Not content with being named the region’s best breeding ground for young footballers, staff at Sheffield United’s Steelphalt Academy now want to become “the finest boys’ club in the world.”
“It’s a strapline that we use to try and explain what underpins much of our work,” its manager Nick Cox said. “A lot of people have told us they think we’ve gone mad but, to be honest, we think it’s the way ahead.”
So, it seems, do the FA where, after deciding United’s idea to put the fun back into football was not the work of a confused mind, those charged with overseeing the governing body’s development programmes asked Cox and his cohorts to explain their thinking to rival clubs.
“When you are in our foundation programme, or basically between seven and eleven years of age, I don’t think what you do should really mirror what it’s like to be a professional,” Cox explained. “It shouldn’t all be about tactics and shape. It should be about enjoying yourself, having a good time. So we don’t just play football, we play other sports as well. We also let the lads play the type of games they do in the playground. That boys’ club environment is something we are trying really hard to create.”
News the FA view Cox’s latest project as something which could potentially be rolled-out across the country caps what has been an impressive month for United’s youth system. Earlier this week, research carried out on behalf of the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) ranked it as the 15th best academy in the country and fifth across the entire Football League. It’s sports science programme has also received FA validation of late.
Cox, who represented St Albans City at youth level before enrolling on a university course in Liverpool, is regarded as a pioneering thinker among coaching circles. At Watford, where he worked for over a decade before joining United four years ago, he helped devise The Harefield Academy partnership, responsible for producing talents such as Sean Murray and Jonathan Bond, while helping 50 youngsters make the grade. Cox has proven similarly innovative in South Yorkshire, recently launching the Futures programme, in tandem with Sheffield College, which offers those previously released by clubs a second shot at success.
With George Long and Louis Reed both members of Nigel Adkins’ senior squad, goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale recently selected for an England under-18 training camp and Billy Sharp also boasting home-grown status, Cox said: “This week’s productivity news emphasises the hard work everyone puts in and will drive us on further. We won’t rest on our laurels.
“But I must say that what the academy is achieving is the result of years of hard work. The people who were here a long time before I arrived, people like Ron Reid, deserve so much credit and recognition. Because, in youth development, nothing happens overnight. It’s a long, long process.”
To emphasise the point, the academy’s decision to offer its younger members an “experience with a difference” was inspired following conversations with past United greats.
“Whenever I speak with someone like Brian Deane, I always ask them ‘what made you the player you are? What were the things which shaped you and you benefited later on?’ So often they’ll describe how they used to be kicking a ball about all the time, playing with their mates in the park or on the street.
“So we play lots of street football here. We mix things up a lot so you’ve got big lads playing against smaller lads and from different ages too. It’s about trying to recreate the type of pathway people such as Brian took because look at what he achieved.”
United’s imaginative methods extend further up the age spectrum too.
“We’ve revamped our games programme,” Cox continued. “We don’t want to almost protect our players from matches, we want to encourage them to play. They get two matches a week with us, we’ve got a Saturday schedule before matches on a Sunday and have organised special tournaments, exposing them to different type of opponents, as well. Plus, we’re happy for them to play for their schools.”
Of course, the ultimate objective of any academy is to provide a pathway through to its club’s senior team.
“Cox added: “Our under-21’s currently sit second in their league programme with a youthful squad made up of scholars and young professionals, whilst our competitive under-18’s are deliberately made up of first years and schoolboys to accelerate learning and prepare players for senior football.”
“It’s inevitable that will always have to let people go but we try to show them the same respect then as when we recruit them, provide mentors and help them get fixed-up elsewhere. Opportunity is everything as we try to provide that, all the way through, here.”