Gordon Young could probably walk into a room stuffed with Sheffield United supporters and not receive a second glance, writes James Shield.
But, despite his relative anonymity, the 50-year-old Scot wields a huge amount of influence and power.
For the past 12 months Young, previously academy director at Motherwell, has been tasked with expanding the League One club’s youth development programme across Europe and beyond.
Since being appointed, however, strengthening ties between Bramall Lane and a pioneering scheme designed to promote young Indian talent has dominated the majority of his time.
“For me, the basis tenet of my role is to spread Sheffield United’s excellent academy programme abroad. And to use my experience within that framework.
“It’s already been an exciting and life-changing experience. Within the next five to ten years, hopefully we will be bringing players through into the professional system.”
Together with coach Lee Walshaw, Young spearheads United’s partnership with the Tata Academy in Jamshedpur which has twice seen a delegation of aspiring footballers making the near 5,000 mile journey from the sub-continent to South Yorkshire. Their latest tour culminates with a game against a United Select XI on Tuesday evening when Nigel Clough’s first team squad are scheduled to visit Leyton Orient in the Capital One Cup.
“What we are doing is, I think, unique,” Young said. “There are lots of English Premier League clubs venturing abroad but their motivation is purely commercial. Whereas here, we are interested in development. Spreading the message about Sheffield United with the backing of a huge partner.
“What I’d love to set-up, and it’s something that’s going to happen very soon, is a player exchange programme. We’ve done that with coaches. But to do it with young players would be superb because I’ve always been of the opinion that, if you produce good people, you produce good footballers too.”
Walshaw, the former United midfielder, described how English expertise and Indian enthusiasm has combined to produce a polished, professional development project in a country which, given its 1.27 billion population, is a mine of untapped potential.
“It’s a wonderful experience, both in a professional and a personal sense.
“We have to make a four hour train journey to Jamshedpur after landing at Calcutta Airport and, as people will have seen on the television, that’s an adventure in itself.
“The potential over here, just because of the country’s sheer scale, is absolutely huge.
“There is so much enthusiasm for football in India even though cricket dominates in terms of coverage and money. The players are absolutely desperate to succeed.
“There are so many differences between the two countries but we are trying to get the best of both worlds. We signed a three year agreement about 12 months ago and we’ve got someone on the ground now, coaches, psychologists, nutrition experts for example, pretty much all the time whereas before it was more of a consultancy.
“We can learn from each other.”
Echoing that sentiment, Young said: “One of the things which has impressed me about India is the suppleness of the players. They do lots of stretching and yoga. It really does show and you can see the benefits. I’ve not experienced even a Champions League player doing that here.”
United’s agreement with Tata, one of the world’s biggest steel manufacturers, is already beginning to bear fruit. Its under-19 team lifted the I League title earlier this year and both Young and Walshaw believe the foundation of the Indian Super League potentially offers further opportunities.
Alessandro Del Piero, David Trezeguet and Joan Capdevila are among the names already committed to take part in the fledgling competition and Young said: “The Indian Super League reminds me of what happened in North America to begin with. There are lots of similarities with the (Japanese) J-League too. The interest is there with the names they have brought over. We want our young players to eventually view that as a route too.”
Walshaw added. “The new Premier League offers a real opportunity for growth and expansion. Providing, of course, it becomes something with a long-term legacy rather than just an event which lasts for three months of the year.
“The big stars will attract the coverage and the local players can learn from them. But, hopefully, the opportunities for them to progress will still be there.
“Everyone keeps asking when India will appear in the World Cup but I think it’s better to focus on becoming one of Asia’s top ten ranked teams first and then taking it from there,” Walshaw continued. “It’s also been awarded the under-17 World Cup in 2017 so that could give it another boost.
“We’re trying to mirror what happens at the academy here and officials from Tata have come with us. They’re taking pictures and making notes of everything.
“Three of the lads have just been training with the players in their age group from United and not only has that been a great reward for them, it’s given the rest of the boys a huge incentive and a real lift too.
“The aim is to get one player either into United or to Europe first and then hopefully Bramall Lane after that. But, because of the opportunities, it’s a ‘win win’ for everyone involved.”