YOUTH TEAM AND RESERVES ARTICLE
Thriving youth team gives Stags reasons to be cheerful
Nottingham Post, Monday, January 16, 2012
WHEN Tom Naylor left Mansfield Town to join Derby County in November he became the latest in a long line of talent to come through the youth system at Field Mill and go on to bigger and better things.
Before him, there were Ken Wagstaff, Stuart Boam, Simon Coleman, Craig McKernon, Darren Ward, Paul Holland, Liam Lawrence, Bobby Hassell and Alex John-Baptiste – and many more besides.
Those players, for so long helped keep Mansfield in the Football League and, in many cases, competitive at the top end of the table.
Sadly, the Stags lost their place in the elite 92 at the end of the 2007-08 season, a situation they are trying their damnedest to reverse now.
And one of the ramifications of that was that the club was forced to close its youth centre of excellence in June 2010 as a cost-cutting measure.
Naylor was one of the last intake of that era – and for a time it was feared Mansfield would no longer be in a position to save themselves a few bob by producing their own.
But, thankfully, it took just one season to get youth a structure back in place.
Directors Steve Hymas and Mark Hawkins, along with youth team manager Mark Hemingray and coach Mark Lynk, spent much of last summer re-establishing an under-19s side.
Half a year on and those men can be well satisfied with their efforts. The youth team sits top of the Football Conference Youth Alliance North Division after Wednesday's 2-1 victory over MMU Newcastle at Field Mill, courtesy of goals from Matt Harris and skipper Jobe Shaw.
They are the only unbeaten side in their league, having won seven and drawn three of their matches to date.
Hemingray is naturally delighted with the team's progress in the short time since its inception.
"I have been doing youth development and football in the community at Mansfield for 20 years since I came here under Dave Bentley," he said.
"When Steve Hymas and Mark Hawkins came to me about it in the summer I wasn't keen at first, but I have quite enjoyed it since and I am proud of how the lads have acquitted themselves.
"It was around May time when we first started. We went to watch local games to scout players, we brought ones back we already knew and we recruited others through contacts.
"We saw about 100 players and we whittled that down to a squad of 23. The vast majority are local lads and I think we have made the right choice with the performances we have had.
"We have a good mix of under 17s, 18s and 19s. The majority of them are under 17s playing in an under 19s league.
"Myself and Mark do things between us and he plays a part in team selection. He used to be a player in the centre of excellence here. It means a lot to us both."
Hymas is equally content with the development of the scheme.
He said: "It was a sad day when the old centre of excellence had to be stopped for financial reasons, but I was always interested in finding a way to get a youth team up and running again.
"Through help from sponsors, the SSA, other clubs like Rainworth, and a lot of people we have managed to do it in a cost-effective way.
"The key thing is that we are all doing it for the good of the club.
"No one has come in from outside for personal gain."
Having played a part in bringing through some big names in the past, Hemingray is quietly confident he can do it again.
He said: "I think we do have players who can make it. It's a good crop. The manager will have a good choice for the next three years.
"Youth development is all about getting players into the first team, not just about winning games. The youth team has already proved its worth its weight in gold.
"Liam Lawrence was in one of my past teams, as was Bobby Hassell. It's nice to see lads like that coming through.
"My belief is that you need home-grown lads in the first team and that opinion will never change."
"They are getting better week in, week out and I'm pretty confident we can keep producing players providing the set-up is not tinkered with because I know the abilities and physical attributes required."
The team trains at Forest Town Welfare in the morning and in the afternoons the players return to the club on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday for classroom education.
Each player is required to study for a qualification that will give them another string to their bow.
Scott Rogers, 18, from Mansfield Woodhouse, is one of the current crop of teenagers dreaming on winning a professional contract at Field Mill.
"I saw on the website the club was looking for players, so I sent an e-mail, came down for a trial and got through," he said.
"I have been a season ticket holder since the age of nine, but when I left Ollerton Town I didn't know who to play for.
"I am doing a sports BTEC while I am at Mansfield. We do seven units on such things as coaching, safeguarding children and injuries. It gives you lots of things you could go into if you don't go on to become a player."
Like his coach, Rogers is thrilled with the way things have go on the pitch so far.
He said: "There are sides you expect to be good like Fleetwood, Gateshead and Halifax but there are also some decent college sides too, Most of them play good football."
Rogers is keeping his fingers crossed that he will be staying on as a player come the summer rather than returning to the terraces.
"The older lads, myself included, are hopeful they can get a pro contract. Tom Naylor and people like that are a big inspiration. It shows what you can do if you work hard at it.
"We have seen Paul Cox and Micky Moore at games and John Radford has also been there, so it shows they are taking a keen interest."
But who should Mansfield fans be keeping an eye out for a possible future stars on the senior stage?
Rogers said: "I think Adam Somes is the obvious one. He has scored 16 league goals already this season.
"Most are predatory ones from inside the box and he has already been on the bench at Fleetwood.
"Another one is Joel Holland. He plays on the wing and is so quick it's unbelievable. He likes to take players on and his final product is good."
Rogers has no doubt as to the importance of youth at a small club like Mansfield as, he says, history illustrates.
"It's massive to bring your own players through," he said. "When the club got to Wembley last May, they could not fill the bench because of injuries, but they could have done this year with youth team players.
"But it's not just that. People have come through and either done well for the club or gone on to play at a higher level, getting the club a big fee."
The next step is to bring back a competitive reserve side, which was also disbanded for financial reasons.
Club chairman Radford confirmed in recent programme notes that such a move is in the pipeline for 2012-13.
But there is yet to be full agreement from all parties if that would be a good thing – and how it should be factored into the current structure.
Manager Paul Cox feels it is vital, saying: "It makes the transition from youth team to first team a little bit easier.
"I don't want to see youth team players performing well, put into the first team and then find the gap is too big.
"I don't want any of the lads going backwards because of our erratic decision-making.
"It's important they test themselves against players at a higher level because you don't learn anything about players when they are winning all the time.
"They have to be in a different environment to help them to be seriously knocking on the first team door."
Hemingray agrees that reserves would be of benefit.
"I recommended we had a reserve team before a youth team and it is an important next step," he said.
"The reserves can help both the youth teamers and the first teamers coming back from injury.
"It's important to get the right mix between the two."
But Hymas is not altogether happy with what is currently being proposed.
He said: "The problem is that the youth team could end up playing second fiddle to the reserves.
"At the moment we play on the first team pitch, but if the reserves need to play there, where do the youth team play then?
"When you are in a reserve league you are committed to games on those dates and that can decimate the youth team with players moving up.
"It means the team could finish halfway down the league and then you could struggle to attract the best players.
"The other thing is the cost. With extra, coaches, physios, travel, kit, referees etc it could cost around £100,000 a year. I can see the benefits, but I can see some downsides too, so it needs to be discussed at length."
Whatever the future holds, though, for now the youth team is thriving.
The number one goal now for the class of 2012 is to wrap up the league title. Naylor, Lawrence et all would be proud
Latest | January 2012