chris Wilder discusses the prospect of more young prospects joining Antwoine Hackford in Sheffield United's squad

After seeing a squad already depleted by injury and suspension weakened still further when two first team players tested positive for Covid-19, Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder has explained why he resisted the temptation to bolster the options at his disposal for the visit to Crystal Palace by naming more members of the club’s Steelphalt Academy youth programme on the bench alongside Antwoine Hackford.

Sunday, 3rd January 2021, 10:30 pm

With Oliver Burke and Jack Robinson sustaining knocks during training earlier in the week, United named only six substitutes at Selhurst Park despite being permitted three more following a Premier League rule change.

One of those selected, 16-year-old Hackford, became the youngest player to make an appearance for the visitors in the competition when he was introduced during the closing stages. Speaking after first-half goals from Jeffrey Schlupp and Eberechi Eze condemned United to their 15th defeat in 17 outings, Wilder was asked why three more of Hackford’s contemporaries had not been invited to join him on the bench.

Suggesting that would have been a token gesture, he replied: “Honestly, and I’m not being critical of the question, you can’t compare what’s going on at our academy to anyone else’s academy (in the division). I’m not being disrespectful but it’s uneducated, if you like, if people think what happens at Chelsea’s academy, or Arsenal’s academy or Manchester City’s academy is the same as at our one. It (playing in the PL) would destroy some of the young players at our place.”

Antwoine Hackford of Sheffield United receives his instructions from manager Chris Wilder: Paul Terry/Sportimage

Having once been the most celebrated talent factory in the north of England, developing the likes of Harry Maguire, Kyle Walker, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and David Brooks, United’s youth system has struggled to keep pace with the first team’s rapid progress of late - with Wilder inheriting a squad which had just finished mid-table in the third tier of English football when he was appointed only four-and-a-half years ago. Although some missteps have undoubtedly occurred - the fee Everton paid to acquire Calvert-Lewin failed to reflect his potential while Ben Whiteman, now attracting interest from higher up the food chain, should have been nurtured rather than sold to Doncaster Rovers - United have also been handicapped by changes governing the movement of young players and spiralling wages among the game’s junior levels. Securing category one status for their academy would also require a significant financial investment from the board of directors and, given the size of their current complex, a commitment to purchase and develop a brand new site.

Although Wilder will hope his shorthanded squad sends a message to United’s hierarchy about the importance of making an early breakthrough in this month’s transfer market, he acknowledged: “We are category two when the rest of this division, and most of the one below, are category one. That’s a part of the club we are looking to develop. We have to be really careful in terms of picking one or two (young players) out. I’m not killing the players, because they could come good.

“If we had progressed in the way most people probably expected, they’d be looking to get into a mid-table Championship team by now. But now we are in the Premier League, and there’s a world of a difference.”

An important message: Thank you for reading this article, one of dozens we publish every single day to provide you with the best, most up-to-date and most informative coverage of YOUR club. This depth of coverage costs, so to help us maintain the high-quality reporting that you are used to from the football team at The Star, please consider taking out a subscription to our new discounted sports-only package. You'll find all the details at https://www.thestar.co.uk/subscriptions/sports. Your support is much appreciated.

Crystal Palace's Jeffrey Schlupp (centre R) shoots to score the opening goal past Sheffield United's English goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale (bottom) during the English Premier League football match between Crystal Palace and Sheffield United at Selhurst Park: CATHERINE IVILL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Chris Wilder (L) could only name six substitutes for Sheffield United's Premier League fixture at Selhurst Park: Paul Terry/Sportimage