Inside the controversial Huddersfield Town structure that gave the club Sorba Thomas and Jon Russell

Jamie Vardy’s rise to prominence in the Premier League came sadly late. The striker only made his first appearance in the top flight when he was 27; he is now 14th on the Premier League’s list of all-time top scorers, just behind Robin van Persie and ahead of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink.

As pundits marveled at the striker’s remarkable rise from non-league football to one of European football’s most natural goalscorers, clubs across England wondered: how did a player like this he could pass the net for so long? And how do you make sure you’re ready to catch the next one?

For a club to focus all their effort and energy on doing exactly that is something all fans would agree is a good idea in principle, but few would be so willing to embark on if it did. their the club does. So there was understandable skepticism when the club took the decision to voluntarily downgrade their academy status in 2017, scrapping all age groups below the Under-17s so they could better focus on selection. of talent in their late teens or early twenties that had been freed up by others. academies, as well as young players they could sign from clubs lower in the pyramid or from abroad.

Read more: Leigh Bromby reveals Huddersfield Town’s summer priorities and the unseen work behind transfer success

This change was largely driven by the drying up of Town’s academy production chain, thanks in large part to players being poached by the clubs around them – during which they achieved two very notable successes with Philip Billing, who came from Denmark aged 16, and Tommy Smith, who signed aged 20 after being released by Manchester City.

Brentford had made a similar change the previous year, but both clubs knew it would take time for their new setups to start bearing the kind of first-team fruit that would justify their controversial new approach.

Indeed, we are starting to see things improving at Town. Aaron Rowe and Rarmani Edmonds-Green have both appeared regularly in 2020/21 before Sorba Thomas and Jon Russell emerged in the season just gone by, each playing key roles in the impressive third-place finish. Burrows on their way to an unexpected roadblock. final appearance despite never starting a league game before this season.

Leigh Bromby was coaching in Town’s academy at the time they made the change, later becoming academy manager before another promotion to head of football operations in 2020. As such he was involved in the project throughout. So what does he think of the way things are going?

“Enchanted is the right word,” he tells us. “The decision when we made it in 2017, to change, I think was the right one for the club. It suits us and the way we want to work. I think the B team has moved on, especially this season, at a really, really high level and level, and that’s where we wanted to be, but it took a bit of time.”

He adds: “One of the things it gives us is real flexibility. Sorba and Jon that you use as an example…we might not have done them before, so I think it’s brought real flexibility to the way we work because it’s about talent. I think a lot of academies are paralyzed by ‘oh, we’ve got a 17-year-old who’s excellent’, and a player in each age group, while the B team is recruited on talent. If there is an opportunity to sign someone like Sorba Thomas, we are brave enough to try to execute it.

Thomas himself admits he was skeptical of initially being put under this system following his arrival from Boreham Wood out of the league in January 2021 – a policy Town repeated with Russell after bringing him on as a free agent from Chelsea last summer.

But looking back, Thomas agrees with Corberan and Bromby that his experience working mainly in the B team while making occasional substitute appearances in the Championship got him into the starting line-up. at the start of the recent campaign. The wide man went on to finish the season as Town’s top passer, his form earning him his first caps for Wales.

He tells us: “At first, when they told me that I would be announced as a signing for the B team, I was like… what? When I heard ‘B team’, I had never really heard of it in the academy, but it helped me a lot because there was no real pressure. I feel like if I had to go straight into the first team, the pressure would have been too much and it might have been too early for me to go straight.

“So I feel like with the B team, it helped me gradually get used to the nutrition side, the gym and everything around it. It helped me a lot and it’s all credit to Leigh Bromby to be honest.

“I feel like through the academy and the other boys in the B team, they can see that there is a path to the first team. Once you get that chance, you HAVE to take it. grab it, and I like to think they’re really ready for it.

This more fluid demarcation between age groups goes both ways. Thomas was just shy of his 22nd birthday when he joined the club, putting him on the older end of what you would normally expect; but it also means they can accelerate the development of young players if they feel ready.

This includes the likes of 18-year-old Welsh winger Pat Jones and academy player of the year Brodie Spencer, who turned 18 last month but received his first call-up to the Northeast senior national team. Irish despite not playing in the first team. game for his club again.

Bromby said: “I think we have enough examples of that now for people to believe they can come here and develop and get into the first team, so there’s definitely that pathway and evidence of that. . I could probably name six or seven players, including Brodie, who we think will impact our first team.

“[It’s particularly helpful] when you have an owner who wants this to happen, and a head coach who also wants this to happen, and who are all excited about some of these players having an impact on the first team like Jon and Sorba this season.

Corberan has been known to include B teams in first-team training sessions to add an extra bridge in that gap between development squad and Championship action, with Jones, Etienne Camara, Loick Ayina and Jaheim Headley joining all the big boys towards the end of the season.

“I think sometimes I don’t differentiate too much between B-team players and first-team players – for me we only have club players,” the head coach said. Corberan.

“Of course when a player comes to the first team it means he’s ready to compete at first team level in the league, and with the B team players it’s because can -Being at this point when we started creating the we didn’t seem like them ready to compete yet – maybe in the future yes, but they have yet to develop.

“Some players over the days, weeks and months show you that they can get involved in the squad and help the first team. Sorba arrived last year and started in the squad. team B but at [end of the season] he started to show that he could help the first team and that’s why he had a few minutes with the first team, and already in pre-season and on the first day he showed that he was ready to help the team.

“Another example: Russell started in the B team process and just three or four months later he started showing that he could be someone who could help the team in the championship and compete That’s why he spent many games in a row in the team’s first XI, like Scott [High]even though Scott had a loan before he arrived [to the first team].

“So I think it’s always important to keep developing players and analyzing which players can be more ready to help you and which players need more time; and first-team players, which players keep first-team level to help the team and which ones lose something that allows us to make the decision to put someone else up front.

Meanwhile, Edmonds-Green was hugely impressive on loan with Rotherham United, while teenage striker Kian Harratt featured in his own play-off final, opening the scoring for Port Vale at Wembley as they were promoted to League One. Romoney Crichlow, Kieran Phillips, Josh Austerfield, Brahima Diarra… the list of loanees is long. Harratt has already secured his next move, joining Bradford City on loan for the 2022/23 season.

Bromby said: “Loans have also been something this season that has really been a real bonus, but something that we put in place and wanted to have where we have players playing in the league. I don’t think we’ve done that before as a club and it was a real strategy to try to do that with David Fox as loan officer. Most of my phone calls have already been for these players to go on loan around the B team.

“So the work has been excellent. Emir [Humphreys] came on and took my role as director of the academy and he evolved, it continues to evolve in a positive direction.

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