Sheffield United: Life inside the football factory
Don't bother lecturing Travis Binnion and John Dungworth about the perils of academy football, they've heard it all before.
About how giving youngsters the best of everything is actually counter-productive. Spawned a generation of spoilt little rich kids with bad life skills and attitudes to match.
Given Sheffield United’s well-documented commitment to nurturing home-grown players it might come as a surprise to learn that, in many instances, they actually agree. Which goes a long way towards explaining, Binnion insisted earlier this week, the club’s presence in the knockout stages of both the under-18 and under-21 Professional Development Leagues.
“We feel too many academies and too many players hit a ceiling because they’ve never been taken out of their comfort zone,” he said. “You play on good pitches, with other good players but it’s too late by the time they realise they’ve not really been tested or pushed. So yes, academies can be too comfortable. But that’s something we’ve tried to address here.”
United have a long history of revolutionary thinking and, given the Steelphalt Academy’s track record of producing top class talent, that radical streak clearly helps deliver enviable results. Its manager Nick Cox, who will join Manchester United later this summer, was responsible for implementing the ‘Boys Club’ strategy which aims to make learning the game an enjoyable experience. The notion being that fun, for more junior students at least, is far more important than mastering the rabona or rigorous training drills.
“What Nick means about the boys club is that the lads are subjected to everything, to a wide range of different experiences, before they get here to us,” Binnion, United’s under-18’s coach, continued. “In the past, not deliberately, we’ve probably felt that we’ve hindered the boys a little bit because all they’ve done is play academy football and been coached to death. But it’s so much about the mindset. Listen, when you get to this level, it’s not a boys club anymore. From 16 onwards, it’s about your job and your career.”
Ultimately, as Binnion admitted, professional sport is a cut-throat business where the weak-willed flounder and strong survive. Just how cut-throat, under-21 coach Dungworth acknowledged, some of his charges discovered during a cull of talent instigated by Nigel Adkins and his coaching staff earlier this year.
“In November, December, January time, the manager decided to make a decision on the under-21’s. He actually came to us and said that the lads who aren’t going to be in my squad next year, we’ll make available for transfer now. That really pushed forward the group behind, the ones who were ready to step up. Last year, that group was under-16’s playing at under-18 level. So the experience they’ve got has been invaluable.”
That hard-nosed approach, Dungworth acknowledged, not only influences personnel decisions. It has shaped the tactics adopted by United’s senior academy teams too.
“In the past, we’ve probably been accused over over-playing,” he said. “We still play attractive football but we get it into areas where it can benefit the team, where you can score goals. The confidence is better when they’re winning, the lads want to learn more and they’re more enthusiastic. The atmosphere around the place has been excellent.”
“We’re not abandoning the perceived right way of playing,” Binnion added. “But football is won and lost in both boxes and we have to produce players who can do that. We still need to do better. We want more lads in the first team and we’ve not got a £1m player to sell. That’s why we don’t get too obsessed with the results because, if we don’t enough through and the first team doesn’t get promoted then we’ve all failed together.We aren’t naive, we don’t think we’ve got a divine right to get players called up. Some do. We don’t here. We’re young at every age group though and that’s good.”
United, who set Kyle Walker, Stephen Quinn and Phil Jagielka on the path to international stardom, are expected to rely heavily on home-grown talent next term with Ben Whiteman, Graham Kelly and Dominic Calvert-Lewin joining fellow academy graduates Billy Sharp, George Long and Louis Reed in Adkins’ first team squad. Adkins, who believes changes to the loan system will ultimately reward clubs who have invested heavily in their development programmes, reiterated his commitment to widening the “pathway” between youth and senior level ahead of tomorrow’s League One fixture against Coventry City.
“We genuinely feel we’ve got a unique programme here but this is a unique club,” Binnion said. “Five seasons in this division with these fans, you don’t get that anywhere else. We know we have to do something different but, when these lads do get selected for the first team, they don’t get time to settle in because the first team only wants people who are good enough. It’s bloody hard to make it and establish yourself as a first team player, let’s not kid ourselves about that.”
United’s success at academy level has been recognised by a number of organisations, including the Premier League and researchers working on behalf of the Elite Player Performance Plan, impressed by their ability to bring players through the ranks.
“You need a strong link but you can’t just get that overnight,” Binnion, a former academy player himself, said. “It’s something that gets built up over years. John has been here much longer than me and we’re fortunate that we can build on some great work that’s been done in the past by people like Ron Reid, John Warnock, John Pemberton and then Nick for the last three years.”