Sheffield United, by one measure at least, are sixth on England’s all-time league table.
Above the likes of Manchester City, Chelsea and, whisper it quietly, their neighbours from Hillsborough and Leeds. Wolverhampton Wanderers have been crowned champions more times than Tottenham Hotspur. Old Carthusians, now of the Arthurian League, once lifted the FA Cup. Leicester City, this season’s Premier League winners elect, haven’t. Nothing in football, as supporters of a certain vintage can testify, is ever certain. Things seldom stay the same.
It is a precept which United and Millwall, who meet in League One tomorrow, can take a degree of comfort from. Particularly, whether they choose to admit it or not, because these two rivals share an important common bond. A commitment to youth development. Something which, despite finding themselves splashing about in the backwaters of our national game, makes them clubs of substance. Not institutions built on the precarious foundations of a benefactor’s billions or the share price of television companies around the world.
In recent seasons, Kyle Walker, Stephen Quinn, Harry Maguire, Kyle Naughton and Matthew Lowton are among those to graduate with honours from United’s Steelphalt Academy while, six home-grown talents, including Billy Sharp, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Ben Whiteman are expected to be named in the squad which travels to The Den. (Millwall deployed the same number at Bramall Lane earlier this term).
Of course, more misanthropic commentators will point out that many of the above are now employed elsewhere. Until United and Neil Harris’ side occupy the same stratosphere as Barcelona or Real Madrid, retaining their best youngsters on a permanent basis is likely to prove impossible. Especially as, shock horror, players who publicly profess their loyalties privately ask to leave they look to improve their bank balances and progress their careers. Changes to the way the game distributes its income will, in the short to medium term, make the problem even more acute.
Such departures are seldom painless or without controversy but are at least, when it comes to attracting the next generation of would-be professionals, powerful recruiting tools.
Building the systems to produce your own players is a time consuming, laborious process and few of those who pay lip service to doing so actually, in reality, have the patience to carry through on their promise.
When the crash comes, and it will, United and Millwall may or may not be challenging for major trophies. But they will be positioned to survive and flourish after the initial impact.