Foreign might be fashionable, writes James Shield.
But, for Sheffield United, South Yorkshire and the north Midlands always comes first.
“I know lots of clubs like to look further afield, abroad even, for players and they are perfectly entitled to do that,” Nick Cox said. “However we prefer to take a slightly different approach.
“The idea here is to try and exhaust every possibility on our own doorstep before we start focusing elsewhere.”
Cox, manager of the League One club’s Redtooth Academy, was speaking as staff press ahead with their campaign to consolidate its status as the region’s premier destination for those hoping to eventually earn a living from the game. But it also represents a considered, clinical response to the fact that the footballing landscape, especially in terms of youth development has irrevocably changed.
Liverpool, Manchester City and even the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea are now able, following the Elite Player Performance Plan’s introduction four years ago, to ignore the old geographical boundaries and sign promising youngsters, regardless of their parent club’s wishes, for a set fee.
Nevertheless, as Cox explained, there is an emotional aspect too.
“I think everybody would agree that there’s nothing supporters love more than seeing someone come through the ranks, no matter where they’re from, and represent their club. There’s a real bond and attachment there which is important.
“Take Terry Kennedy for example. He’s done that here, he’s in the first team now and last weekend, even though his family are all Barnsley fans and he probably was growing-up as a young lad too, there he was, at Oakwell, giving absolutely everything for this team.
“That’s something you can’t put a price on, having that type of core at the heart of things, and we’re fortunate we’ve got a manager here (Nigel Clough) who puts huge emphasis on that. He’s not shy about bringing our players on.
“One of the moments that’s really sticks with me is when, during last year’s game against Rotherham, we had six out there on the pitch and won. You could sense the way the crowd really got behind them.”
Louis Reed, who could make his 31st appearance of the season when United, fifth in the table with five games remaining and eight points clear of seventh place, resume their push for the play-offs at Oldham Athletic tomorrow. The teenage midfielder represented England against Switzerland at under-18 level last month while fellow United alumni Kyle Walker, Phil Jagielka, Stephen Quinn and Jonathan Forte, now plying his trade at Boundary Park, have all won senior caps.
“Everybody always namechecks places such as the North-West, London and Newcastle as the places where England internationals tend to come from,” Cox acknowledged. “But the lads there aren’t from a different gene pool. They aren’t born better players.
“The talent is here in our area and, when you consider the size of it and the population, there’s plenty of it too. Opportunity is everything and we are trying to provide as much of it as we can.”
With that in mind, United have rolled-out a series of pioneering programmes including open-trials, brainstorming sessions for amateur coaches and, most recently, a partnership with Sheffield College designed to give those who failed to make the grade first time around a second chance.
“I think there can be a little bit of snobbery at times within academies,” Cox, who worked at Watford before joining United in December 2012, said. “That, if a youngster hasn’t been with you since the age of seven or whatever, then they’re not going to have the right qualities.
“But one of the things we’ve done here is analyse the different pathways people like Kyle took on their way to us and there’s a huge amount of variation there. People don’t develop at the same rate, the lives they have away from football aren’t the same either and so we’ve got to be flexible too.”
“We’ve got lads from all over with us,” Cox added. “There’s plenty from Ireland here for example and that goes to show we’ve also got broad horizons.
“But it also makes sense to try and make the most of the talent that’s on your own patch too. That’s what we’re always aiming to do.”