Travis Binnion would prefer it was never made public because “people are probably going to cringe.”
Unfortunately for Sheffield United’s academy manager, his phrase “talent needs trauma” perfectly encapsulates the ethos which has made the club leaders in the field of youth development.
“We constantly talk about planning for kids to have hardship,” Binnion says. “All the way through their journey here. Hardship for a 10 year old might be going on a two day trip to Belgium. At 14, they might play Manchester United over two legs and there’s no hiding place. We also play in a mid-week under-19 league with 16-year-olds. It’s planned and it’s relentless.”
Binnion is unapologetic about United’s refusal to cosset their youngsters. Even though, much to his obvious frustration, many other academies take a much more permissive approach. But given that professional football is such a ruthless, cut-throat business then, by the 30-year-old’s reckoning, kids hoping to enjoy long careers in the game need to grow-up fast.
“Winning has almost become a dirty word, especially at this level,” he continues. “We don’t think it should be. With young players, we are doing a lot of good things and we know we are going to get better. But it’s ingrained in our lads, from their mid to late teens upwards, the importance of trying to be a winner is really drummed into them.”
United’s methods were vindicated earlier this month when, under the stewardship of former defender Del Geary, their under-18’s were crowned Professional Development League Two champions following a 2-1 victory over neighbours Sheffield Wednesday. Geary, who works closely with Mick Wadsworth, John Dungworth and Jamie Annerson, made over 100 appearances for the club before retiring in 2010 and, together with Binnion, is part of a multifaceted coaching team.
“Lifting the title is testament to the squad as a whole and the standards Del has set,” Binnion continues. “Because a lot of our older boys have been playing for the under-23’s, the under-18’s has been a pretty young team.”
Of course, the ultimate goal for Binnion and his colleagues is to furnish Chris Wilder and his assistant Alan Knill with players capable of competing at first team level. Wilder, whose side are six points clear at the top of the League One table with eight matches remaining, spoke about the importance of “attitude” and “desire” following Saturday’s victory over Charlton Athletic. Qualities, Binnion explains, United’s academy staff also hold dear.
“Our lads know there’s expectancy to win. There’s an expectancy to compete and there’s an expectancy, since Chris has come in, to do it on the front foot and take the game to the opposition.
“We’ve had to really step up to what the manager and Knilly want in that respect because, like I say, we’re a young side. It took a lot of pain to begin with but the lads have got to grips with it now. I think they relish the fact there’s something on every game. It’s like chipping away at a stone. We try and plan these challenges.”
“We’ve got two younger lads, Del and myself, and two experienced heads in John and Mick,” Binnion adds. “It’s ‘two and two’ if you want but we’re all aligned. We’re aligned to what Chris and Alan want at first team level too.
“We’ve taken a little bit of pain at times, in terms of results, but we think the end result has been worth it. I think the first team staff recognise that we’re a miniature version of the first team. Okay, we’re not as refined as them or as talented at them because we are talking about development players. But those traits are definitely there.”
The flow of players from youth to senior level has inevitably slowed this season as Wilder, who was appointed in May, focuses primarily on promotion. But, if United are able to reach and then re-establish themselves at Championship level, their ability to produce home-grown players could prove invaluable as they attempt to compete, both in a sporting and financial sense, with the best second-tier teams. Kyle Walker, Phil Jagielka and Kyle Naughton all progressed through the ranks at Bramall Lane while Matthew Lowton, Harry Maguire, Aaron Ramsdale and Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who scored his first goal for Everton last weekend, have followed in their footsteps of late.
Although Wilder made no secret of his disdain for the Checkatrade Trophy earlier this term, United’s involvement in the much-maligned tournament enabled Regan Slater, Jordan Hallam and Joe Cummings to make their senior debuts against Grimsby Town four months ago.
“The fact the boys went in and did well told you a lot about them,” Binnion says. “Grimsby had a new manager in for his first game and had plenty to play for. It will help those kids to be battle ready, mentally and physically. You can’t learn on the job at this club.
“Chris has done brilliant and the first team have grown into this powerful sort of unit. They overwhelm people and always find a way. You can’t get learn that. You only get that by being in and around the first team. You can’t give, say, Regan Slater five games at this level to get ready. He’s got to be ready if he goes in.”
“The longer Chris and Alan are in post, the more we see what’s necessary and the older and stronger our lads get,” Binnion adds. “I think it will stand us in good stead.”
BINNION ON GEARY: “What Del has got is a real energy about him. He’s relentless and there’s a lot of traits I see in Del that the manager here has definitely got; the single-minded desire to get the best out of a group and to win things. Kids don’t always have those habits, even though they are talented players. Del, as everybody knows, has always been a fighter.”
BINNION ON WADSWORTH: “Mick’s experience to mentor Del and be that real link the the end game, having seen 30 years worth of kids from England youth internationals to now, is invaluable for everyone as well. He knows what kids will or won’t get there, or what they need to help them do it. His experience and knowledge is second to none and he’s such a huge help.”
BINNION ON DUNGWORTH: “John, like Mick, has got a wealth of experience. He’s got the same qualities in terms of being able to spot what the kids need to help further their development and bring them through. He knows what it takes and he knows what is required to give them the best possible opportunity which, as everybody understands, is what we try to do.”
BINNION ON ANNERSON: “Jamie is brilliant with the ‘keepers. Like me, he started his career here, coming through the system before seeing it curtailed by injury. But he’s immersed in what it takes to be at this football club and what it means to represent Sheffield United. He’s passes all of that on and, of course, the technical side of his position too. He’s doing an excellent job.”