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Ultimately, the success of any club’s Academy or Centre of Excellence will be judged on the quality and quantity of players produced.  And, in Wolverhampton Wanderers’ case, the lads who have come off the conveyor belt of talent underlines a job very well done.

When David Davis stepped in for that assured Barclays Premier League debut in the centre of midfield against Blackburn Rovers, he was treading in the footsteps of some distinguished predecessors.

Robbie Keane and Joleon Lescott are the two that stand out from the very top sphere of the present-day game but that is only the tip of the iceberg as far as Wolves are concerned. The likes of Matt Murray, Wayne Hennessey, Lee Naylor, Jamie Smith, Carl Robinson, Keith Andrews, Mark Davies, Leon Clarke, Elliott Bennett, Sammy Clingan and Mark Little well illustrate that the production line has been prolific.

Keane has moved for transfer fees totalling around £75m during his ten-club career and has scored 53 international goals in his remarkable 115 appearances for the Republic of Ireland, with whom he is destined for the European Championships finals in Poland and Ukraine this summer.

Lescott, a central defender from Quinton near Birmingham, has picked up 14 senior caps for England and is also a key member of the Manchester City squad now hoping to win the League Championship for the first time since 1968. He left Molineux for more than £5m in 2006 and moved to City in 2009 for a fee reputed to be £22m.

The big-name duo highlight the sort of astonishing advancement that can be made in the game by the cream of the modern-day crop. Wolves are proud to have set Keane and Lescott on their way and the present  Academy staff are intent on developing other youngsters in the future, both for the enjoyment of Molineux audiences and possibly those beyond. But there is no time for self-congratulation. The need to maintain the flow of lads towards the senior team sees to that.

“There’s nothing like the promotion of one of your young players to the first team to give everyone in this part of the club a big boost,” said Academy Manager Kevin Thelwell. “We saw Anthony Forde go into the side for a few games earlier in the season and to see David looking so mature in there after his few months away on loan was extremely pleasing.

“I was very proud of him and didn’t think he looked at all nervous about being among established first-team players.

“Stepping up into a Premier League team is no easy task but we truly believe we have other players behind these two who will show what they are capable of when they are given their chance as well.”

Other prominent Wolves graduates over the last decade and a half include Ryan Green, Stephen Gleeson, Kyle Bennett, Jermaine Easter, Glen Crowe, Adam Proudlock, Chris Westwood, Mark Clyde, Keith Lowe, Gordon Simms and Colin Larkin, many of whom have enjoyed long careers in League football.

THE FUTURE

Just as players can’t afford to stand still for long in their progression from the youth ranks, so the very system that nurtures them is about to undergo substantial change for the first time in well over a decade.

With an eye on raising the standard of footballer that this country produces, the powers-that-be are moving towards the implementation of an elite Academy system that Wolves are anxious to be a part of; one in which clubs will be less restricted by regulation in signing lads from outside a certain travelling time away.

“The Academy system has been with us for 13 years now since Howard Wilkinson published his Charter For Quality, so it’s hard to argue against the fact that we’re overdue some kind of review and evaluation,” Kevin Thelwell added.

“The aim is to make the game in this country world-leading again and we’re very lucky at Wolves that the club are hugely supportive of our efforts.

“Basically, from next season, there will be a Category 1 of about 20 Academies which we want to be in. Then the other 20 or so Academies that are currently in operation will be in Category 2.

“Fans are likely to be hearing more and more about the EPPP, the Elite Player Performance Plan. This is replacing the Charter For Quality and requires clubs to prove that they can provide an acceptable full-time training programme covering academic as well as football education.

“It’s all about quality of provision – whether that’s better facilities, more coaching or improved medical and sports science expertise; all aimed at improving the programme for training youngsters, having more contact with them and making them better footballers.

“We at Wolves have been over to Holland and Germany to look at the strong relationships clubs there, like Borussia Dortmund, have with their local schools.

“Over the coming months, an independent standards organisation employed by the Premier League will be assessing clubs here. Those who meet the criteria will be in Category 1. We at Wolves have been at the forefront of youth development for many years and I don’t expect that to change.”

THE HISTORY

Wolves worked overtime to ensure they were part of the Academy movement in the early years.

Although they were then in the Championship, the club developed their magnificent training facilities at Compton to a standard that earned them the necessary rating to be able to leave behind their ‘Centre of Excellence’ status.

The expensive, time-consuming transition was seen as an essential step to ensure that a production line which had already delivered the likes of Robbie Keane, Lee Naylor, Jamie Smith and Carl Robinson would remain highly effective.

But Wolves have a proud record even in the more distant past of producing their own, right back to the so-called Buckley Babes (the celebrated crop overseen by Major Frank Buckley before the Second World War) and the Cullis Cubs (the generation that emerged in the glorious 1950s and early 1960s).

Having made five appearances in the final of the FA Youth Cup, it’s clear the club have been successful in this area. In the 1950s, they repeatedly jousted with the all-conquering Manchester United teenagers and, in 1957-58, famously lifted the silverware after turning round a 5-1 first-leg deficit in the final by hammering Chelsea 6-1 in the return at Molineux.

The last of the club’s outings in the final was 1976, when a side including the likes of George Berry, Bob Hazell and Martin Patching were defeated by Albion over two legs.

Long years of Molineux decline followed in the mid-1980s and, in many ways, Wolves officials had to restart their youth policy the other side of the club’s thrilling re-emergence from the lower
divisions at the end of that decade.

It was a job they performed admirably. Having had no home-grown youngsters to cheer at first-team level for many seasons, supporters were captivated as the operation was cranked up again in the Chris Evans era.

THE PERSONNEL

The ‘nursery’ that spawned Keane, Lescott, Hennessey and the rest doesn’t run itself. Wolves’ Academy has 16 full-time staff – a figure that’s likely to climb to around 21 with the new guidelines – and some 60 part-timers that cover areas like coaching, medical expertise, administration, recruitment, education and welfare, as well as containing an array of, drivers, security workers and landladies/landlords.

From under-nine to under-18 level, there is also the small matter of 125 players under the Wolves umbrella at any time, plus trialists who need to be monitored and assessed.

Kevin Thelwell watched the under-18s’ victory over Sheffield United in the hours leading up to David Davis’s Premier League debut but he will often miss senior games, even at Molineux, if he deems an age-group away game in the morning demands his presence.

“We want to be as strong as we possibly can be and remain at the highest level of youth football,” he added. “The Premier League is obviously a global game – probably watched by more people overseas than in this country – and we have a part-time scout in Northern Ireland and the Republic and have picked up a Slovakian, a Slovenian, both of them under-18s, and a French lad who is under-16 and due to start full-time with us in the next few months.

“We need to be aware of what’s out there but our network these days is mainly geared towards recruiting locally. And it will stay that way. We’re very strong locally and David Davis would be a really good example of a boy from the West Midlands who we have picked up and groomed for the first team.”


Kevin Thelwell, 38, previously worked at Derby County before being appointed at Wolves in succession to Chris Evans in April, 2008. He even had a brief spell as caretaker manager at Pride Park following the departure of Billy Davies and was previously director of youth development at Preston North End and had four years with the Welsh FA in a directing role. His playing career was spent mainly as a semi-pro in non-League after he had graduated as a lad via Crewe Alexandra and Shrewsbury Town.


The coach of Wolves’ under-18 side is Mick Halsall, a 50-year-old who was on Liverpool’s playing staff before having a long career with Birmingham City, Carlisle United, Grimsby Town and Peterborough United. He managed Peterborough briefly before returning to the West Midlands to spend several years at Walsall, where he had a stint as caretaker manager.