The return of Sean Murray from Wigan Athletic, a month earlier than expected, raises, once again, the issue of the pathway for Watford’s young players and the best way to harness the club’s young talent.
Murray is one of only 13 players schooled in the club’s famed academy to have played at least a minute of competitive first-team action since the Pozzos took over in the summer of 2012. And with top talent like Juan Manuel Iturbe and Emmanuel Adebayor on the club’s January shopping list it does not look like it will be anytime soon that a player fresh out of the academy will be named in the first-team squad. Connor Smith is the only youth academy player named in the club’s 24-man Premier League squad and he has not even travelled to a league game this season. He was given a chance against Preston North End in the Capital One Cup and, perhaps unfairly, was dragged off after 59 minutes. His contract up in the summer. It’s unlikely he will be retained.
The problem, if you indeed you think there is a problem when the club are seventh in the apparent best league in the world, is not confined to Vicarage Road. Swansea, Bournemouth and Watford are yet to field a youth-team graduate this season while Norwich, Manchester City, Stoke and Sunderland cannot boast any youth product who has made ten or more Premier League appearances. The issue is widespread.
Watford are not afraid to promote players from the Under-18s, and even the U16s, to the U21 team.
“Ideally we get the ones that are performing the best at that time, and we move them up [from the U18s and U21s],” said David Horseman, the U18 coach, in the wake of the 1-0 defeat to Millwall on Monday night. “And I’m more than happy and Harry [Kewell] is more than happy to take them, get them up playing with your young pros where the standard is different and better and harder and quicker.”
It’s the next leap, to the first team, which is a quantum one and, if we are being honest, none of the crop on view in the U18 FA Youth Cup defeat on Friday night and the U21 defeat against Millwall on Monday look like making. Alex Jakubiak, at 19, is the best prospect of the lot but if Belgium Under-21 international Obbi Oulare, who is built like a brick outhouse and has played in the Champions League, cannot get a minute of Premier League action, what chance has Jakubiak got? Jakubiak could play for the U21s for two more years but, with 12 goals this season including eight in consecutive matches, he is outgrowing this level of football and needs to be exposed again to league football. But he is needed to fulfil the full U21 fixture list and keep Kewell’s team competitive.
“Academy football does not deliver enough competitive games for these players,” said Tony Pulis, the West Brom manager, in a fascinting debate on BBC Radio 5 live last week. “The gap between U21 football and professional football is too big at the top level. There are the Barkleys and those like that who can play whatever way you play, but, for the majority, the gap is just too big.”
Murray has not started a league game for Watford since September last year and it is alarming for his prospects at Vicarage Road that he did not feature in a League One game for the last two and a half months of his stay at the DW Stadium. Tommie Hoban is the last academy prospect to start a league game for the Hornets and it is hard to see how he is going to displace Allan Nyom, Miguel Britos, Craig Cathcart or Nathan Ake once he is fit in the new year. A loan spell beckons for the young defender.
“It’s about making sure young players get opportunities,” said Dan Ashworth, the FA technical director on the same 5 live programme. “There is a gap for the 18s-21s. How do we bridge the gap? Do they train with the first team, do we do more loans? We are going round, speaking to the leagues to try and work on this. It is the time between U18s and making their PL debut at 21-22 and making sure they have had enough game time, enough opportunities to stretch them and prepare them for that, the toughest league in the world. Some are ready to go in at 18, some a bit later. We all want our young players to play in the Premier League.”
Pulis is not in a position of strength when he enters a debate about blooding young players: Saido Berahino is the only player from his club’s youth system to play in the Premier League – and he can’t get a sniff right now. But Pulis has been around the block long enough, at Stoke City, Crystal Palace and now West Brom, to have an informed and valid opinion on the quality of conveyor belts up and down the country producing players.
“There is wonderful talent in academies but sometimes I think they are not pushed to play at this [Premier League] level,” he said. “We have a responsibility to bring these kids up in a more rounded fashion, from a social point of view. The kids at 18 are not being stretched enough – there has got to be a way of finding places for them to play competitive football. I think from 18 to 21 if they are good enough to be playing in the Premier League they should be playing league football.”
We’ve discussed in these pages before about how the best time to be a young player at a club like Watford is when the club fall on hard financial times. Look, for example, at the amount of young players who were blooded during the stewardship of Malky Mackay and Sean Dyche when the club was on its knees.
“We have very good trainers, who can put on a good session, create a drill, but when you talk about coaching, you are talking about the person,” said Dyche. “What are they like, what are they about, do they understand the life they are going in to? Do they understand the old values like passion, pride, work ethic?”
It’s a debate that will run and run.
*Additional reporting by Ross White