The great 'pathways' debate
There’s a word that once got a titter of laughter from Huddersfield Town fans about player development. It is a word that was supposed to see young players progress from the academy to the first team smoothly. The word which is in question - Pathways.
Ever since Town’s return to the second tier of English football ‘pathways’ has been used in conjunction with the development of the academy through to home grown talent being in first team squads. All of this being in line with the new EPPP youth development scheme initiated by the Premier League.
Last weekend could’ve been the opportunity to see one of Town’s talented young midfielders step up to the plate to replace the suspended Jonathan Hogg against Watford. Instead Chris Powell chose the safer option of including Oscar Gobern whose long term future at the club remains doubtful.
Of course Philip Billing and Matt Crooks made the bench but anyone who has watched the development squad this year will have seen how Billing and Sondre Tronstad have progress and especially how the latter is maturing into a well-rounded midfielder.
So have we dismissed this Pathways mantra? Or is Pathways not working how it should.
Different managers and their different ideals.
When Alex Smithies and Jack Hunt signed new contracts with the club at the start of 2012/13 season, then manager Simon Grayson said of the new deals. “We have some very talented young players and we’ve shown if they are good enough, we will play them regardless of age. Seeing Jack and Alex sign new deals should act as a major incentive to the younger lads because this club has shown there is an opportunity for them.”
However, despite the incentives and the faith shown in Smithies and Hunt, only Chris Atkinson was given an opportunity following a successful loan stint at Chesterfield. The central midfielder did take advantage of Grayson’s faith in him scoring in the West Yorkshire derby against Leeds.
Grayson had given some opportunities. Yet even to the untrained footballing fans eye it was clear that Atkinson and Jimmy Spencer couldn’t cut it at Championship level. Perhaps it was more down to our calibre of players that was at Grayson's disposal at that time.
Mark Robins on the other hand gave far more chances to younger players and was a manager who believed in player development. Opportunities were given to many of the youngsters that had been brought in through Ross Wilson’s scouting network and to those already at Town.
Left-back Jake Carroll was the first to benefit from Robins’ focus on player development and enjoyed a spell starting in the first team, talented midfielder Duane Holmes also made an immediate impact on his debut against Blackpool and even started in the derby again Leeds and Tommy Smith took full advantage of Peter Clarke’s injury to make his debut against Sheffield Wednesday and hasn’t looked back since.
Robins willingness to buy into ‘pathways’ and the successes from his tenure show that with the right manager at the helm willing to give responsibility and opportunities to younger players then they can make that step up.
Of course there will be failures and mistakes from these younger lads on the way. Murray Wallace has at times shown himself to have the attributes to be a good defender but has also made some costly mistakes. Danny Carr also had a nightmare full debut away at Wigan and looked woefully short of the level required to play in the Championship.
Perhaps what is most disappointing about Robins departure is how he was willing to take full responsibility for young players mistakes and poor performances. Last season in the FA Cup. Jordan Sinnott came on as a sub for the injured Adam Hammill and was taken off after a disastrous twenty minutes. Rather than focus on a player who had a stinker he chose to accept the blame. It was a key thing to do in helping a young player’s morale but perhaps not to endear himself to the simple football fan.
Chris Powell in his short tenure hasn’t really afforded many opportunities to our younger players with the exception of Harry Bunn who was blooded in by Mark Lillis during his caretaker period. Five minutes here or there for Joe Lolley will not help with his development and including Matt Crooks, who has had two disappointing loan spells with League Two clubs this season, ahead of the likes of Holmes and Tronstad on the bench against Watford seems to be confusing.
Is under 21 football good enough?
Last season Town’s development wrapped up the league at a canter without much challenge throughout the entire season. Is playing in a league like this a good enough challenge for our players, especially since once again this season Town’s under 21s have only lost four games all season.
You can argue that it’s good for fitness, helps sustain a winning mentality at the club and integrates academy players alongside first team players. Yet having viewed these fixtures for myself they seem to lack the intensity and physicality of first team football.
This week’s comfortable victory for the development side against a Rotherham team containing many first team regulars is what this level of football should be about. Although most of the time our youngsters are playing clubs such as Coventry and Barnsley who put out their academy players. Is this the level of football we want our potential future stars playing?
Only five or six seasons ago former manager Lee Clark pulled Town’s reserve side from the league they were in and instead focused playing against Premier League academies to help develop the players we had then on our books, including the likes of Jack Hunt.
From an outsiders point of view looking in, the under 21 league doesn’t provide the completion or quality needed for academy graduates to make the eventual step up to the first team. Perhaps we need to focus more on player development rather than creating a winning mentality. We all love winning and should be more focused on producing players who can slot into the first team squad.
After all who have been the successes from the development squad? The only two are former Premier League academy graduates in Bunn and Smith. It seems the likes of Sinnott and Holmes have stagnated and need to be challenged more to make the leap up to first team standards.
To loan or not to loan?
Should under 21 football not be the answer to helping our youngsters develop once they have signed professional terms, then loaning them out to experience first team football for a good part of the season should be part and parcel of what Huddersfield Town do.
However, with the exception of a few failed loans for Holmes and Sinnott both to Bury and Jake Carroll who is spending time with Partick Thistle this season, most of Town’s outgoing loans for young players are a month here or there where they plug gaps left in other sides squads.
So what can be done to ensure that our young players can develop their games further and get the valuable experience that is needed under their belts?
For me it would be to build links with local lower league clubs who will give opportunities to our young players and play a similar brand of football. Whether it is in League Two or in non-league football, regular first team football is beneficial especially the physical side of the game that lacks in the development squad.
The key is regular starts for our youngsters along with a prolonged period on loan rather than a month here or there. I am sure that the loan spells that both Jack Hunt and Chris Atkinson had at Chesterfield helped them develop into real contenders for our first team.
Yet it is not us on the outside that decides how to bridge the large gap from the under 21’s to the first team. It seems to me that under Mark Lillis Town would rather focus on breeding a winning mentality, which certainly isn’t a bad thing and in that respect he is doing a terrific job.
However, are we really getting the best out of our assets and giving them the full opportunities they need to progress?
Currently I’d say not. We need to focus on player development and actually ensure there is an open space somewhere for those performing in development squads or out on loan to come into the first team, even on the bench.
Rather than producing the pathway that we should’ve done, we’ve produced a bottleneck with several talented lads sat there stagnating in the under 21 squad struggling with the jump up to the first team. The different in class between the two is astounding in reality.
The likes of Holmes, Tronstad and Billing are knocking on that first team door and need a real opportunity to show their skills. Let’s use them rather than risk losing them or their talents.
By Greg Marah (@mrgregmarah)