The WOAP end of season exams #2: you can’t win anything with kids, or can you?

Image by Thomas Gadd (copyright Bradford City)

A number of Width of a Post writers were handed a topic heading relating to the 2016/17 season and asked to run with it; taking whatever direction they choose and writing as much or as little on it. After Katie’s part one, Tim Penfold is up second to answer this question:

“In my first week we talked about bringing younger players in, which I thought was great. But when you actually look at the nuts and bolts of it, the best young players available had already gone at the end of last season. The deals had already been sorted. So you’re playing catch up. That won’t happen in other windows because we’ll be more prepared.”

The words of Stuart McCall, talking to Jason McKeown, a year ago about the club’s then-transfer window business that included signing some experienced players like Vincelot. In January we saw a clear move away from signing experienced players with everyone under 24 and some having next to no first team experience. This summer will probably see a similar approach.

Can the club succeed by signing youth over experience? What are the short-term and long-term benefits/drawbacks?

You don’t win anything with kids.

Alan Hansen has never lived down his most famous quote.  When Manchester United sold three experienced players in the summer of 1995 and replaced them with nobody, and followed this up with a 3-1 defeat on the opening day, he wrote off their chances.  The following May, they won the double and became the defining case study for youth development.  The likes of Beckham (20), Scholes (20), Butt (20), the Nevilles (20 and 18) and Giggs (21) were regulars all season and formed the core of a side that would dominate English football for the next few years, as well as winning the European Cup in 1999.

And, of course, Alan Hansen would be reminded of this quote for the rest of his career.

Bradford City’s owners have gone for a similar philosophy to Sir Alex Ferguson.  They have, since January, prioritised going after younger players.  Some of these, like Charlie Wyke, are ready for first team football.  Some, like Jacob Hanson and Dan Pybus, have been signed with future seasons in mind.  The idea is to get a team built around a core of young players who can travel up the divisions with the team, or be sold on for a profit to fund new young players who repeat the cycle.  It sounds sensible, but is it the right plan?

A quick look at the statistics for League One last season suggests, that, in the short term, this might not bring success.  This article shows the age breakdown of each League One team last season, and shows the importance of experience.  Two of the top six oldest sides in the division finished first and second, while Southend, the fourth oldest, finished 8th.  We had the 3rd oldest side in the division and came within a few minutes of promotion.  Meanwhile, three of the six youngest sides in the division, including the two youngest, got relegated.  So, we should do what we did again last summer and sign players who are at their peak, right?

Well, it’s also not that simple. If you drop down to League Two, you get a much smaller correlation between experience and success.  Portsmouth, the joint oldest team in the division, did win the league but the other three promoted sides were towards the middle of the division in terms of age.  The relegated sides were also both towards the middle, and this is skewed slightly by Leyton Orient playing quite a few youth products at the end of the season when they were already doomed and struggling to pay wages and appearance fees.

Luton, who were the youngest team, finished 4th and ended up very close to Wembley, while the second youngest team, Colchester, were only one point behind Blackpool who did go up.  The joint oldest team along with Portsmouth were Notts County, who finished a miserable 16th having aimed for promotion.

In the Championship, the picture changes again.  Two of the promoted sides, Newcastle and Huddersfield, were amongst the youngest sides in the division, but the oldest side was Brighton, who also went up.  Wigan went down despite having plenty of experience, while Barnsley threatened the play off spots with their incredibly young side until bigger clubs snapped up their best players.  So, the stats, despite initially favouring experience, are somewhat less conclusive than they initially looked.

So how do we work out if this is the right strategy?  I’ll take a look at two familiar case studies – our last two promotion teams – to see if we can learn anything from them.

The 1998/99 team had plenty of experience.  Stuart McCall (34), Peter Beagrie (33) and John Dreyer (35) were players who had been there and done that.  But what made it truly successful was that it had a group of players who hit their peak at exactly the same time.  Lee Mills (28), Wayne Jacobs (29), Gary Walsh (30) and Jamie Lawrence (28) all had arguably the best seasons of their careers, as did Gareth Whalley (25).

There weren’t that many regular youngsters.  Defenders Andy O’Brien (19) and Ashley Westwood (22) and forwards Isaiah Rankin (20) and Robbie Blake (22) were involved, but only Blake would definitely be considered part of the first choice XI from that season.  Darren Moore (24) would be a bit old to be considered a youngster but was not quite at his peak.  Many of the other semi-regular players were also at what would be considered peak age – Stephen Wright (27), Lee Todd (26) and Gordon Watson (27) – while the March signings that helped us across the line also provided experience.  In many ways, this was a squad with a similar age profile to ours last season.

In the short term, this worked spectacularly.  We gained promotion, and after doubling down on the strategy of recruiting experience, we stayed up.  But in the long term it didn’t work out as well.  In the summer of 2000 we continued to recruit proven players, but it stopped working.  The biggest risk of having a group of players who peak together is that they will all pass their peak together, and this is what happened in 2000/01.

Players couldn’t keep up their previous high standards, whether through injury or just the natural decline that happens to players as they age.  And, for the financial side of things, having a group of players who are all past their best on long, lucrative contracts nearly killed the club, as we couldn’t get rid of them and ended up with an unsustainable wage bill in Division 1.

Our most recent promotion season, in 2012/13, had a very different sort of side.  That summer, a core of fairly young but proven players were brought in.  Stephen Darby (23), James Meredith (24), Rory McArdle (25) and Nathan Doyle (25) were key players throughout the season, while the likes of Zavon Hines (23), Will Atkinson (23) and Carl McHugh (19) also played their part.  They joined the likes of James Hanson (24), Nahki Wells (20), Kyel Reid (24) and Jon McLaughlin (24) who were already at the club.

Four of these have formed the core of our side for the last five years and given us their peak years, and even the ones who have left have gone on to play at a similar or higher level, with the exception of Doyle.  We were also able to sell two of them for profit.  If you wanted a blueprint for how to recruit in the long term, the summer of 2012 is surely close to perfect, if possibly a year or two older on average than our owners might be aiming for.

But this team wasn’t just fairly young footballers.  Andrew Davies (27) was at what would’ve been his peak age but for injuries, while we recruited experienced heads in Gary Jones (35) and Garry Thompson (31) to join Matt Duke (35) and Ricky Ravenhill (31).  Jones was, as we all know, magnificent throughout the season, while the other over-30s all played vital roles in either the League Cup run or the play-off run-in.

In the long term, this way of building a side has paid off.  We signed players who were young enough to improve and adapt to the next level, and we got five years’ outstanding service from some of them.  But it also teaches us a key lesson – when recruiting, do not forget the value of a Gary Jones.

Looking back to the statistics shows us what’s happened with some of the other sides who have had similar recruitment plans to our owners.  Swindon went fully for youth and collapsed because of it, but Oxford’s young side reached Wembley and finished in the top half.  Oxford have a large amount of talented youngsters and were, on their day, as good as anyone in the division, but with youth comes inconsistency which cost them a trophy and potentially a play off spot.

Going up a division, Brentford and Barnsley also both showed that good recruitment can make a young side do well.  However, all three of Oxford, Brentford and Barnsley are vulnerable to having their best players taken by bigger sides – this caused Barnsley to fall away as the season went on, and they’ve lost another couple for free this summer.  There’s no real way to stop this as a smaller club – unless you do what Huddersfield did and actually go up.

Fundamentally I believe the owners’ recruitment strategy to be a sound one for the long term prospects of the club.  The side we have at the moment is one that has reached its collective peak, and therefore an influx of younger players is needed, regardless of philosophy, to stop the team declining together.  The likes of Huddersfield, Brentford and Barnsley show that you can punch above your weight doing this, and one big lesson of 2012 is that you can end up recruiting the core of a squad that can stay together for years.

But the other lesson of 2012, and of 1998, is that you cannot underestimate the value of experience.  Recruit all of the talented youngsters you like, but every team needs a Gary Jones or a Stuart McCall.

Categories: 2016/17 season review

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