James Shield's Sheffield United Column: England - and the country as a whole - owe a debt of gratitude to The Blades
Nineteen point two percent. Very nearly 20. So, for argument’s sake and because admittedly it sounds a little better, let’s call it a fifth.
That’s the amount of players within the England squad which has reached Sunday’s European Championship final with Sheffield United’s fingerprints on them. A pretty remarkable number, I’m sure you’ll agree, for a club most people out there don’t view as a footballing powerhouse. Particularly those who used to treat the game and the people who follow it with thinly disguised contempt but are now flooding their social media accounts with patriotic GIF’s, videos, ‘likes’ and retweets to create the impression they were always some sort of uber-fan. (Don’t worry, as soon as this weekend’s match is over and the elation or disappointment subsides, they’ll be back to sneering at those of us they used to view as second class subjects because we get excited about sport).
Thinking about the contribution United have made to the Three Lions’ march on Wembley, perhaps it is time for folk to change their perception of Slavisa Jokanovic’s employers. Harry Maguire, Kyle Walker, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Aaron Ramsdale all graduated from the Steelphalt Academy after learning their trade at Bramall Lane. Conor Coady spent a season there on loan under Jokanovic’s predecessors David Weir and Nigel Clough, honing the skills which would eventually see him summoned by his country to St George’s Park.
“I absolutely loved my time there,” he told the creators of a well-known podcast earlier this year. “I can’t speak highly enough of my time at the place. I loved it. Brilliant.”
Two things jump out at me when I look at the members of this group. Firstly, only one - Ramsdale - is currently plying his trade for United after returning following a spell with AFC Bournemouth. But secondly, and perhaps most importantly for football in the country as a whole, that none of them made their debuts for the club while it was in the Premier League. In fact three of them - including Coady, who had made only two senior appearances for Liverpool before being dispatched to South Yorkshire - experienced their first taste of senior action with United whilst they were a third tier side.
That should provide food for thought for the administrators and lobbyists responsible for rewriting the rules governing the development of young players so they were weighted firmly in favour of the minted elite. It proves the top-flight sides don’t have a monopoly on excellent youth coaches. And that opportunity is everything.
There’s a lesson, actually make that a reminder, for United in all of this as well. With John Stones coming through the ranks at Barnsley, this region is clearly stuffed to the gills with talent. The focus next season will inevitably and quite rightly be on trying to gain promotion. But the powers-that-be must also make sure their youth programme gets all of the backing it needs to continue producing results. After all, as Gareth Southgate himself can testify, it is the one department at United which has managed to produce them on a consistent basis.