Here I look at West Bromwich Albion's youth system and analyse how rapidly the young players are developing and improving for the future.
West Bromwich Albion aren't a club known for it's youngsters, certainly not in the same category as the likes of Arsenal and Southampton, sides that have produced world-class stars over the years. But the team from the Black Country have really developed their youth system over the last 10 years or so and now the club find themselves with a whole mix of youthful, talented individuals to choose from. Some of these Albion teenagers have already capped their country, others are on the verge of doing so, and some have made the first team squad under boss Roy Hodgson.
The likes of young pros Sam Mantom, Kayleden Brown, Paul Downing, Romaine Sawyers, Saido Berahino and George Thorne, who has a total of 7 caps for the first team, have made great strides and much is expected of second-year scholars Adil Nabi, Kemar Roofe and Mani O’Sullivan.
But these young players have had to be trained regularly, shaped up for the big, bad world of football and taught how to handle all the nessacary factors that like within the rough and tumble if you like of the beautiful game. And the success of the youth system is mainly down to Albion coaches, most notably James Shan who has managed the academy for several years and lead the team to various successes.
Obviously, we must not forget former manager Roberto Di Matteo, who gave the Albion youngsters chances in the first team and reserves when he was in charge at the Hawthorns. The Italian always had time for the younger generation and now he's working with some of the best at Chelsea, assisting Andre Villas-Boas.
The academy has room for improvement, of course it does. Youngsters are being signed up every day, but with the help of first team coach Roy Hodgson and his assistants, the West Midlands side should have no worries in continuing to produce these kind of level of players. The future is vibrant, the future is near, the future is bright for West Bromwich Albion.
Star players that have come through the youth system
George Thorne. Age: 19. Position: Midfielder.
Thorne is one of West Brom's most talented and promising players. The tall and powerful central midfielder has 12 England under-19 caps under his belt and has captained the side on four occassions. Couple this with 7 caps for the Albion first team and 5 this season, 3 in the Premier League and 2 in the Carling Cup, and you can start to work out what all hype is about. The 19-year-old signed for the academy in 2004 and instantly shone. He made his debut for Hodgson's men in the 2009-2010 campaign against Sheffield Wednesday and has since just improved and improved, and is now quite a fans favourite. He signed his first professional contract with Albion in early 2010 and just in the latter parts of 2011 was awarded with a new deal on top of that. Not many players are given this, so he's clearly rated highly by the club. I've seen Thorne play once last term and a hat-trick of times this season ans he's made a big impression. I remember him coming off the bench last season against Newcastle and he didn't look out of place at all, in-fact he matched Danny Guthrie of the Magpies very well and helped the team come from 3-0 down to draw 3-3. Earlier this season, the 6ft 2 player switched to Portsmouth on loan and was re-united with former assistant Albion coach Michael Appleton. Although, he only managed 4 appearances as he was called back early for injuries to the West Brom first team, he did play well and this kind of valuable experience can only be a positive one.
Romaine Sawyers. Age: 20. Position: Striker/Midfielder.
Sawyers, 20, is an attacking midfielder/forward filled with flair, pace and trickery. Although he is yet to cap the first team, he has been a key member of the Reserves side and is a regular for the team. The nifty no.10 has been with West Brom for seven years and penned a one-year deal, plus a year's option in the club's favour, in summer 2011. The local Birmingham-born midfielder, who is also a St Kitts and Nevis under-23 international, had a brief loan spell with Port Vale last season but failed to make an impact after a dispute with the manager. Sawyers is technically very good, intelligant on and off the ball and possesses great speed. It won't be long until the flair-filled attacker makes his first team debut, I'm confident of that.
Saido Berahino. Age: 18. Position: Striker.
Burindi-born Berahino is a star in the making...well I reckon so anyway. The pacy and lethal striker signed a new two-and-a-half year deal to keep him at West Bromwich Albion until June 2014, in January 2012. He was reawarded with this due to his scoring record at Northampton, the side he's currently on loan with. He's made 12 apps for the League Two outfit, all starts, and netted 6 times in the process. As well as being able to finish well, he is also known for his assist play and regularly contributes in the Reserves, alongside Romaine Sawyers (above). Berahinho moved over to England when he was a small child after his home nation Burindi was troubled, therefore he was allowed to cap England thanks to the five-year policy rule and made his Three Lions debut against Scotland. And that's not all, the forward has shot up the England ranks and in July 2011 representted them at the under-20's World Cup in Colombia. He's now a first team regular under Kenny Swain's side and if he keeps up his solid form with Northampton, then he should be on track to make his Albion debut soon, the clostest he's got to that is earlier in the season as he was a unused substitute in the team's Carling Cup fixture with Everton.
James Hurst, Age: 19. Position: Defender.
The versatile defender is currently on loan with Chesterfield, his third loan spell in his career. Hurst joined the academy as just a nine-year-old and made his way through the youth system, however at 16 he decided to leave the club and permantley join Pompey in the summer of 2008. But he returned to the Throstles in August 2010 on a free transfer, to be reunited with the players he grew up with. In the 2010-2011 season, the right-back made his West Brom Premier League debut in a tie with Fulham at Cravn Cottage and at the end of the campaign he joined Championship side Blackpool on loan but was recalled after just two matches. Then he moved to Shewsbury, again on a loan spell and clocked up 7 caps. Now he finds himself with Chesterfield, where he is getting first team experience and developing with each match he features in. The Sutton-Colfield born 19-year-old is a one to watch and a firm England youth international.
When will they be ready?
Of course, there are more players but the four above, for me, are the mot promising and most likely to break in the first team in the near future. But when will they be ready? It looks like midfielder George Thorne has already made the step up, making 5 appearances this season already and been described by manager Roy Hodgson as "a real talent with a big future ahead of him". But how about the others? Well, the process takes time. As the elder population move on, like Jonas Olsson, Nicky Shorey ect. the younger players will surely be introdouced into the set-up and if they can perform with the Reserves they should be given a crack at the big time. I'd predict in about 3-4 years time Albion will be including the likes of Saido Berahino and James Hurst into the first team squad, mixing them with the experienced players and creating a good mix of youth and experience for the team to try and scrape off it's yo-yo club tag. Not to forget players such as Craig Dawson and Billy Jones, who aren't Albion academy players but were signed in the summer and are both young, promising players who have both capped the first team this term. And young New Zealand forward Chris Wood, who scored 11 goals for Birmingham whilst on loan their recently, and is now on loan at Bristol City. Not to forget he has Europa League and World Cup experience, too. I and I'm sure many other Albion supporters, am excited about the prospect of having these young and talanted individuals playing with us and showing the rest of the footballing world that West Bromwich Albion put in a lot of effort into making and shaping the younger generation. After all, introdoucing youth is vital. It's all about the youngsters for me, it's time for the likes of Nicky Shorey to move on and let the fresh-legged youthful Albion startlets take their place in one of the best leagues in the world.
So there we have it, I've talked in-depth about how the Albion youth system works and the people involved in it. Listed key youth players that I think will make the breakthrough in the next few years or so and predicted when they'll be ready. West Bromwich Albion's future is bright and promising. Let the youth system carry on improving, let the youth have a chance, a opportunity to shine, and let us admire the younger generation, the generation that enlightens us, that excites us, that shapes the future for us.