When asked what defines the DNA of the Sheffield United youth setup, Academy Manager Derek Geary’s answer was simple.
“The key to succeeding in this Academy is representing the culture of the Football Club – we outrun, we outfight, and we outplay,” he said. “We’ve got grit and we’ve got determination, and we’ve got lots of desire. With that, we build on talent.
“The talent in this area in this area is incredible. We have lots of talented players coming in who buy into the culture of the Club and with their talent added on produces players for not just the Football Club but for England.”
Current Manchester United skipper Harry Maguire ticked all of those boxes for Geary. The former Blades defender progressed through the ranks to make his debut for his hometown team in April 2011, aged just 18.
“I saw Harry Maguire growing up in the Academy and what struck me about him the most was he could play, and he had grit,” Geary noted. “He was a big, strong aggressive defender. He represented what Sheffield United is all about – he was a Blade.”
He laughed: ‘And he had a big head!”
The South Yorkshire side suffered a 2-0 defeat to Cardiff City as Maguire made himself known to the Blades faithful, but the following season, he made it count.
In 2011/12, he made over 50 appearances, helping Sheffield United to reach the League One Play Off Semi-Finals, and claiming the Club’s Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year along the way.
Maguire recalled: “When I was told I was going to come on for my debut, it was really quick, just after half-time and I didn’t have time for nerves; I think that’s the best way it happens really because I don’t think you want that build-up and the nerves bubbling inside you. He said, ‘get warm,’ and the next minute I was on the pitch.
“Getting the confidence and belief and trust in the manager at the time Micky Adams to make my debut was great belief that I could play at that level. From then on, you take the confidence and the trust, and you try and build your career.”
Maguire, who moved to Hull City from United, took inspiration from his teammates upon breaking into the first-team fold at Bramall Lane, soaking up as much knowledge as he could as he made his mark in the side.
“I had amazing coaches throughout my childhood,” he continued. “Most importantly, I enjoyed my time there and played with a big smile on my face. I’ll be forever thankful to the Sheffield United Academy and all of the coaches that I’ve worked with, and all the players that I’ve worked with as well.
“I had some great experience around me when I made my debut and that’s really important. It was incredible to learn from the likes of Nick Montgomery, Chris Morgan and Neill Collins. Collo [Collins] and Morgs [Morgan] definitely sharpened up my defensive displays and we worked tirelessly in training to improve them. Monty [Montgomery] was a great role model.”
In recent years, Blades Academy graduates have gone on to perform on the biggest stage of all.
Geary, who played for the Club between 2004 and 2010, explained: “To have the likes of Harry Maguire, Aaron Ramsdale and Kyle Walker come through this Academy shows that the talent, the culture of the Club and the coaches through the years, we represent what Sheffield is all about.
“Coaching Aaron Ramsdale, I could see straightaway he was going to make it not just because he was talented, but his character was outrageous. He was bubbly and full of energy, but he was obsessed with being a goalkeeper and he loved being at Sheffield United.
“I played with Kyle Walker and he was very, very fast. He was very determined, very outgoing, full of energy and ultra-ambitious. He suited the modern day full-back. There was no doubt in my mind that he was going to go on and have the great career that he has.”
Maguire, Manchester City defender Walker, and Arsenal stopper Aaron Ramsdale, who was also developed by Sheffield United after joining the Club as a teenager, will be on the plane to this year’s World Cup – something which Geary says speaks volumes for the processes in place at the Club.
“To have them players play for their country now means so much to the Academy because it represents the hard work that has gone on in the Academy through the years, not just through the coaches but the staff from the kitchen and security right through to the first-team staff,” he continued.
“It shows the development that we have and that we give opportunities to young players if they’re ready to play for the Football Club. We give them a work ethic and a discipline and help their talent be a platform for the highest level.
“Those players are now an inspiration to the current players because they see pictures of them around the Academy. They are now in a building doing coaches sessions that these players have developed through. Hopefully, they can go on and represent England or their countries just like those three have.”
For Maguire, the young boy who raced home from school once upon a time to have a kickabout in the garden with his two brothers – who also play non-league football – his boyhood Club still holds a special place in his heart.
“I’ve said it many a time but I’m a big supporter of the Club,” he highlighted. “It’s always the first result I look for when I come off the pitch. I’ll be forever grateful for my time at Sheffield United. The chance to play in the EFL was a great moment for myself and my family.
“To go on and play in the Premier League and represent my country meant everything to me. As a young boy, you dream of playing for big Clubs and your country especially. To be the captain of Manchester United and to play at international level nearly 50 times is something I’m really proud of. To play at Old Trafford and Wembley as my home is something you dream about.”