After a tumultuous winter and questions over whether the Academy would continue, the last few days must feel like vindication for the staff at Wast Hills.
Confirmation of Category 1 status should remove any doubt that the club will continue to invest in the youth setup. The attendant obligation that comes with that status to field under 18 and under 23 teams should also mean that any thought of changing to the “Brentford” model of a “B” team is now dead in the water.
However, for people who think this is the end of the story and now the club lives happily ever after there is a rude awakening; getting Category 1 status isn’t the end of the road – it’s merely the beginning.
One of the biggest misconceptions that fans make about youth players “making it” is that a debut in the first team is the culmination of that youth player’s progress in the team.
While every player who comes through the system should indeed celebrate making their first team debut, the harsh truth is that debut is only the start of a player’s career – and that the biggest step to come is to build upon that.
In truth we should look at the awarding of Category 1 status in the same way. While it is an achievement for the club, shorn of the prestige all the status means is that the club have entry into the top end of the youth leagues; that the top end of compensation fees apply to young players coming through the academy, and that the top end of investment is required into that academy.
All of that sounds good on paper, but none of it actually means success.
Success for an academy is more players making their way into the professional game; either by entrance into the club’s first team or through being sold to other clubs to continue their career there.
Like with the first team additional investment does not guarantee success.
Sure, extra money raises the probability that success will happen, and helps to attract a better calibre of both young player and coach to come to the Academy. However, that investment still needs to be made wisely; otherwise like the first team it is squandered and in the end Category 1 status is wasted or even potentially relinquished.
The Blues Academy has Category 1 status for a year, but it is conditional and they must pass an audit to retain it for the 2022/23 season.
That means the club must commit to continued investment into the Academy too; which means things like replacing Academy heads who have left in the last year such as Stuart English, Mark Sinclair and Matt Doyle.
This is going to require proper recruitment to ensure their replacements are of sufficient calibre to maintain the standards that have been set.
So how is success measured?
This is where things get a bit more introspective, and I fear I’m going to regain my place as a pisser on the chips of the fans.
While it’s absolutely laudable that the under-23s won the PDL playoff final so convincingly against Sheffield United, it’s important to understand what it means in terms of progress.
In 2019, Blues made the same final, only to lose on penalties. That game took place on May 6, and the line-up was as follows:
Zach Jeacock, Remeao Hutton, Ryan Burke, Ryan Stirk, Geraldo Bajrami, Joe Redmond, Corey O’Keeffe, Caolan Boyd-Munce, Odin Bailey, Adan George, Kyle Hurst.
Subs: Josh Andrews, Josh Bradley-Hurst, Jude Belllingham, Ben Forrest, Olly McCoy.
Compare that to Monday’s line up:
Oliver Basey, Geraldo Bajrami, Joe Redmond, Ryan Burke, Josh Williams, Remi Walker, Caolan Boyd-Munce, Jayden Reid, Keyendrah Simmonds, Adan George, Alfie Chang
Subs: Alfie Brooks, Kyle Hurst, Kane Thompson-Sommers, Mitch Roberts, Josh Andrews.
One thing that should immediately stick out is the number of players who are in both line-ups.
Five of the players who lost the first game (Burke, Bajrami, Redmond, Boyd-Munce, and George) played in the second one, while another two players (Hurst and Andrews) were in both squads.
I know that people have expressed surprise that players such as Burke, Bajrami and Redmond have been released from the under-23s but it does not speak much for their professional development at the club that those three players have not pushed on since their first final appearance.
Those three players have made the grand total of three Championship appearances in the two years between those games for Blues between them.
Bajrami made four appearances for Solihull Moors on loan last season, while Ryan Burke made five appearances for Yeovil Town on loan this year. Joe Redmond went on loan to Cork City in January of last year but thanks to Covid didn’t play a game for the Irish side.
Indeed, of that first line-up barring the once in generation phenomenon that is Jude Bellingham, we’ve yet to see much of any of the remainder of the lineup.
There is promise that Zach Jeacock could make a career in goal at Blues while Ryan Stirk has looked promising in midfield having been given his debut this season. Caolan Boyd-Munce and Adan George have both played in the first team this season too but both of those players are still yet to realise their full potential.
Promise is a wonderful thing but it’s going to take a lot of work from the club to turn that into true success.
I think we should understand that the step up from under-23 football to the first team is the biggest and hardest there is in youth football.
I believe that the success of Jude Bellingham somewhat blinds us to what reality is like.
Make no mistake, Bellingham is a player of the like we may not see again in decades. Not only a phenomenally talented player, Bellingham has a mental strength and maturity that is incredibly rare to find in a player at his age.
His elevation to the full England squad is continuing proof of what an incredible player he is and I will say here and now I feel blessed to have seen the first stages of his professional career.
For other players, that step up from under-23 to first team is incredibly hard.
Take Adan George as an example. George made his first team debut at the start of this season just gone with Blues short of forwards but was nowhere near the first team afterwards. A loan spell at Walsall ended without him appearing in a squad let along making an appearance and it was only on his return to the under-23s that he started to grow as a player again.
Steve Spooner told the Birmingham Mail on Tuesday that George’s debut probably came too early in his development. The inference was that it was only that when he returned to regularly appearing for the under-23s was George was able to properly progress as a player.
While it looks great on paper to promote an under-23 player to the first team squad, they have to be ready for the rigours of the Championship.
Don’t get me wrong; for a one-off game I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the under-23 squad could potentially rise to the occasion and play to the required standard.
However, league football demands a consistency of performance of that required standard, and that is much, much harder for a young player to reach.
When I think about young players making it, I think of players like Demarai Gray.
Gray stood out at under-23 level and made the step up to play at first team level. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Gray didn’t stop trying to improve when he made the first team. He pushed on further and further, forcing the manager to keep picking him and in the end earning him a move to a Premier League team.
It’s that desire and ability to continually improve that is vital for a young player to be successful in a professional career. Equally, there needs to be space for the player to grow for them to realise that potential, whether it be with the first team or out on loan.
I don’t want people to take this piece as a criticism of the club or of any of the players who have been mentioned.
The under-18s, the under-23s and the staff who have coached them have achieved a lot in the last season under uncertain circumstances and they should be congratulated for that.
However, I think it’s really important that the club takes those achievements and builds on them. With the investment Category 1 status demands there is an opportunity to create a pipeline of talent which helps to improve the self-sustainability of the club.
The title that was won on Monday shouldn’t be the pinnacle of achievement for the players and staff involved. I’m hoping it’s the first in a long line of achievements for them which makes for a successful career.