James Shield’s Sheffield United Column: New scheme could prove a masterstroke

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Nothing in football is every guaranteed.

Except, of course, that England can always be relied upon to fail at major tournaments.

But if, and this is only a personal opinion, more of those charged with attempting to improve standards within the national game were prepared to take a leaf out of Sheffield United’s book rather than stifle their ambitions when it comes to youth development then, I’m convinced, Roy Hodgson’s squad would be better placed to succeed.

Why? Because not only has Bramall Lane been responsible for producing talents such as Phil Jagielka and Kyle Walker in recent years, but staff at the Redtooth Academy have proven adept at thinking, for fear of sounding like David Brent, outside of the box.

A quality their ‘A United Future’ initiative demonstrates.

The scheme, launched in tandem with Sheffield College earlier this week, is designed, from the club’s perspective at least, to offer gifted youngsters a second chance to become professionals.

The decision to combine a sporting education with work towards a nationally recognised vocational qualification means, if they succeed, manager Nigel Clough can look forward to having some well-rounded individuals at his disposal with the next few years. If not then, possessing a BTEC Level Three Diploma in Sport, Performance and Excellence, participants should possess the skills to build successful careers regardless.

As Heather Smith, Sheffield College’s executive director, explains in The Star on Tuesday, said: “It offers the chance to improve their performance but the course also equip students with the broader vocational knowledge and skills needed for a career in the football, leisure and sports industries, as well as the chance to go onto further study at degree level course at college or university.”

Although the majority of home-grown players United will produce are likely to continue graduating from their conventional academy system, this marriage between football and education is something which should be welcomed by all. Not least because the game is littered with examples of folk who have either ‘arrived late’ or failed to make the grade first time around.

Didier Drogba, Miroslav Klose, Ian Wright, Kevin Phillips and Rickie Lambert to name just a few.

Oh, and perhaps most pertinently given the fact he progressed through a similar programme at Watford, Britt Assombalonga.

Most coaches will agree that teenagers develop, in a footballing sense, at different rates.

Yet, illustrating the confused thinking which pervades our thinking at times, many seem remarkably quick to discard them if they fail to achieve certain objectives within set timeframes.

Also, aspiring footballers who do not want to completely turn their back on their studies, are now spared the unenviable prospect of being forced to choose between the two.

“There are lots of talented youngsters who, for one reason or another, haven’t succeeded first time around,” Nick Cox United’s manager, said. “This offers them a second chance at success.”

As the Football Association commission’s recent and rightly ridiculed report into youth development revealed, too many folk think Football League clubs have little to offer the next generation of prospective Three Lions. Despite all the evidence suggesting otherwise.

United, recognised by the Premier League as boasting their eighth most productive academy in the country, are clearly doing something right with Matthew Lowton, Harry Maguire, George Long, Kyle Naughton, Connor Dimaio, Otis Khan, Louis Reed and Diego DeGirolamo also rolling off the conveyer belt since its foundation in 2002.

Like I said, nothing in football is guaranteed.

But, I’m pretty confident that, within the next few years, ‘A United Future’ will have produced at least one first team star. And, just as importantly, countless bright young individuals.

*Applicants have to attend practical trials and pass a formal interview before being offered a course place. Forthcoming assessments are scheduled for tomorrow, Sunday July 20 and Saturday July 26. Email anthony.tunstall@sufc.co.uk for more information and visit www.sheffcol.ac.uk for further details on Sheffield College.

*Twitter: @JamesShield1