Why Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder has laid down the law to Bramall Lane's next generation
As Sheffield United’s established first team players finalise their preparations for Monday’s Premier League opener against Wolverhampton Wanderers, those hoping to eventually join them in Chris Wilder’s squad have been told what they must do in order to be granted an opportunity at the highest level.
After being invited to join last month’s pre-season training camp in Scotland, and being selected for several of the club’s warm-up games, Wilder and his coaching staff have allowed several of the Steelphalt Academy’s most promising young graduates to depart on loan in order to further their experience.
Although Rhys Norrington-Davies and Sam Graham will spend the campaign with Luton Town and Notts County respectively, while Regan Slater and others are likely to depart shortly, Wilder insists it is far from a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ for those placed dispatched to sides in the English Football League and National League.
“What these lads have got to do now, the challenge that’s been set for them, is to become the best player bar none at the clubs they’ve gone to,” Wilder said. “We’ll be watching them closely.
“That, quite simply, is what has got to happen in order for them to progress as we want them to and they want to themselves. They’ve got to ‘smash it’ and be the standout performer for the teams they’re with - week in, and week out. That is their target.”
United became one of the most successful breeding grounds for home grown talent in the country after the turn of the millennium, with international’s such as Harry Maguire, Kyle Walker, Stephen Quinn, David Brookes and Phil Jagielka, now back in South Yorkshire following more than a decade with Everton, among those to progress through their youth system. Nick Montgomery, Matthew Lowton, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Aaron Ramsdale, recently resigned for an initial £10.5m, also among its alumni. But, as United have surged up the pyramid under Wilder’s tutelage, what was once a crowded bridge between the development and senior level has become increasingly sparse. It is something, despite acknowledging the difficulties of establishing a club in the top-flight whilst still providing opportunities for young footballers, Wilder is determined to address. Not least because, now back at PL level, United are now better placed to prevent the best in their system being lured away. In time, as the options at his disposal evolve, Wilder hopes United will be able to look to their youth programme rather than the transfer market when sourcing competition for George Baldock, Enda Stevens and Jack O’Connell. David Parkhouse, the Northern Ireland under-21 centre-forward, is another United have sent out on loan; joining Hartlepool United following spells with Derry City and Stevenage last term.
“The bar is now so high, it’s gone through the roof,” Wilder, who has so far signed six new players ahead of the meeting with Wolves, said. “Seriously, the levels we are talking about to do well in the Premier League, it’s a whole new ball game. It’s off the scale, but that’s what these lads have got to aspire too. That’s why I say they’ve got to be the very best, wherever they are. It can’t be any other way.”
“You can’t leave anything to chance,” he continued. “When you come in, for a Premier League game, you’ve got to be ready to go. Pure and simple. Everyone here knows what the situation is. Everyone knows what it takes to become a Premier League player and the standards you have got to set - not just on the pitch and with your consistency, but also off it too with how you handle yourself in the week.
“Being with the first team boys will have been brilliant for our younger lads, seeing how the top lads handle themselves and go about their profession. It will have taught them so much and now, after seeing it up close, they’ve got to put that experience to good use.”
Of course, while the ruthlessness and immediacy of elite level competition presents an issue for those working at United’s academy, it also provides opportunities for United to exploit. Dean Henderson spent two hugely successful seasons in South Yorkshire, winning promotion from the Championship and developing into an England player in waiting, before returning to Manchester United where David de Gea’s presence had threatened to stunt his progress. Chelsea’s Ethan Ampadu, who is scheduled to spend the next nine months with United, was granted permission to head north following Thiago Silva’s arrival at Stamford Bridge, where Frank Lampard, after overseeing a lavish summer spending spree, will be under pressure to deliver instant results next term. United, until the conveyor belt between youth and first team level cranks back into life, have taken a conscious decision to position themselves as the ‘go to’ destination for players hoping to eventually make a name for themselves with the division’s traditional heavyweights. If a bond develops, and Chelsea decide Ampadu’s path remains blocked, then United will be well-placed to either renew his agreement or - after banking another season’s worth of television money, potentially challenge for his signature on a permanent basis.
“I always say, every loan is with a view to something,” Wilder reminded earlier this year. “Dean’s situation worked out pretty much as we expected it to, but you are always looking to what might happen. Of course, it takes two to tango if you like, but you’re always conscious of what might happen.”