By Matt Birch
It is around this time of year that we hear which of our youth players have been given contracts and which have been released (last year it was the 10th of April this information was released). It is also around this time of the year that, if we have nothing to play for, we are clamouring for our youngsters to be thrown into the deep end with the first team.
There is nothing most fans would like to see more than one of our youth players making it in the first team and I am no different. We get excited about the latest player we believe to be a potential future star, and we get disappointed when yet another crop of youngsters gets released from the club.
Right now, we have undoubtedly the best crop of youth players we have had since the mid-eighties. This can be seen in the performances and of course with the youth team being one match away from a league and cup double. A pretty impressive feat, made all the more grand when you factor in the amount of under 16s that have been playing in the youth team. Much credit must go to the chairmen and of course Peter Horne and his team of coaches. The club’s youth set-up and scouting network has come along leaps and bounds over the past few years and the likes of Jack Stockdill, Oli McBurnie and Niall Heaton are just the tip of the ice-berg.
With the talent we have, should we then be frustrated that only McBurnie has featured in the first team this season? No. Rather we should actually be delighted that one 2nd year apprentice has played nine first team games, including a couple of starts. We should also be proud that a number of 1st and 2nd year apprentices have even made the bench this season, as well as the honourable mentions of those who have travelled with the first team squad. These are tremendous achievements and Phil Parkinson should be commended on his faith in the youth team players.
To put things into perspective I have put together a random list of 41 past and present City players and tracked the point in their career in which they had their “breakthrough” season – and the results are rather surprising. The players are a mixed bunch who have had varying success, from those who found their level in non-league to Premiership players, full internationals and everything in-between:
The jail-bait (2nd year apprentices, 17-18):
Simon Francis, Oliver McBurnie, Graeme Tomlinson, Dean Richards.
The early birds (1st year pro, 18-19):
Nathan Doyle, Andy Gray, Rory McArdle, Danny Forrest, Stuart McCall, Mark Bower, Andy O’Brien, Des Hamilton.
(2nd year pro, 19-20): Matthew Bates, Jason Kennedy, Mark Yeates, Kyel Reid, Adam Drury, Andrew Davies, Emile Sinclair, Joe Colbeck, Luke O’Brien, John Hendrie, Wayne Jacobs, Tom Cleverley, Andre Wisdom.
(3rd year pro, 20-21): Kyle Bennett, Chris Atkinson, Jon Stead, Aaron McLean, Fabian Delph, Matthew Dolan.
The late bloomers:
(4th year pro, 21-22): Nahki Wells, Raffaele De Vita, Stephen Darby, Ian Ormondroyd.
(5th year pro, 22-23): James Hanson, James Meredith.
(6th year pro, 23-24): Jake Wright, Scott Kerr, Jon McLaughlin.
(8th year pro, 25-26): Matt Taylor.
Based solely on this list, you would therefore expect players to make their mark in either their second or third season as a pro. As fans we have been waiting patiently for so long for a good crop of youngsters to come along that we pray they are ready to be thrown into the team right now. Having seen it already with Oli McBurnie, our appetites have been whetted. But let’s take a realistic view and give these lads time to develop and when the manager thinks they are ready, they will get their chance. Everyone expected George Green to be the next Wayne Rooney when he left us for Everton but he has not yet had a loan out to make this his breakthrough season, but once again whatever talent he possesses, he is still only a 2nd year apprentice so it will be next season at the earliest before he gets his loan move breakthrough.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that the larger clubs, especially those with category 1 and 2 academies have their youth development extended three years longer than ourselves. If Bradford City have serious aspirations of becoming a solid Championship club, I think it is essential that we aim towards becoming a category 2 academy (category 1 is way beyond our financial means for the foreseeable future).
Expectations will be more manageable should we eventually have an Under 21 Development Team (and I see no harm in forming a closer partnership with our RIASA partners who currently use that name) and being part of the U21 Development League will be a much fairer test and help develop the players in the 18-21 year old bracket. Furthermore having a category 2 academy means youths are less likely to be snapped up by other clubs but if they do go then at least the compensation is slightly less derisory (under the new Premiership enforced financial rules).
I do not see our academy reaching category 2 level in the next couple of years, but look forward three years and you can see we could well have a large enough crop of decent youngsters who would fit into such a development squad: Heaton, Stockdill, O McBurnie, Curtis, Mottley-Henry, Brennan, King, Chippendale, Wright, Barker, Jenkinson, Pollard, X McBurnie, Devine, Omolokun, Mellor, Foulds, Webb-Foster, Cissa. We could be seeing a golden generation coming through over the next few years, but we need to play things smart, we need to be thinking ahead and we need to have patience and invest in the players’ futures.
While the recent standard of youth player we have produced may not in general have been up to scratch, I do not feel we have been doing enough. We have had players we were not sure about and released them. In hindsight, we have been proven correct to have released them in that they have ended up plying their trade in the non-league. But what are the chances for youth players released? It took the likes of Jake Wright and Scott Kerr six seasons to finally make it into the Football League and they are by far the exception. Non-league football is ruthless, but had these players been given that extra year at a professional club, who knows what difference it would have made.
This year it is widely expected that Stockdill and Heaton will join McBurnie in the pro ranks; however, big question-marks remain over Jack Bentley and Nathan Curtis. But what would it really cost to give the former both three years, taking them to under 21, while gambling on a year each for the latter? Looking a little farther afield, 1st year pro Louis Swain hasn’t made much of an impact out on loan this season as a striker, however in his final loan move he has played the three full games so far… as a left back. Having featured there in pre-season and for the reserves, could it be that Parkinson will give him a second year as he see’s him as a potential future left back?
In terms of the first team budget, these lads will cost peanuts and having seen McBurnie’s shock massive rise over last summer, if there is any doubt about keeping a player then keep him and give him the chance to take that next step. If there is no doubt then it is clear of course.
To cut a very long story short then, let us the fans, the management and the board all be more patient with our home grown prodigies. If we can produce just one first team player and one squad player per season then we can feel very happy with the youth program. But they don’t always have to be produced and be ready today.