Visitors to Shirecliffe on Sunday mornings, when Sheffield United’s junior players get put through their paces, are likely to spot a familiar face among the crowd.
“Jose Baxter comes and watches the kids a lot after he’s done a session,” Nick Cox, director of the club’s Steelphalt Academy, reveals. “He loves the game and just wants to be immersed in it, even to the extent that he comes to see the under-9’s. It’s great for the kids because it makes their experience that little bit more inspirational. That’s how Jose likes to fill his spare time.”
Baxter isn’t the only member of United’s senior squad to lend those hoping to following in his footsteps a helping hand. First team coach Dean Wilkins and Nigel Adkins, whose side hosts League One rivals Rochdale tomorrow, are also regular spectators when their schedules allow.
“The manager was here recently and the same goes for Dean,” Cox, gazing out of his office window, says. “He was looking at the under-14’s. They are all just good football people. Neill Collins came in earlier this year on a pretty regular basis too which was great to see.”
Although Baxter attends on an informal basis, there is more to this parade of names than meets the eye. United’s youth system, which counts internationals Kyle Walker, Stephen Quinn and Phil Jagielka among its graduates, has forged an enviable reputation for its ability to develop footballing talent. A pioneering mentor scheme, which sees former players such as Derek Geary and Brian Deane share their experiences with students, is designed to ensure the conveyor belt keeps on turning.
“A lot of our ideas, we like to feel, are pretty groundbreaking,” Cox continues. “The mentoring, making sure we’ve got the right people giving the right messages, is really important. Del is really important to us. He’s so enthusiastic and valuable too because, crucially, he knows what it’s like to come over the water from Ireland at 16, leave home for a big city where there’s all sorts that could go wrong and all sorts of things to deal with. He’s brilliant at sitting down with some of our lads, not just the Irish ones, who come from further afield.”
Not all the information imparted, however, is lifestyle related. Cox has devised a programme of regular master classes, focusing purely on practical matters, as part of United’s new holistic approach.
“We do regular sessions where people get specific information. So, for example, we’ll get all the strikers from the age groups together and then try to get someone in who is an expert. Del does stuff with the full-backs, Morgs (Chris Morgan) who is in the system, was a centre-half and Deano is now working with the forwards.”
“It’s all about sharing their experiences, not just footballing ones regarding techniques and tactics, but how to survive in what is a difficult environment,” Cox adds. “It’s important to have good talented people around who give the right messages. We have lots of good coaches here who aren’t former players and, to be honest, that’s no issue because the important thing is that they’re good. Not the journey they have taken. But it does help, yes, to have people around the place who know Sheffield United inside out.”
Because as Cox, who arrived from Watford in 2012 acknowledged, only “very special people” survive and prosper at Bramall Lane.
“I learnt that very quickly after arriving here. There’s a weight of expectation, there’s history, there’s a pride in young players, the arena is imposing and the crowds are impressive. There’s an expectation every week and it’s very difficult to play your first game given those scenarios.
“I’m a big believer that there are lots of players who, technically and tactically, are on a par. What makes the difference is personality, that competitive fire, having a warrior spirit and a willingness to learn. That what sets aside those who make it. We try to provide an environment here that draws it out of people. An environment where they feel safe and comfortable but where they have to show those skills. What makes it hard is everything outside of the sport. Players need humble surroundings where they’ve got everything needed to develop but no more. Where failure and mistakes are okay so long as you learn from them. That’s the environment we want to create.”
Which, Cox acknowledges, is often easier said than done. Louis Reed, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and George Long have all progressed through the ranks in recent seasons to earn their first team spurs. But, with the likes of Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea now permitted to harvest talent from South Yorkshire and North Derbyshire, United now face a battle to convince aspiring professionals that opportunity, not a vague promise of future riches, is the real key to success. And Cox, reading between the lines, is not impressed.
“The trouble is, the industry wants the exact opposite to that. It’s wants perfection, no mistakes, amazing facilities and egos being massaged by the superstar treatment. Being told you are great rather than getting the correct feedback. The superstar clubs won’t give you that when they are trying to recruit you. All of that is being dismantled because it’s not sexy. Football, in that sense, is losing the plot.”
Fortunately, with Reed, Long and Callum McFadzean vying for selection against the visitors from Spotland and Dominic Calvert-Lewin impressing on loan at Northampton Town, some semblance of sanity still prevails.
“It can be difficult for kids to have Premier League role models but, with the manager, his staff and Jose all showing that interest, it’s a reminder to everybody that there’s joined-up thinking and that there’s a pathway here mapped out for them. The manager looks at what is happening here and builds that into his long-term recruitment plans. They’ll be lads who see what Dom is doing and thinking ‘I was training with him last year.’ The same foes for Reedy and, at first team level, he’ll be looking at the really senior players in the same way too.
“It’s brilliant to have people like Jose, Del and Deano coming down here because it makes the kids realise that folk who do extraordinary things are just ordinary people. They might be doing something special but they are actually just like them.”