During the third round of the FA Cup, it became increasingly clear that several of the Premier League and Championship’s academy players just aren’t ready for competitive football.
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While 17-year-old forward Louie Barry was a highlight in the Villa team, many of them struggled to cope against Liverpool in their 4-1 defeat. Admittedly, Jurgen Klopp fielded a very strong side given the calibre of the opposition, but the quality of the Villa youngsters simply weren’t ready to be pushing for a place in and around the first team.
That was the same for Derby. Following an outbreak of COVID-19 in the first-team camp, the club were enforced to field an U23 side against sixth-tier Chorley. Not only did the part-timers win the game, but they had more shots, more possession, more passes, better pass accuracy and, most importantly, better players for that situation.
It wasn’t that the Derby players weren’t good enough, but it was that they aren’t exposed to regular football against a variety of opposition.
Despite their poor display in the FA Cup, Derby’s U23 side sit fifth in the PL2 Division 1, ahead of both Liverpool and Manchester United, so there is obviously some talent there.
Naturally, there are the exceptions to the rule and several academy players have broken into the first team. The Class of ’92 immediately springs to mind, with a pool of talented youngsters breaking their way into the Manchester United side before turning out for their countries on numerous occasions.
And even in recent years, we have seen the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Curtis Jones of Liverpool, Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood at Manchester United and a whole host of players from Chelsea who have excelled under Frank Lampard.
Some players get a lucky break, some players have to make it work elsewhere before edging into the first team, but all players need to work hard to get noticed.
Oxford United is a Club Where Premier League Academy Players Have Thrived
There are a few clubs in the Football League that help and develop these academy players, and League One side Oxford United is one of them.
In the past six or so years, under the management of Michael Appleton and now Karl Robinson, the U’s have seen several Premier League and Championship academy players leave to get regular football, and are now plying their trade at a higher level as a result.
The first high-profile player under Appleton came from his former clubs’ academy with Kemar Roofe from West Bromwich Albion. The forward joined the then League Two side on loan before signing permanently the following season, helping the U’s to secure promotion to League One.
Other key players from that season include Everton duo John Lundstram and Jonjoe Kenny, with the former making 47 appearances during the promotion campaign.
Throughout the next four seasons, the club saw West Ham United trio Toni Martinez, Marcus Browne and Nathan Holland, Everton trio Conor McAleny, Ryan Ledson and Luke Garbutt, Manchester United’s Joe Rothwell and Liverpool duo Cameron Brannagan and Ben Woodburn join the club.
So where are they now? Roofe is now playing under Steven Gerrard at Rangers, having impressed with Leeds United in the Championship, while Lundstram, who made over 100 appearances for the U’s from his two seasons, features for Sheffield United in the Premier League.
Kenny played a key part at Everton before an enjoyable loan spell at Schalke, while Martinez is now featuring for Porto.
Browne, Ledson and Rothwell are all regulars for Championship clubs, while youngsters Woodburn and Holland are still learning the ropes on loan.
Loan Moves Away is the Best Result for These Players
Of course, this isn’t always the case and even Oxford have had inadequate signings in the past. But, these players have proved that it is better for their careers, in the long run, to leave academy football and play regularly at a Football League club.
Many have made the move to lower league clubs, got some vital experience behind them and moved on to bigger and better things. If more players were to do so, it could help Football League clubs, too, while giving hundreds of youngsters the platform to succeed.