Youth boss Darren Edmondson spoke to us about the decisions made on the second years as part of his end-of-season review of what has been a campaign of highs and lows for the under-18 side.
Speaking about his first experience of dealing with decision day with U18 players, he said: “I wouldn’t say doing this is new to me, because I’ve been in management for a number of years and it’s part and parcel of the job, but it is new in terms of the age group I’m dealing with.
“It is slightly different when you're such a close knit group, as we are, and you know they've gone through college together and things like that. “It was difficult with the two lads who had to go and I have to thank Rhys [Groves] and Kieran [Hall] for the work they've put in over the last year.
“It's been enjoyable working with them and watch them progress. The nature of football is that not everybody can get kept on and not everybody has what it takes in some people's opinion. It is all about opinion and I'm sure those two can go and succeed somewhere else. They've got good attributes and some they need to work on, but they're both level headed young men.
“The situation with Joe Breen was taken out of our hands because he became extremely home-sick and wasn't enjoying being away from Ireland. He came to see myself and Dave one afternoon and asked if he could be cut short from his contract so he could go back to Ireland. He was another who was great to work with and before Christmas he was playing very well.
“He went home for the Christmas break and I think that was what put the nail in his coffin because when he came back he realised how much he missed it. That's the tough thing when you bring players in from away because that can always be a factor. A load of lads in digs can be great fun at times but sometimes you just miss your home comforts. He got through all his college work as he was meant to and he left on good terms.”
“It's a shame for Max Brown with his cruciate injury,” he continued. “The good side of youth contracts is that they can be frozen and we can aid his recovery as well as giving him 12 weeks to come and impress us again. It would have been a tough call as to whether we'd kept all five, including Max, so hopefully he will get the bit between his teeth and his rehab will go well and he can make a career in the game.”
On the lads who made it through – Morgan Bacon [keeper], Jack Egan [attacking midfielder], Jordan Holt [midfielder], Cameron Salkeld [attacking midfielder] – he said: “To see the look on their faces when you tell them they’re being offered a contract is brilliant.
“They made my life hell for a few weeks leading up to the decisions! They were asking when it was going to happen and when we were having meetings and things like that. That maybe affected performances in recent games but they’ve all been great to work with.
“From a point of view of flourishing during the latter stages of the season Jack Egan has definitely done that. He went training with the first team on several occasions and he shone, which gave him confidence. His goal tally was excellent and his performances were raised.
“We obviously knew that Jordan [Holt] and Cameron [Salkeld] had been involved with the first team, even from before Christmas, and they had both done well. They also made their debuts so those names were two that were already on people's tongues. Morgan Bacon has travelled with the first team a few times and trained with them as well, and he also had a good loan spell with Penrith.
“They've all got good attributes which is why we're talking about them now. We've sat round a table and decided that these four are worthy of being developed again, which is why they've been given their first professional contract.
“It’s now over to them. They've got a lot of work to do and I think there’s been a realisation in the last couple of weeks of how near they were and what they need to do to potentially push into the gaffer's first team squad next season.”
With four players through this season it signals a first step towards the achievement of a definite pathway from youth football to the first team squad – a target set by Edmondson when he took over the post just under twelve months ago.
“This club has to have this pathway in place,” he commented. “We've got to keep finding our own players and our own gems, but at the same time we aren't doing it for the sake of bringing names through. We're doing it because we think there is potential in those players.
“If they don’t realise that potential it will be down to them because they’ll be given very opportunity to get near the first team squad, definitely from the start of pre-season. Their development and growth has got to come from within them, and not just from what we teach them and how we try and guide them.
“It will be a tough year for them but the cherry is whether they can get in that squad week in week out and give the first team manager some problems. There's no reason why that can't happen with a bit more leadership and concentration. Guidance from other professionals they train with will help as well. We've got some brilliant characters in that first team squad now and I'm sure they will reassure them and guide them if needed.”
“I hope I’ll still play a part in the development of the four lads,” he added. “I think they’ve learned to trust me over the last six months. During the first few months there were a lot of hangovers from the season before that didn't go very well, and I don't think the place was a particularly nice environment to work in. I think we've had to alter that but they've bought into it now and they're pushing on.
“They will probably be back and forward between the first team and ourselves and we've then got to find a pathway to progress them. If they don't get into the first team squad for whatever reason then they need some game time and we'll use the loan market to the best of our ability. It might be the second year that they might push for the first team rather than the first, but the club has got to be seen to be developing players. If they don't push for the manager's squad we've got to look at why and try and develop them more.
“The key to the announcement we made was ‘development’ and that's exactly what it is. You aren't necessarily going to get near a talented first team squad during your first year, but you've got to give yourself every chance by the way you apply yourself and how you conduct yourself. They need to learn more about football and how to look after themselves. The development is down to them and how they listen and react to things.”
“The hard work has to start now for them,” he concluded. “They've shown at U18 level that they can shine in those games against some decent footballers. That was their benchmark, but now their benchmark moves again. We'll be looking at whether they can hang onto the coat tails of the first team players in their position.
“If they don't get there as quickly as they want to they've got to ask themselves why and work at it. A games programme will be key if they don't make the gaffer's squad at the end of pre-season.
“If you're a manager at any level there has to be an end product and a goal that you're working towards. My job at the moment is to progress youngsters through our academy into our first team squad, so to get four through does make me feel proud.
"The players have delivered to a certain level - they've now got to step on another level as the football club progresses. Fingers crossed, in a month we could be in a higher division which will mean they've got to work even harder to get near the first team squad.”