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League Two

Mansfield Town boss David Flitcroft on the importance of youth development

“John Stones was playing under me at Barnsley; he was flying in training and we put him in the team where he learned to play against some of the Championship’s best.”

18 August 2018

An ethos of promoting from within; David Flitcroft still lives by the same mantra as he did when starting out his managerial career at Barnsley during the 2012/13 season.

Whilst his allegiance has changed since his managerial debut, the progression of younger players has been a consistent factor at not only the Tykes – where Flitcroft oversaw the breakthrough of England international John Stones – but Bury, Swindon Town and now his current club, Mansfield Town.

In line with that ethos, ahead of the 2018/19 season, the EFL announced a new rule that requires each of the 72 clubs across the three divisions to name at least one Club Developed Player in their matchday squad each week.

A Club Developed Player is defined as one who has come through his current club’s Academy and has played there for at least one season before his respective under-19 campaign, and Flitcroft has said the addition of the rule is a step in the right direction.

“By gaining exposure to first-team training and matches, you experience what is a very different environment,” said the Stags boss. “Training for 20 hours a week means nothing if you don’t add in competitive practice, and doing that microwaves the development of a young player — it speeds it up.

“John Stones was playing under me at Barnsley; he was flying in training and we put him in the team where he learned to play against some of the Championship’s best.

“Players will make mistakes but it allows you to see who will sink and who will swim, and I’ve seen plenty come through that have swam when they’re given the chance.”

The impact that EFL experience has on players has been highlighted this year, with 20 of the 23-man England squad having made their professional debut in the EFL or Carabao Cup.

England’s most successful tournament since 1990 saw them reach the semi-final stage before losing out to Croatia, and Flitcroft admits he saw an EFL imprint on the team that couldn’t have been gained elsewhere.

“One thing I would say about the top academies is that everything is done for you, every last detail is taken care of, whereas at a smaller club you might have to take your kit home to wash it, or help clean the changing rooms.

“When I was at Bury we couldn’t afford cleaners, so players were responsible for keeping it spotless day in, day out. They were responsible for keeping the gym clean, I was responsible for my office.

“Those small details help you become a more humble person, and when you look at that England squad, whether players have come up through the ranks or been in the EFL on loan, they’ve gained fantastic experience in a different environment.

“It’s been happening for a long time now — David Beckham went on loan to Preston North End, for example. Now we’ve got Harry Kane, who spent time at Leyton Orient, Norwich and Millwall, Harry Maguire playing so many games down there, and Jesse Lingard too, who had four really good loan experiences.”

Starting his first full season in charge at the One Call Stadium, the 44-year-old manager is hoping to develop the club’s academy, which he described as “young.”

The production of academy players not only benefits the individual, but it makes for a more sustainable club in Flitcroft’s opinion, having seen firsthand how clubs like Bury rely on finding a star of the next generation.

“The way academies were 20 years ago, teams were just playing with it and hoping a player would come through; whereas now it’s been designed for players to find their way to the top, and Category Three and Four academies are developing players that are ready for Category One.

“At Bury [a Category Three academy], we developed Category One players with the system we played and they were technically good enough, robust enough and they were dynamic. Our blueprint was not to create players for League Two, but to create players who could go further, and experience on the pitch at that level is vital.

“Last year we gave very limited minutes to academy players, while teams like Coventry gave out something like 4,000 minutes, Rochdale too. Those two clubs are the perfect EFL models in terms of sustainability by way of academy players.

“It’s vital that both managers and supporters absolutely back the initiative, and I’m hoping that next year it has to be two Club Developed Players in the squad. It’s the most important thing for the growth and sustainability of any football club.”

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