Youth development: time to deliver?

AFC Wimbledon’s youth development scheme is rightly lauded. But when it comes to giving our youngsters a chance in the first-team, do the club’s actions speak quieter than its words? The unfortunate injury to Karleigh Osborne now gives a chance for the club to live up to its rhetoric.

Few who were at Kingsmeadow last Tuesday can fail to have been impressed by the performance and attitude of our Under 18 team as they played Chelsea in an FA Youth Cup tie. Although they went down to an unlucky defeat, there was plenty to admire in a cup run that saw them beat Premier League opponents Watford and Newcastle United. Our Academy’s success is even more remarkable considering that we had to rebuild it from scratch following the events of 2002, and that the youth side has been ‘playing catch-up’ throughout the first-team’s remarkable rise through the leagues.

In the matchday programme for that Chelsea Youth Cup tie, Erik Samuelson wrote:

Bringing through young players is the Wimbledon way and has been for a very long time. We have spent years building the Academy and now the benefits are starting to show. Last season and this we’ve had four Academy graduates start a first-team game, and two of them won the Man of the Match award. Two more boys have had game time from the bench. We are pretty confident that this compares well with any of the other 91 clubs, and we are aiming for it to get even better.
 A growing number of Dons fans seem to feel that youngsters like George Oakley haven't been given a fair chance.  (Photo © 2014 Rob Crane)

A growing number of Dons fans seem to feel that youngsters like George Oakley haven't been given a fair chance. (Photo © 2014 Rob Crane)

But there has been a growing feeling on the terraces that the club often turns its back on opportunities to give our young players a chance. Neal Ardley’s preference seems to be to plug any injury gaps by reaching for his contact book to bring in a youngster on loan from another club. As a result, a feeling has surfaced that the club is more willing to give development opportunities to youngsters from other clubs rather than to our own.

And these loan signings have often been less than impressive. In contrast, after a somewhat shaky debut at Dagenham & Redbridge last season, Ryan Sweeney has impressed whenever given a chance. But he’s hardly alone in not being given regular opportunities: Ben Harrison was a contender for League Two Apprentice of the Year last season but now finds himself out on loan at Tonbridge Angels, while other youth-team graduates seem to be included in matchday squads as mere benchwarmers rather than with any real prospect of being put into action, even when the match situation seems to demand a player in their position.

Of course, Ardley gets to see the youngsters every day in training. The classic view is, ‘if they’re good enough, they’re old enough’ – so does Ardley simply think they’re not good enough? Unlike us fans, he gets to see them every day, to judge their mentality and their maturity at reading the game. Or maybe he is keen to bring them through slowly, to avoid exposing them to the risk of criticism too early in their careers as the club tries to maintain its play-off push.

Sweeney got his opportunity against Luton yesterday only because of Osborne’s injury and he responded well, forming a solid partnership with Paul Robinson. Yet his chances of a run in the first-team have already been cast into doubt as Ardley has raised the prospect of yet another loan signing:

I’ve no doubts that Ryan is ready but you have to look at it sensibly. With seven games in three weeks and maybe only two fit centre-backs – one of those an 18-year-old – we may have to strengthen.

Few would doubt that only two fit centre-backs would leave the squad looking stretched, although Barry Fuller and Jonathan Meades both represent potential stop-gaps if an injury occurs during a match.

The test will come in how we strengthen. If we again bring in a youngster from another club and insert him into the first-team ahead of one our own, the sense of disillusionment may well increase. But there are other ways of strengthening, including the possibility of bringing in an older out-of-contract player to provide cover and sit on the bench on a short-term basis.

The club management may see it as a risky approach, but a growing number of Dons fans seem keen for us to give our youngsters a chance.