Sheffield United: Slavisa Jokanovic makes a pledge to Blades' exciting young talents as he prepares to solve awkward puzzles
Sheffield United’s stable of young talent has received a major boost ahead of the new season after Slavisa Jokanovic insisted ability, not age, will decide the make-up of his starting eleven.
The Serb inherited a squad containing a number of teenagers and fledgling professionals when he officially took charge of the club last week, with the likes of Daniel Jebbison, Iliman Ndiaye and Antwoine Hackford all making positive impressions during the second half of last term.
With Rhys Norrington-Davies and Regan Slater also hoping to catch Jokanovic’s eye after completing loan spells with Stoke City and Hull City respectively, the former Watford and Fulham manager confirmed he is prepared to hand opportunities to anyone who demonstrates the qualities he looks for in a footballer.
“I don’t care about ‘young’ or ‘old’. I play 16 and 26 (year-olds),” Jokanovic said. “I don’t treat them like kids. I treat them like adults. I treat them all exactly the same.
“I started working with them last week. Because of various things that have been going on, such as people being away (on European Championship duty), I was working with 12 players so we brought in 10 from the under-23’s to join in.”
“What I am bothered about is personality and ability of course, not age,” he continued. “Personality, for me, is really important.”
Jokanovic’s willingness to utilise the Steelphalt Academy was among the reasons why United’s hierarchy chose him as Chris Wilder’s successor above a number of other candidates. Ryan Sessegnon, now of Tottenham Hotspur, flourished under the 52-year-old in west London; helping deliver top-flight football to Craven Cottage before being sold for £25m.
Although their careers are still at the embryonic stage, United are convinced Jebbison and Ndiaye both have what it takes to reach the highest level of the game while Hackford, who made his debut under Wilder, agreed a first professional contract with the club last week.
Rhys Norrington Davies
Norrington-Davies, who also spent time with Luton Town during the previous campaign, travelled with Wales to this summer’s European Championship despite having yet to make a senior appearance for United. Like Slater, Jokanovic will be studying his performances during United’s revised warm-up schedule closely given that he plays in midfield - a priority position for the recruitment department given the uncertainty surrounding Sander Berge’s future and John Lundstram’s decision to join Rangers rather than agree a new contract in South Yorkshire.
Berge emerged as a target for Arsenal even before United’s relegation from the Premier League, while Napoli and to a lesser extent Lazio are also interested in the Norway international.
“We have to show patience,” said Jokanovic, after acknowledging he plans to try and persuade Berge to stay with United. “We want to refresh things a bit. We think it’s needed and that it’s necessary. But we do need to have patience.”
Antoine Hackford & Femi Seriki
Although his decision to summon a swathe of youngsters to the first team pitches during Friday’s training session will be welcomed by those tasked with overseeing United’s youth programme and supporters alike, Jokanovic’s reason for doing so also exposes a need for more established performers too.
With Hackford and Femi Seriki, who featured against Newcastle in May, expected to be loaned out to accelerate their educations, United will not be able to add greater depth to their roster simply by promoting from within.
Jokanovic has privately told associates that he must strike a balance between providing genuine chances for members of United’s development programme to progress at Bramall Lane whilst also exposing them to the rigors of regular competitive action. Chances with United are expected to be in greater supply following their demotion last season. But they will be even more forthcoming for those placed with clubs in League One and League Two.
Working-out what is best to do with Jebbison could prove particularly difficult. The centre-forward became the youngest person to score on his full debut in PL history towards the end of last term and, despite the inevitable rough edges to his game, possesses the physical attributes required to thrive in the second tier.
However, with six other strikers also on the books, Jebbison could struggle to accumulate enough game time to make it worth his while spending the entire campaign with United at such a critical stage of his career. Particularly as, aged only 17, Jebbison performance levels will inevitably be inconsistent.
This is exactly the type of puzzle Jokanovic has been appointed to solve, although it seems inconceivable that United will not look to offload at least two members of their frontline before August’s opening game against Birmingham City.
Slater’s situation should be easier to resolve. Already the subject of a bid from Hull City, where he recently won promotion from the third tier, the midfielder is minded to stay with United rather than depart. But unless he feels part of Jokanovic’s plans, Slater is expected to be sold. Charlton Athletic, where Wilder’s predecessor Nigel Adkins is now at the helm, have also asked to be kept informed of any developments as they consider making an offer of their own.
“Age is not important for me,” Jokanovic said. “What is are other things, the things I have talked about. So if a player shows them and shows they are ready, then I’m happy to play them. It doesn’t matter what age they are. Age is not important. Other qualities are more important if you want to be a footballer. I don’t look at age.”