Sheffield United are reminded about the importance of protecting their amazing talent factory

Sheffield United are being encouraged to ensure their academy is awarded category one status after Paul Heckingbottom placed home-grown talent at the heart of the masterplan he hopes will enable it to become established at Premier League level.
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Despite being regarded as one of the most prolific in the country, with England’s Kyle Walker, Harry Magure, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and most recently Senegal’s Iliman Ndiaye among its recent graduates, Bramall Lane’s development programme does not enjoy the highest rating afforded by English football chiefs.

This is a result of both the size, staffing levels and facilities on offer at the club’s training complex in Shirecliffe and leaves United vulnerable to seeing some of their best young players cherry picked by the country’s leading names. Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur are two of those who have launched successful raids for its students over the course of the past season.

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Although he has steadfastly refused to divulge details of his conversations with Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and other members of United’s hierarchy - insisting they must remain private - Heckingbottom is believed to have warned them that others could be persuaded to follow suit unless other up-and-coming players are afforded greater protection. That would require a significant investment in the one department of United’s operations which has functioned consistently well over the past decade and a half. But it is one, as far as Heckingbottom is concerned, which would be worth making after identifying his employers’ ability to produce high calibre footballers as one way of overcoming the handicaps they face in the transfer market.

Although coaching staff are aware of the need to front load most of the spending United will undertake after securing promotion from the Championship last term on ensuring they remain in the top-flight - which would enable them to retain the services of their best academy graduates for longer and, if they do depart, negotiate higher fees - Heckingbottom has spoken of the need to use the revenues PL membership brings to build a lasting legacy.

“We produce good people as well as good players,” he said earlier this year, after being informed he would be prevented from strengthening his squad in the January window because United had been placed under a transfer embargo by the English Football League. “We want to produce them for ourselves and, even if they don’t feature for us, go on to have good careers elsewhere. If anyone goes later, then we want to be able to sell for the best possible price and then put that money back in. That is the model we’re looking to follow, although obviously you always want to try and keep the best.”

Sheffield United's academy is one of the best in the business: Simon Bellis/SportimageSheffield United's academy is one of the best in the business: Simon Bellis/Sportimage
Sheffield United's academy is one of the best in the business: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Prince Abdullah used an interview with United’s in-house media channels to suggest moves to upgrade United’s “academy” were gathering pace. However, no date for work to start was given or, crucially, whether he was referring to the youth system or overall site itself. If it was the former, then United would almost certainly have to identify and then build a new training base, given the constraints of their present facility which opened 21 years ago.