Why Steven Haslam believes Sheffield Wednesday’s Under-18s will relish their play-off challenge
Academy manager Steven Haslam is confident Sheffield Wednesday's Under-18s will rise to the occasion when they take on Ipswich Town in the play-off semi-finals.
Andy Holdsworth's side welcome the Tractor Boys to Hillsborough on Saturday morning (KO 11am) aiming to keep their double hopes alive.
Wednesday's youngsters claimed their first trophy last weekend, securing a hard-fought draw at Sheffield United to seal the U18s Professional Development League North title. Conor Grant's penalty cancelled out Sam Ackroyd's second half opener as the Owls clinched the point they required to leapfrog Leeds United into top spot.
As a result of finishing top of the northern section, Wednesday have home advantage in the play-offs against the Tractor Boys, who ended up runners-up in the south division.
Haslam told The Star: "I think it will be a close encounter.
"Ipswich have had a good season themselves but we have home advantage so hopefully that will come into play.
"A lot of the boys have already played at Hillsborough. We played Stoke there in the FA Youth Cup earlier this season and quite a few of the lads have played there for the 23s and done well so it will not be a totally different environment for them.
"It is one that you hope will really energise them and they will thrive in that situation.
"Hopefully we will do ourselves justice and perform well on the day."
The Owls will fancy their chances of progressing, having thumped Ipswich in the regular season 4-0 following goals from Conor Grant (2), Charles Hagan and Liam Shaw. The winner of the tie will face either Leeds or Cardiff City in the final.
"It is good that the boys are experiencing this now at their age," said Haslam. "It is not an end of a season kickabout.
"It is obviously a really important game.
"We want the boys to go out and play with a sense of freedom. We want them to have a real go.
"Yes, we want to win but we can't always guarantee what the result will be because a lot of factors come into play. All we can do is focus on our performance levels and look to give it our best shot."
Haslam is not surprised by how well Wednesday's U18s have acquitted themselves this season.
He said: "We were aware that we had some talented players in the group but the consistency levels they have shown has been really pleasing to see.
"It is a good achievement to win the league. They have scored lots of goals, kept a lot of clean sheets and consistently performed to a very high level this season."
It is testament to the superb job Holdsworth and his backroom staff have put in behind the scenes that Wednesday's U18s have suffered just three defeats from their 28 matches this term.
"It has all been a real collective effort," stressed Haslam. "The staff that work directly with the U18s group from the coaches, sports scientists team and analysts have done really well.
"The players have been very receptive to all the information they have been given.
"But it is not just about the backroom team. We have staff behind the scenes like academy administrators and kit men who all make everything work.
"The players deserve all the credit but there is a really good team behind them who have done well too."
The rapid development and progress of Wednesday's younger players has led to the likes of Isaac Rice, Shaw and Grant earning first-team call-ups. Defender Rice and midfielder Shaw were both selected on the bench by former boss Jos Luhukay while Republic of Ireland Under-19 international Grant was included in the travelling party for their victory over Bolton Wanderers in February.
Haslam said: "These boys are still developing and maturing and there is still a long way for them to go to reach first-team level. They are well aware that they have to keep applying themselves well to give themselves the best possible chance of making the first-team.
“We have seen Jordan Thorniley, Matt Penney and a few others make their debuts this year so it is achievable.”
Tickets for the Ipswich clash are priced at £3 adults, £2 concessions and entry is free for season ticket holders.