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Gripped by the Cobblers: Star youth players need first team chances as much as development coaches

Tom Reed reflects on the best way to benefit from youth

Cobblers have created a new role and hired David “Ned” Kelly as Development coach. The aim, according to the club, is to bridge the gap between Northampton’s academy and the first team. 

Kelly, nicknamed Ned after the famous Australian bush bandit, had a long playing career for Newcastle, Leicester and the Republic of Ireland and now his job is to turn Town’s young guns into serious sharpshooters.

Northampton currently have 8 teenage youth graduates in the first team squad following on from the Under-18’s EFL Youth Alliance South East Division title winning season. 

Now comes the crucial job of getting the likes of goalkeeper Bradley Lashley, defenders Ryan Hughes, Jay Williams, Camron McWilliams and midfielders Jack Newell, Sean Whaler, Morgan Roberts and Scott Pollock into first team positions.

Only Jay Williams and Scott Pollock made minor inroads into Keith Curle’s starting 11 last season, while Ryan Hughes was thrown into his sole taste of first team action on a particularly difficult day at Cheltenham. Williams’ and Pollock’s roles can be best described as bit-part with Curle preferring regular squad rotation.

Much will depend on Curle’s bravery in taking the leap of faith that it takes to blood youth products and keep them in the side, which holds the same fear factor for managers at all levels.

Curle has talked about needing a promotion on his C.V, so it would be no surprise to see the inexperienced Jay Williams and Scott Pollock as tentative backups to battle hardened senior pros.

Over at Exeter City, who have made massive profits on trading players, the policy is to have the youth team train with the first team and proper sustained football a policy for homegrown Grecians. Exeter don’t aim for promotion for promotion’s sake because often it means coming straight back down, without the processes in place to keep the club moving forwards.

It is also worth remembering that, in turning young players into assets that can be sold on, it is not just what their current manager sees in them but the qualities that watching scouts are looking for. Homegrown players stuck on benches or on training fields tend to lose their transfer premium.

Meanwhile, plaudit grabbing Norwich City Sporting Director Stuart Webber has spoken about the crucial nature of playing the Canaries’ young players and a clear route to Carrow Road football. 

Creating a development coach role to “bridge” gaps might suggest that there is a gap that should probably not be there and have the potential to cement a no-man’s land between academy and first team. 

Of course the chicken and egg counter argument is that you can’t field players that aren’t ready but most youth players will never be “ready”. Waiting for once in a generation complete youth prospects will reap once in a generation rewards and ignore the ability for players to progress via first team games. 

Cobblers boss Curle, inevitably in such an unsteady industry, will have one eye on keeping his job and the tendency can be to favour players that tick all the boxes even if that means just about competent performances with few mistakes.

As Norwich’s Webber said “The problem is that if you ask any manager in the world whether they want an 18-year-old kid or a 28-year-old striker who has won promotion four times they are going to go for the 28-year-old striker. Why wouldn’t they? If you are a manager it’s your head on the block so you’re going to go for the safe option. That’s just what happens.”

But Curle also has to realise that he has a responsibility to do right by players that have been schooled for long periods at the Cobblers and to get best value for the football club by mixing in “one of our own” players on affordable contracts.

Over at Norwich, Webber had heralded the effort put in by locally honed pros “Our young players will run through a brick wall for this club because they feel like they owe something back whereas senior players might walk around the wall or walk the other way. The youngsters bring an enthusiasm to training every day…As a fan nothing connects you to the club like seeing your own boys playing, that’s just a fact”.

Curle has talked about Northampton’s star youth players earning their spots but what does that actually mean in reality? Turning up to two hours early every day and throwing their Beats by Dre headphones and Louis Vuittons washbags in the bin?

What they really need is first team action and if a good few of them don’t get that, development coaches and indeed the entire Cobblers youth system will be in vain.

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