My co-commentator James Harrison has a habit of hitting the nail on the head, and last Monday he made a succinct point which, in the space of one sentence, summed up the beauty of that win over York better than ninety minutes of my ranting had.
I’d been unable to resist the temptation to couch the whole broadcast in the context of a rebellion against the dark side, whinging non-stop about what Gary Mills did at the start of this season. James tried to carefully steer me away from that path, and then made a stronger point on Mills’ failings than I had managed off my long run-up.
As the ball nestled in City’s net for the third time, he pointed out the irony of the identity of the scorer, and suggested it was highly appropriate that one of the youth players, constantly ignored by Mills, had driven he final nail into his side’s coffin.
Leo Smith’s first career goal made plain the point that there was young talent at The Racecourse which Mills could have exploited. He chose not to, as he’d brought in players who’d failed to hold down a place in a relegated side last season, and wanted to give them every chance!
Mills gave two youth players their debut in his time at The Racecourse: Liam Walsh, who came on as a substitute and was withdrawn 24 minutes later, and Jonathan Smith, who got two games off the bench. That’s 35 minutes in total for youth players in 64 matches.
In contrast, Keates has already given four youth players their debuts in just 31 matches in charge. To put it another way, if Mills had stayed we’d have been voting for a much more narrow range of candidates for Young Player of the Season!
Of the eligible players Mills fielded this season, Callum Powell and Khaellem Bailey-Nicholls were gambles which failed as both had no experience at anywhere near our level. Gerry McDonagh and Jordan Evans, to be fair, both had something about them, but even then, Keates gave them both more than twice as many starts as Mills did. Oh, and did you know Brad Reid played for us this season? I’d forgotten too! Mills brought him in, gave him 51 minutes to prove himself, and threw him back.
Hardly surprising really, as Mills preferred bringing in loan players and not using them to giving our own youngsters a chance: he brought in 12 loan players over the two seasons, but only Rhys Taylor, Mark Beck and McDonagh made more than three starts for us.
By way of contrast, apart from the pitch time Keates gave Evans and McDonagh, eight other players eligible for the Young Player trophy have appeared under him, and the development of Olly Marx, Leo Smith, Ollie Shenton and Ntumba Massanka has been a major feature of this season. Oh, and forgive me for twisting arithmetic to make a point, but George Harry has the best minutes per goal ratio of the whole season!
So James was right: there was talent at The Racecourse all along. It was ignored and Mills surely paid a price for not having a good look at what he had at his disposal. I’d include Andy Davies in that: he must have been tearing his hair out as his protégées were ignored by Mills. Keates’ completely different approach is illustrated by the fact that Davies is not just seeing his youngsters being given a chance: he’s on the bench to see it happen.