Inside Wolves' academy: How Nuno Espirito Santo is utilising youth
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Last Updated: 14/09/19 2:56pm
With a busy few months ahead, Soccer Saturday's Johnny Phillips went to the Wolves academy to see how Nuno Espirito Santo is utilising the club's young talent.
Rob Edwards is pacing across pitch number three, ready to blow his whistle to begin a training move after imparting instructions to the youngsters scattered across the pitch. There are not enough players in front of him to work with, but this is a problem Wolves' U23s coach is glad to have. Seven of his squad have been summoned across to the first-team pitch, tucked away down an embankment just a few yards away, to work with head coach Nuno Espirito Santo and his squad.
Wolves may have invested heavily in recent seasons, but they have one of the most integrated academy structures in the Premier League. The players from the U23s and younger age groups can, quite literally, see the pathway to the first-team squad.
"Nuno works very closely with us," says Wolves' Head of Academy, Scott Sellars. "Towards the end of last season, he started talking about these elite young players and how he didn't care what age they were, he wanted to work with them.
"The group who went to China in the Asia Trophy included a 16-year-old boy and a couple of 17-year-olds. He really wants the academy to be a part of what he is trying to do. Nuno doesn't have a massive squad so a lot of players will be taken from the U23s and he is not concerned if he is taking younger ones from the U17s and U18s. The academy is very much part of the football club and part of what the ownership want to do."
Christian Marques was the 16-year-old given the trip of a lifetime when he joined stars like Joao Moutinho, Diogo Jota and Ruben Neves on Wolves' pre-season Asia Trophy tour to Shanghai and Nanjing. Wolves won the tournament after a penalty shootout victory over Manchester City, and Taylor Perry - a local lad who had just turned 18 - was one of those entrusted to take a spot-kick.
"It was one of the best feelings so far in my career," he explains. "It was a big moment for me stepping up to take a penalty and it shows Nuno had trust in me to step up and take one. Playing against the likes of Bernardo Silva and David Silva, you've got to take that experience when you come back here, whether you're with the U23s or the first team.
"Nuno has had a big impact on the academy because the first-team levels are getting higher, it raises the standards in the academy because Nuno wants players stepping up when he needs them. The quality is definitely getting better and I think it improves us as players as well."
One of the first things we say to them is: 'The majority of you won't be professional footballers'. We are very honest.
Scott Sellars, Wolves' Head of Academy
'Waiting for the text'
Perry has been joined at the side of the U23s pitch, where we are chatting to Dion Sanderson, another who gained valuable experience in China. The young players are not told in advance whether or not they will be required by Nuno to train with the first team, and it is something Sanderson believes helps the youngsters perform at their peak.
"As soon as I get into training, I want to find out if I'm in the first-team squad or not," he explains. "You're in the gym waiting for the text to say you've been chosen, and you've got to have the mentality where you are ready to train with them if you're called up.
"And when we get into training, whether I'm playing at right wing-back or at centre-back, I know my role because that's how we train with the U23s. It's nothing new when we come down to train with the firsts and it helps us not to look out of place. And Nuno helps all the youngsters in the sessions too, talking and giving us advice."
The Wolves head coach raised a few eyebrows when he declared after defeat at Everton earlier this month that he had a squad of 60 players to chose from. He was making the point that the club's academy players have a valuable role to play in a season where resources will be stretched from competing in Europe alongside the Premier League.
"In my experience of football, I've never been at a football club before where the young players have the opportunity to train and work with the first team like this," Sellars continues. "It's up to them to recognise that, and some of the boys have really grasped that opportunity. There is nothing better for a player to come into his job and think, 'I've got a chance to progress here'.
"Nuno wants hungry players and he sees the young players as part of an environment where people can be really challenged. I have massive respect for Nuno, for putting the youngsters on against a team like Manchester City in the Asia Trophy."
'We help them to become better people'
Sellars is pragmatic enough to know that the vast majority of those who come under his wing from an early age will not stay in the game, but he is determined to create an environment where even those who drop out will have developed in life.
"We had inductions last week, and one of the first things we say to them is: 'The majority of you won't be professional footballers'. We are very honest from the start about that, but we also believe the experience of being here is fantastic, with the matches they play and the tournaments they go to. Also, the experience of playing team sport and learning as a team will hopefully, whether they have success or failure, help them to become better people."
Just as important to those stepping up into the first-team squad is the loans system being utilised by Wolves. Bright academy prospects such as Niall Ennis at Doncaster Rovers, Ryan Giles at Shrewsbury Town and Sadou Diallo at Accrington Stanley, are being closely monitored.
"We have pride in all our players, whether they are with the first team, whether we loan them out, or whether we sell them," Sellars adds. "We have a responsibility to look after them and help as many of them as we can live their dream of becoming professional footballers. We all find our level and it's important to develop them as footballers, and people who can have a life as a professional footballer.
"My role is to make the academy self-sustainable. That comes two ways. Firstly, it's by getting players into the first team. Max Kilman has played in the Europa League, and Dion and Taylor have been on the bench. That says a lot about Nuno and also what we are doing at the academy.
"And secondly, if we can sell players who are doing well to help make a profit and make the academy a viable part of the business, I want to have the finances from what we do as an academy to recruit the next player. It's a club with a fantastic history of developing players. In the 1950s, a lot of the players were local lads who came through. Major Frank Buckley had a philosophy of bringing players through."
'The Major' had a profound impact at the club during his 17-year tenure between 1927 and 1944, laying the foundations for the unparalleled success of the 1950s when three league titles were won. Wolves is a club that has changed beyond recognition since, but under owners Fosun and head coach Nuno, they see the value in a successful academy. And the young players are aware of the opportunities that have opened up.
"It's a blessing really and I just want to carry it on and have a good career whether it's here or at another team," Perry adds. "Hopefully I can really set high standards for myself. There's a pathway there where you can really prove yourself if you want to be a good player, which I do. Hopefully there's a bright future here."
"I've just got to keep knuckling down," Sanderson adds. "Wolves is my home, I've been here since the age of nine. I live five minutes away in Wednesfield, it's a big thing for me. We have great coaching staff here, it's something you can't get bored of."
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