The calls that Chris Wilder and Sheffield United are railing against ahead of trip to Leicester City
The situation looks bleak. Bleaker, Chris Wilder might admit during a rare unguarded moment, than the ending to Rosemary's Baby or even Night of the Living Dead.
Bottom of the Premier League and 12 points adrift of safety with only 10 games remaining, Sheffield United are already bracing themselves for relegation. Which, as they begin laying the groundwork for a return to the Championship, has predictably led to calls for Wilder to play the kids.
Despite naming Frankie Maguire and Iliman Ndiaye on the bench for each of the last three games - ditching his tactic, now the transfer window has closed, of leaving at least one seat empty to send a message to the board - it is a plea Wilder does not plan to answer anytime soon.
Not because he doesn’t believe they have a chance of making it. At some point in the future, he actually does. Rather, Wilder’s reluctance to hand either their top-flight debut stems from his belief it wouldn’t be in their best interests to expose them to the pressure of a relegation battle; particularly one taking place in football’s most high-profile division, where every mistake - and youngsters will make plenty - is subjected to almost forensic levels of analysis and media scrutiny.
Still, although the duo appear set to be handed another watching brief during Sunday’s visit to Leicester City, Wilder is convinced they will still be learning plenty from the experience of being in and around the first team dressing room on matchday.
“Am I thinking it’s right for those boys to go on the pitch? Possibly not,” Wilder told The Star, explaining the methodology behind his calculation about when to blood the best graduates of United’s youth programme. “But they’ll have picked up plenty.
“What will they have learned? That the manager is bonkers. Probably a few swear words from me, and off the senior players a few more, together with the names of some reality television people they might not have heard of.
“But they’ll also have seen how good a professional the skipper (Billy Sharp) is. They’ll have seen how good a professional someone like Chris Basham is, who also puts everything in every single day.
“So they can take that away with them. They know the examples they have got to follow if they want to make the most of their potential and maximise their ability.”
Once the region’s most fertile breeding ground for gifted teenagers, with Kyle Walker, Harry Maguire, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Stephen Quinn and Phil Jagielka among the future internationals United have harvested from its ranks, the Steelphalt Academy’s production line has slowed in recent years. In part, that can be attributed to the club’s rapid rise through the divisions since Wilder’s appointment five years ago, climbing from the third to the first tier of the domestic game in only three seasons. But United’s infrastructure, as well as their talent spotters, has also struggled to keep pace. A category two facility, Wilder is petitioning for United’s hierarchy to make the necessary funding available to achieve category one status. As well as exposing their up-and-coming players to a higher calibre of opponents in Premier League 2, the former United defender used a story from his own career to demonstrate how it would attract a better quality of student too.
“When we came in, and we were in League One, we knew even some of the local boys were looking at us and thinking if they could get somewhere higher,” Wilder said. “My old man was the same, when I came through. He didn’t want me to come here, because Southampton was better, even though we were all United fans. There was even one player here at the time, Stewart Houston, who he knew, who recommended I went somewhere else, which is what eventually I did before coming back.”
Stressing his comments should not be interpreted as a criticism of those tasked with grooming United’s next generation - “We’ve got some fabulous coaches here, like Jack (Lester) and Paul (Heckingbottom) who have shown they know exactly what it takes” - Wilder continued: “We’re asking players now, aged 14, to look to push on and eventually get into our first team in the Premier League. That’s such a hard gig in my opinion.”
In the past, Wilder admitted bringing players through the system was not a priority as he focused first on trying to win promotion from League One and then the Championship. Some were sacrificed to fund moves for experienced replacements. But the landscape is about to change.
“There’s been times when we haven’t really been looking to do that,” Wilder said. “In the past, we’ve had to let some go to bring people in.”
Zak Brunt, Kyron Gordon and Antwoine Hackford have also been granted opportunities this term, with the latter making a cameo appearance towards the end of January’s visit to Crystal Palace.
With one already on next season, when United will be expected to challenge for promotion should their fate be confirmed, Wilder insisted the youngsters at his disposal will start the new campaign better equipped to contribute should their services be called upon.
“The intensity of training, the intensity of the games, I don’t think there’s any negative aspect to them doing what they’re doing at all,” he said. “That intensity has ramped up all the way through and it’s important that they see that so they know what they could be stepping into.
“Plus, on top of all that, I think it sends a message out that we still want to produce home grown players, even though it’s been difficult to blood them at times. It’s also going to give an indicator to the other boys here too, about what they can do and what they have to do to make the grade. They’ll also get encouragement from seeing it.”