Sheffield Wednesday’s conveyor belt of talent shows no sign of slowing down

Sheffield Wednesday boss Jos Luhukay with Matt Penney
Sheffield Wednesday boss Jos Luhukay with Matt Penney

Jordan Thorniley. Ash Baker. Frederik Nielsen. Sean Clare. Alex Hunt. Jack Lee. Matt Penney. Connor Kirby. Fraser Preston. 

In a little over 10 months in charge, Wednesday chief Jos Luhukay has handed debuts to nine academy players.

It is an impressive number and underlines Luhukay's commitment to promoting youth. 

After so many fallow years since the millennium, the Owls now have a plethora of youngsters in and around the senior set-up.

Steven Haslam, the Wednesday academy manager told The Star: "I think in my playing career a young player would get an opportunity from time to time but to get this number of players through and getting chances at first-team level in a relatively short period of time is not normal.

"But Jos has a history in Germany of working at the top level and he has always given an opportunity to young players. He believes in developing young players.

Sheffield Wednesday defender Ash Baker

Sheffield Wednesday defender Ash Baker

"We are very integrated in terms of the academy and the first-team. We are working on the same page. There is a lot of communication between both departments and that has resulted in a lot of players getting opportunities."

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If Luhukay has his way, more homegrown players will be given first-team bows this season. Defender Issac Rice and midfielder Liam Shaw are the latest rookies to be selected in the matchday squad.

Wednesday's Under-18s and U23 players regularly train with the senior squad. That has been the case ever since Luhukay's appointment last January. There is a clear pathway and Luhukay is keen to create a production line of future Owls stars.

Sheffield Wednesday academy manager Steven Haslam

Sheffield Wednesday academy manager Steven Haslam

"We had a lot of academy players training with us on the first day of pre-season," said Luhukay. "They give the team dynamic and inspiration. 

"They fight and work hard to get into our team and play minutes. We are in a very positive way with our young players and I'm thankful to my colleagues in the academy. I have a lot of respect for them.

"Steven Haslam and Neil Thompson (the Under-23s manager) can be proud of the work they have done in the last few years. Neil has been here for many years and is a fantastic coach. 

"I think the academy have done a fantastic job in the last few years and I have been able to profit from their work.

Jos Luhukay with Owls youngster Connor Kirby

Jos Luhukay with Owls youngster Connor Kirby

"We work very close together and we help each other. I have given young players chances but if the work wasn't good (by the academy) I wouldn't be able to do this."

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It is an exciting time to be part of Wednesday's academy. It is arguably the club's most productive development of senior squad material for almost three decades.

Haslam, appointed the Owls' academy chief in June 2017, said: "We have been working very hard for a number of years behind the scenes to develop the academy and improve our processes.

"We sat down as a group of staff and really looked at things on where we can improve and how we can get players into the system.

"Ultimately, if you break youth development down into its simplest terms, you have to recruit really well, you have to develop them really well and at the end of it they have to have an opportunity. At this moment in time, we have these three foundations in place."

Sheffield Wednesday chief Jos Luhukay

Sheffield Wednesday chief Jos Luhukay

Little tweaks here and there have been made a long the way to further enhance Wednesday's youth operation.

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"We have restructured in certain areas and brought in some real expertise on the coaching staff," said Haslam. "We have got scouts actively looking around for players and we have good relationships with clubs.

"We are developing the players well in terms of the quality of coaching they receive right from a young age through to the upper end of the academy.

"It is not just about the coaching and the on field stuff. We have embraced sports science and analysis and have a really strong department there.

"We all work collectively together to benefit the player. Ultimately, it is about the player. Everything comes back to working with individuals within that team structure.

"It has all come to fruition and we have now got a first-team manager in place who has totally embraced the academy and what we are doing in terms of youth development and that has resulted in lots of opportunities for the young players."

Adapting quickly to the demands of the Championship can be a daunting challenge for some young players, but Penney and Thorniley have particularly flourished since making the step up.

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When asked if some of the Owls' academy starlets performances at senior level have surpassed his expectations, Haslam said: "Every player's pathway is different and every player's attributes are different. 

"From time to time, players do surprise you in terms of the step forward that they take and there are then some who maybe don't progress quite as quickly as you thought they would do.

"But young players do have a habit of surprising you and that has happened in a really positive way."

Don't expect Wednesday's kids to lose focus and get ahead of themselves.

"The boys are very grounded," said Haslam. "We have tried to instil for a number of years now the ethos of trying to get better every single day.

"We really reflect on the performance in training and in games on where they can get better but also on improving the things they are already really good at."

If anyone should know what it takes to reach the top, it is Haslam. He spent almost eight years as a professional at Hillsborough, having joined the club’s academy at the tender age of eight. Haslam played at the highest level and clocked up over 170 appearances for his boyhood club. 

Wednesday's next generation would be wise to listen and learn off Haslam. 

As he is keen to point out, it is one thing becoming a first-team squad player. It is quite another cementing a place in the starting eleven.

He said: "A lot of the boys have had a little taste of first-team football. 

"Every player is different. Some players might get loads of first-team game time. Some might have to wait a little bit longer. Hopefully they are going to have long successful careers. 

"The challenge for a lot of them now is to become first-team regulars.

"It is almost a race to see how quickly you can get to 100 games really and then that shows you have progressed. It shows you are established and that you are hopefully thriving at first-team level."

Despite masterminding a set-up that has produced a string of first-team players, Haslam is refusing to get carried away.

He said: "We are striving to do better every day, not just the demand we put on the players but what we demand from each other as a staff as well. 

"We do feel we are making good strides at this moment in time and we are seeing some relative success but we want it to continue. We do feel that we are making progress but we have got our feet on the ground. We are always looking to produce better if we can."

The continuing success of the Owls' youth system is a real source of pride for the club. Luhukay and Haslam are justifiably proud at the progress they have made and the conveyor belt of talent shows no sign of slowing down.

Never before have Wednesday been so attractive to young, aspiring footballers.

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Steven Haslam and Neil Thompson

Steven Haslam and Neil Thompson