Results don’t necessarily matter in youth football, which of course is what I would say after Chester knocked us out of the FA Youth Cup. However, it’s certainly true that the chances of a long run in the competition are limited for lower division sides, and the outcome that really matters is how many players come through who are capable of playing at senior level.
Wrexham has always had a reputation for developing talent, established in the 1970s when home grown products augmented the likes of Dai Davies and Dixie McNeil in the Second Division. The slide down the divisions has stacked the odds against us. So to what extent has youth development been affected by our time in the National League?
As an initial measure of how many players are coming through our youth system, I had a look at the number of home grown players given a professional debut each season. The figure varies; some managers were clearly more willing to give youth its head than others.
In the 2011-12 season, Andy Morrell gave a staggering eleven youth players their debuts. That figure requires some context though. When we failed to rearrange a Welsh Cup tie against Airbus which was scheduled for the same day as our FA Cup second round game at Brentford, we had no choice but to field two teams on the same day. The side which played Airbus was very youthful, with six youngsters making their debuts. Four of them haven’t made another appearance for a professional club, while a fifth also never appeared for us again, although it’s fair to say that Danny Ward has done alright for himself subsequently!
Taking those players out of the reckoning, Morrell still fielded five youth debutants that season, more than any other manager has done in the National League. The next highest figure is the four youngsters Dean Keates gave a chance to after he took over from Gary Mills.
Again, the context is revealing. Keates had Andy Davies as his assistant, and nobody would have been better placed to assess a young player’s prospect than him.
Also, Keates was perhaps correcting the imbalanced situation he inherited, because he succeeded a manager who didn’t give youth its chance. In nearly one and a half season in charge, Gary Mills gave just two youngsters their professional debuts. No manager has given fewer youth debuts since we dropped into the National League except Sam Ricketts, who hasn’t had any opportunity to, and Brian Little, who only lasted eleven matches.
One of those youngsters was Jonny Smith, who no doubt would have been given further game time by Mills had he not decided to move on. The other was a humiliating implication of a lack of interest shown by the manager in our youth set-up. Liam Walsh was put on the bench for a trip to Woking, brought on as a first half substitute after Robbie Evans was injured, only to be replaced himself after 24 uncomfortable minutes. He was never given another opportunity to show what Mills must have seen in him before that match.
Another way to look at the importance of our youth system is to consider how many of its graduates appear each season. The figures suggest that, as our diminished position in the league pyramid kicks in, we are less able to produce players able to slot into the first team.
In each of our first four seasons in the National League, we fielded either eleven or twelve products of Colliers Park per season if we disregard the players who played in that Welsh Cup tie against Airbus. Quite a few of those players had also appeared for us in the Football League, and it certainly appears that, as they have drifted away from the club, we’ve struggled to provide such a constant stream of potential first team players. Since then the figure has generally gone down to single figures.
Perhaps this is down to the ability of Football League clubs to offer a more enticing prospect to young players. Clearly there’s a case for arguing that individual managers have a great influence in how many home grown players are selected. Does being willing to lean on youth have to become a prerequisite of our manager recruitment policy, as we look to develop talent from the local area? Should we have a Director of Football to ensure promotion from the youth team is a consistent part of our strategy? Or do we have to accept that, until we can get back to the promised land, the best way to exit the National League is to try to buy our way out?
This is my column from this week’s Leader. It forms part of the paper’s comprehensive pre-match coverage every Friday, featuring interviews, an in-depth look at the opposition and lots of statistical analysis. All content in the column (c) www.leaderlive.co.uk.