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Youth Injustice
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Youth Injustice

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Trust board member Adam Tanner assesses youth injustice at SN1.

What does Michael Pook have in common with Nathan and Louis Thompson?

That’s probably not a question which you’ve been asked before. “Not very much” might be among the more diplomatic answers.

However, it’s worth noting that they are the only players to have made it “through the system” at STFC since the turn of the century – by which I mean entering the club’s youth setup before the 15th birthday, and going on to make a minimum of 12 league starts for the club. It does seem likely that Scott Twine will become the fourth to hit that figure (he is now up to 10 league starts), which would be great to see. But either way, as we are now looking at a period of 19 years, a figure of 3 players to date is intriguingly low.

Academy football begins for boys of a very young age. In keeping with most clubs, Swindon operate teams from the Under 7 age group upwards, and have done for some time. However, although several youngsters have achieved some success during the course of the century after a fleeting appearance in the club’s youth system, they have usually been recruited with the bulk of their development behind them, such as Sean Morrison (from Plymouth, aged 16), and Lukas Jutkiewicz (from the Southampton area, aged 15).

Swindon is a big town, and there’s no other football league club within 30 miles. Our catchment area is untypically wide, and we should capitalise on this. Yes, I appreciate that bigger fish have an element of control, and can cast their net beyond their local area when recruiting players… but I don’t feel that this justifies a club of our size producing so few first teamers over such a long period.

The case of Sol Pryce seems to demonstrate that the odds are stacked against our internal lads. Having previously only made one brief Checkatrade Trophy substitute appearance, he started the league game at home to Stevenage after Town had lost several forwards to injury or suspension. He began by scoring our quickest post-war goal (after 18 seconds), and by half time he had scored again. The second goal was particularly well taken, one on one, Scott Twine managed a goal of his own in between them, and I think it’s fair to say that this game represented the team’s best home performance of the season so far.

In fact, Pryce remains the club’s top scorer in the league over the course of the last 3 months; nobody else has scored more than 1 league goal, in total, during this period. However, during the subsequent weeks, he has appeared only once more in the league – as an 89th minute substitute at Grimsby.

I am not for a moment suggesting that we should get carried away, that Pryce will be the next big thing, or that he should be starting games on a weekly basis. But, under the circumstances, with none of our forwards anywhere near good goalscoring form, the decision to barely use him again seems odd.  

Pryce will turn 19 this month, and is a similar age to youngsters who we have traditionally recruited on loan. If, for example, we loaned a young forward in from a Premier League club, and he scored twice in the first half of his debut, it seems difficult to believe that he would barely feature again during the following weeks.

Indeed, in the relatively recent past, we have signed plenty of youngsters from bigger clubs, for a modest fee, before developing them into quality footballers who can be sold at a substantial profit to high-end Football League clubs. Matt Ritchie, Massimo Luongo and Nathan Byrne are all fair examples.

Others have arrived from the depths of non-league, below Conference level, and done well. Charlie Austin is, of course, the most striking example, but Ben Gladwin and Raphael Rossi Branco have also developed at Swindon and moved on to a higher level.

Further players have been signed from a really low level, and been given regular football straight away. In 2015, James Brophy came from Edgware Town in the tenth tier; to put that into perspective, it’s the same level as Purton FC. Yet, despite rarely excelling, he went on to start 40 league games during the subsequent 2 years, before ending up back in non-league. Did Brophy really deserve to have been thrown straight into the first team, spending far more time on the pitch than all of our first year pros combined?

What adds to the intrigue is that, during the last 20 years, we have had many managers, several owners, and various “ideologies”… yet the results have remained consistently low.

It’s unsurprising that youth development was not high on the agenda of someone as volatile and impatient as Paolo di Canio. However, in fairness to him, he converted Nathan Thompson into a first team regular. This was after Thompson, in keeping with most of our youths, had been given just three starts for the club before his 21st birthday. Di Canio also gave Louis his debut, aged 17, in a 4th Round FA Cup tie at Leicester City.

If I had a young son who could play football, I must admit that (after demanding a DNA test) I would advise him to start off elsewhere, if logistics allowed it. As a proud and longstanding fan of the club, it gives me no pleasure to say that. But, unfortunately, recent history suggests that the likeliest route for a local youngster to a regular game in the Swindon team is via another club.

And that’s something which I’d love to see change over the coming years.

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