Sheffield United: Why Chris Wilder is right not to overlook the academy as he plans to build a promotion legacy
Earlier this summer, when Sheffield United began preparing themselves for the Premier League rather than simply celebrating promotion, Chris Wilder uttered a comment which captured the imagination of many people working behind the scenes.
Because it did not reveal the identities of his transfer targets or provide any clues about those on Bramall Lane's radar, his remark about the importance of developing young players failed to generate many column inches. Indeed, shoehorned into an interview conducted alongside chief executive Steve Bettis, Wilder's words were largely forgotten beyond the confines of the bootroom by the time the following day's newspapers began to hit the streets. But the 51-year-old's decision to namecheck the Steelphalt Academy and some of its most gifted graduates was arguably the most revealing part of his appointment with the region's media. It demonstrated, despite the immediate challenge of achieving survival, that Wilder has an eye on the long-term too.
"To improve the team, to improve the assets and to improve and integrate the academy," Wilder replied, in response to a question about his priorities this summer. "I'm not saying in four years time we're going to be top six or anything like that. Because that gulf, right now, has become absolutely huge."
As Wilder highlighted, the most prestigious competition in English football has undergone a dramatic transformation since United last took part in it over a decade ago. More competitive and more financially rewarding, the gap between those at the top and the rest of the division is arguably now wider than the one between those unlikely to challenge the European places and their counterparts in the Championship. Fiercely ambitious, Wilder has calculated United's best chance of bridging the divide is to combine intelligent recruitment with a coherent youth strategy. A policy designed to ensure United do not become overly reliant on a chequebook or their hierarchy’s ability to generate funding.
Despite nurturing England's Harry Maguire and Kyle Walker in recent seasons, the conveyor belt between United's development and senior squads has slowed of late. The speed of the club's progress following Wilder's appointment in May 2016 has made this inevitable. But after lifting them out of League One at the first attempt before reaching the PL at the second time of asking, he is now determined to usher through another wave of home grown talent. Although partly an acknowledgement that United can not offer the same incentives to potential acquisitions as some of their more established rivals, Wilder has also told friends he believes bringing more youngsters through can help cement the relationship between his team and its support base. Like captain Billy Sharp and co-owner Kevin McCabe, the former Oxford and Northampton Town chief is a lifelong United fan.
"That, how the fans have got behind us and bought into what we're trying to do, you can't under-estimate how important that's been," he said earlier this month. "Moving forward, it's going to be more important than ever. It's also something that not everyone else can say they've got."
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With avoiding an immediate return to the second tier United's most pressing concern, teenage midfielder Regan Slater and 20-year-old forward Tyler Smith are expected to continue their footballing educations on loan elsewhere next season. Slater spent the previous campaign with Carlisle, helping them finish 11th in League Two, while Smith was a member of the Doncaster Rovers side that qualified for the League One play-offs. Further afield, David Parkhouse has been in fine form for Derry City and is expected to extend his stay with the League of Ireland side when the temporary agreement which intially took him to Brandywell expires next month. Given the striker's form and the fact United have yet to report back for pre-season training, it would seem sensible to allow him to remain.
"I want to be here for the rest of the season,” Parkhouse, speaking to the Derry Journal, admitted. "I have to get a few things sorted but hopefully the outcome will be that I’m here until the end of the season.
"If I am staying on, then I’ll be looking to kick-on and hopefully myself and the team can have a good second half to the season."