Time for special measures? A mid-term report for Derby County’s academy

In the last Derby County Podcast, we discussed the current state of the Rams’ academy.  I wanted to talk more with Chris about it after reading his recent post, which pointed out that for all the cash lavished on facilities by Mel Morris, the club has not produced any players for its own first-team squad since the emergence of Hughes and Hendrick.

Chris’ take is that the academy may well need a shake-up at this stage and shining a light on the situation feels timely.  The reality of Financial Fair Play means that the taps have to be turned off, the well-paid misfits need to be shipped out and there is a dire need for an infusion of young blood.  Those new players could be recruited, but it would be ideal if at least some of them could be promoted up from the under 23s.

In the podcast, I mentioned a study by a parent, Mark Crane, who was trying to work out which academies were the most productive.  His research focused on which academies the English players who played a league game in England’s top five tiers during the 2016/7 season came from*.

In modern clickbait terminology, “what he found may shock you”:-

Number of English-qualified players from an academy who played a league game in England (2016/7 season)

Manchester United – 65
Tottenham Hotspur – 54
Arsenal – 46
Chelsea – 45
West Ham United – 41
Everton – 40
Southampton – 36
Liverpool – 33
Crewe Alexandra (Category 2) – 32
Middlesbrough – 31
Charlton Athletic (Category 2) – 30
Wolverhampton Wanderers – 30
Aston Villa – 29
Leeds United (Category 2) – 28
Manchester City – 28
Coventry City (Category 2) – 26
Crystal Palace (Category 2) – 25
Newcastle United – 24
Reading – 24
Blackburn Rovers – 23
Watford (Category 2) – 23
West Bromwich Albion – 23
Ipswich Town (Category 2) – 22
Leicester City – 22
Norwich City – 22
AFC Wimbledon (Category 3) – 21 
Bolton Wanderers (Category 2) – 20
Fulham – 20
Leyton Orient (Category 3) – 19
Sheffield United (Category 2) – 19
Birmingham City (Category 2) – 18
Millwall (Category 2) – 18
Nottingham Forest (Category 2) – 17
Sunderland – 16
Brighton & Hove Albion – 14
Stoke City – 12

* (I’ve refined Crane’s data to only count players who featured in the Premier League or EFL, disregarding the National League).

The mega clubs are streets ahead, which is understandable, but Derby are also lagging well behind Crewe, Middlesbrough, Charlton, Wolves, Leeds, Coventry and Reading, among many others.

According to Crane’s analysis, Derby has one of the least successful Category 1 academies in England.  Ten Category 2 academies produced more English players who featured in the Premier League or EFL last season and even two Category 3 academies – AFC Wimbledon’s and Leyton Orient’s – were more productive overall.

Given the relative levels of investment involved, that has to be considered something of an embarrassment.

It’s clear that the relatively huge expenditure on players during the failed bid to buy promotion blocked any path through for any young player to the Rams’ first team, but in recent years, the academy has not even produced many players who have gone on to forge a career elsewhere in the English professional game.

As research by @s_spaceram shows, several of the Derby academy products plying their trade in the EPL (Grant) and EFL (Camp, Evatt, Holmes, Huddlestone) today actually came through in the early 2000s.

Mel Morris is clearly acutely aware of this and mentioned in his recent “Fans Charter” meeting that measures have been taken to focus more keenly on the development of the best prospects in Derby’s current system.  He explained that a full-time member of staff has been appointed, from within, to manage a ‘bridging’ process for academy players whom the club seriously believe have the potential to make it.   These ‘fast-track’ prospects, he said:

“will become part of a group managed… to bridge the requirements of the first team and what happens to them in the academy…  Gary goes to almost every U23 game, he’ll spot the guys he thinks have got a real chance and will tell us what he thinks they need to work on… 

“The person in this new role will make sure that the individual training of that player is done to the prescription of the first team, as a priority above everything else.”

It’s a little strange that Morris didn’t name the staff member involved, but in any case, this is a clear concession that at least some reform was required for how the academy was operating, to make it more productive.

Those fast-tracked players may not become regular fixtures in the Rams first-team, but the additional, focused effort put into their development will hopefully mean that they are at least better prepared to have a chance of building a career elsewhere in the EFL.

Of course, it’s a positive that under Darren Wassall, Derby’s U23s have been promoted to and survived in the new PL2, competing with and sometimes beating the big boys – this season, they have beaten Manchester United, Liverpool, Spurs and most recently handed West Ham a 5-1 walloping at an empty Olympic Stadium.  But in his latest book, No Hunger in Paradise, Michael Calvin reports that the PL2 has been described as ‘crap’ by Man United’s academy director Nicky Butt and as a ‘waste of time’ by Gareth Southgate.  “The majority of games are stripped of passion and pressure”, Calvin says of a league which cannot be seriously seen as a challenge worthy of the most gifted young players.

Meanwhile, the Premier League’s Checkatrade Trophy wheeze – which forces, at the threat of a fine, lower league clubs to field strong teams in glorified friendlies  – was rejected by most sentient fans as an insulting notion at best, or as a Trojan Horse for B teams in the Football League at worst.  It was not even supported by most of the biggest clubs it was designed to attract – Derby got the call to enter a team last year after Man United, Man City, Arsenal, Spurs and Liverpool all declined the invitation.  Simply put, there is no way to simulate league football – young players just need to play it.

If they’re not ready to feature for the first eleven, then a time-honoured way to find out whether they can cut it or not is to send them out on loan.  This worked well for Callum Guy last season, who did well for Port Vale of League One (until a hamstring injury prematurely ended his season).  Jamie Hanson spent some time at the sharp end, helping Jake Buxton and Stephen Warnock in Wigan Athletic’s unsuccessful fight against relegation from the Championship, while Kelle Roos helped AFC Wimbledon to win promotion to League One via the play-offs.

This year, Offrande Zanzala has had a spell at National League side Chester FC, while Kellan Gordon has scored three goals for Swindon Town, with Timi Max Elsnik also playing his part in the Robins’ League Two play-off push.

On the other hand, Farrend Rawson spent time with Coventry City in League One last season and is now with Accrington Stanley, in League Two.  This is an alarming regression from 2015/6, when he was described as a ‘future Premier League player’ by Steve Evans, his manager at the then Championship side Rotherham United.  Roos, meanwhile, is 25 and so even in goalkeeper terms, can no longer be seen as a prospect and really should be establishing himself as a number one somewhere by now.

Although Roos and Rawson’s careers seem to be drifting, there’s no doubt that loans can be invaluable in helping a player to establish himself as a professional.  I can’t for the life of me understand why Jonny Mitchell, just shy of his 23rd birthday, isn’t out on loan, if something could be arranged for him.  It would necessitate the signing of an experienced ‘number two’, but this should effectively be seen as a youth development investment, because Mitchell will surely learn little warming the bench.  He had a difficult time of it in a rare start in this season’s EFL Cup – when he was criticised by Rowett after the Rams lost at Barnsley – and so in the event that something happens to Scott Carson, would the manager really be happy to turn to the young man as his cover, or would he rather have him out learning his trade elsewhere?

Hanson, Max Lowe and Mason Bennett are the three products closest to the first XI, but Lowe has been dogged by injuries and now finds his path to the team blocked by Craig Forsyth.  He has featured in Derby’s last six U23 games and if he isn’t going to get a chance in the first team, is another who could probably do with a loan.

Bennett was horribly unlucky to suffer a bad knee injury early on in his first league start of the season, at Brentford – it would be nice to think that he could challenge the likes of Johnson, Russell and Weimann for a place in the side once he returns to fitness.  As a ‘utility player’, Hanson always offers a manager an option, though a lack of specialism can also be viewed as a curse.  We were told years ago that he was being ‘groomed’ to play as a holding midfielder, though he seems to get more games as a full back.  In Rowett’s system, there is in theory a place in the squad for a ‘shithouse’ midfielder to run around alongside Huddlestone, booting people as appropriate.  ‘Bruiser’ Hanson might be tailor-made for this role – if Rowett thinks that he is good enough.

Let’s be fair to Rowett, who has a first team to manage and is expected to win (and win “well”).  He cannot afford to indulge anyone.  Winning is quite rightly all that matters to him and he needs to be able to trust whoever he selects to do  what he needs them to do.  As Rowett pointed out last night, Luke Thomas was so nervous about making his debut against QPR that he ran onto the field and took up a position on the wrong wing of the pitch.  That’s funny in the context of a comfortable victory, but makes the bigger point quite well.  The onus is not on Rowett, who has a big enough job to do already, but on the youth development staff to help the manager by producing youngsters who are as ready as they possibly can be, if and when the first team needs them.

There is no magic wand for player development and the harsh reality is that the vast majority of kids in even the most productive academies cannot make it into the upper echelons of the game.  The dustbin of history is littered with the names of boys who had everything, but ended up falling short – for as many different reasons as there are people.  Calvin’s book includes a chapter on poor Zak Brunt, whose father recently made his dispute with Derby County public.  The player himself is clearly a fine prospect, but had endured a chaotic ‘career’ through the academies of four major clubs by the age of just 15.

In recent years, Derby’s headlong pursuit of promotion was seemingly the only thing that mattered, but it was not achieved and so now, it’s time to take stock and reassess.  There’s no doubt that a lot of money and effort has been poured into the development of academy players at Derby, but in any other business, Morris would expect a reasonable level of return on a substantial investment.  This football club has arguably failed to deliver that in recent times – and it should not be judged any differently.

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