This article will look at the dearth of talent coming through at Cardiff City’s and Swansea’s academies in recent years. The idea for this came from noticing that there is no Welsh player in Swansea’s first team squad this season and only three in Cardiff’s (this could be potentially two if Declan John is to leave, which is highly possible). Although I do realise that these clubs have no responsibility to have Welsh players in their first team squad, it is nonetheless disappointing to see, for every club enjoys seeing a homegrown player progress to the first team and do well such as Joe Ledley and Joe Allen for example.
It has been a while since a player has progressed to the first team at Cardiff and made an impression. The last success story you could say that came from their Academy was Chris Gunter and Aaron Ramsey over ten years ago, although there have been false dawns in that time such as Tommy O’Sullivan who is now at League 2 Colchester United or Theo Wharton who Malky Mackay stated “had a big future ahead of him”. In 2012 who is now playing for York City in National League North, the sixth tier of English football. There has been fierce criticism of the academy from ex-players such as Nathan Blake, who deem it not fit for purpose and that it needed a culture which he hopes Neil Warnock and new Player Development Manager Craig Bellamy will provide and overhaul the academy and bring it back to the semblance of what it used to be when it was able to churn out international after international such as James Collins, Robert Earnshaw, Chris Gunter, Joe Ledley and Aaron Ramsey in an eight year span. Although this will take time, it is good to see Cardiff take this issue seriously and release players not considered good enough for the first team or allowing them to develop elsewhere. But it has been strange for a capital city not be able to produce players capable of playing in the second tier of English football. However, it was promising to see four Academy players included in the squad for the Toulon Tournament this year. With Rhys Abbruzzese, Mark Harris, Cameron Coxe and Lloyd Humphries being chosen. It was also promising to see Mark Harris make the first team match day squad on a few occasions in the season and the hope is there that he will progress and develop into a regular first team player. All four have recently been included in Cardiff’s pre-season friendlies but it remains to be seen whether they can make an impact in the coming season. Bellamy has a big task on his hand but I feel that he is the right man to do it because of the high standards that he sets himself and his passion for Cardiff and Wales.
Swansea City’s academy has not fared much better since their promotion to the Premier League in 2011 with Ben Davies being the only notable graduate from the academy to progress to the first team in 2012 and the previous Academy success was Jazz Richards who is no longer at the club and failed to establish himself as a first team regular in his time there and is now playing in the Championship with Cardiff. With Swansea’s Academy now being better funded due to its inclusion in the Premier League, this has not resulted in being able to produce the calibre of player needed for the Premier League due to the high standard of football played at this level and the risk involved in including a youngster in the first team. The Academy benefitted in the past from being in the lower leagues and meant that they were able to blood the academy players into the first team due to the level of play involved as well as the lessened risk due to the money that is at stake now for remaining in the top tier of English football. It remains to be seen if a product from the academy can make the breakthrough to the first team, although their cause will not have been helped with the revolving door of managers that have been at Swansea in the last five years and last year’s flirtation with relegation would make playing a young player an even greater risk and make it an easier choice to buy a more developed player from abroad. But lately, the Academy has been achieving good results at youth level, performing well against the academies of Arsenal and Aston Villa among others and the under 21’s winning the Professional Development League Two in 2015.
There has also been plenty to get excited about with Cameron Toshack helping the under 23’s reach the quarter final of the Checkatrade Trophy and having an impressive season overall and seven of the twenty man squad that travelled to the Toulon Tournament coming from the Swans Academy (eight if you include new signing Cian Harries). Whilst some clubs prefer to keep their young players at the club to develop, Swansea in the last couple of season have allowed some of their players to develop on loan at other clubs and have developed a link with Yeovil receiving a few players from the Swans such as Connor Roberts, Liam Shepherd and most recently Keston Davies arriving at the club. The club must feel that some of the players would benefit more from playing first team football than they would play for the under 23’s. This is evident in Daniel James’ loan move to Shrewsbury of League 1 after his inclusion in the Wales squad for their match against Serbia whilst also impressing in the Toulon Tournament. He is among many highly rated prospects in the academy with centre half Joe Rodon recently training with the Welsh first team and Liam Cullen recently signing a two year contract and being touted to be a first team player in the next few years. It is too soon to say if this crop of players in the under 23’s are good enough for the first team only time will tell and with increased funding and playing against teams of high quality can only improve the calibre of players that Swansea produces.
What has developed in the last few seasons is that both clubs have been loaning some of their academy players to Newport County of League 2 and this has many benefits such as the close proximity and the fact that they play at a level which would suit a lot of the youngsters in these academies whilst given them a taste of life as a professional footballer. Swansea loaned Josh Sheehan to Newport last season and he proved himself more than capable of playing at that level becoming their top scorer and winning the club’s young player of the year award. As well as Sheehan, his club mate Alex Samuel did well at the club along with Cardiff loanee Rhys Healey, who made some first team appearances for Cardiff due to his performances for Newport, whilst Tommy O’Sullivan and Oliver McBurnie had gone to the club the previous season. The benefits are there for both clubs to come to an agreement on loan players as shown in the last few seasons, although this has not resulted in these players making the breakthrough for the first team it does give them an outlet and opportunity to prove themselves as being capable of playing league football and being a professional footballer.
So hopefully with the investment and changes made to these academies that they will begin to produce the type of players needed to play in their first teams as well as representing Wales. Otherwise, this will be seen as money wasted and not being fit for purpose. I struggle to believe that these areas have stopped producing players required to play at the highest level, for the south of Wales have produced some of the best players ever from Wales and I find it difficult to imagine that they are not there anymore.