AFTER years in the wilderness, the prospect of Oxford United turning young players into first-team stars is getting closer.
That’s the view of the staff working in the club’s youth and community department, who have implemented huge changes in recent years.
The transformation means that in several areas, from the use of innovative software The Football Squad and video analysis to psychology, the U’s believe they are ahead of the rest of npower League Two, if not League One.
There are a host of encouraging signs among the 17 teams overseen by the department.
The ladies’ side are already benefitting from the development pathway in the girls’ set-up.
And the hope is that the same will be true of the boys’ – the only catch is no-one can say when quality players will be produced.
U’s supporters remember an era at the turn of the century when a clutch of young talents broke into the side, but since the likes of Dean Whitehead, Sam Ricketts and Chris Hackett, successful graduates have been few and far between.
Les Taylor, United’s youth development officer, has been involved in the set-up for almost 20 years and is regularly asked about when the next local youngsters will arrive in the first team.
“Every manager I’ve worked under has given kids a chance, but it’s up to them to listen to what the manager wants,” he said.
“It’s not (just) an Oxford problem. If you look at every Football League and Premier League club and ask them how many players have come through, it’s not many.
“It all goes on the kids you have. This season we have a good bunch of scholars and you can see that by the amount of scouts who come to watch our team.
“We’ve got lads who have potential.
“Whether they realise it or not it’s up to them.”
But those hoping for a group of talented players to break through at the same time could end up disappointed.
With the extensive scouting networks used by top clubs nowadays, the chances a talent like Whitehead still being at United by their late teens is becoming less likely.
Taylor said: “In the past, we have lost lads at younger ages, because compensation isn’t a lot.
“Alex Pearce, who’s a centre back at Reading, we lost him when he was 12.
“Josh McEachran, everybody talks about why didn’t Oxford take him, but he trained with us when he was eight.
“But when it came to register him at nine he had an option to go to Chelsea.
“Most of the decent players in the area we’ve seen. But there’s always a choice to make – there are times where there will be opportunites to go to another club.
“I’m afraid we’ll always be a club where if a player attracts attention from a more senior club and the price is right, he will go.
“That’s the food chain – it’s happened ever since I’ve been associated with the club.”
Chris Allen came through United’s system just over 20 years ago and is now attempting to nurture talent as their youth team coach.
He believes the damage done during the club’s spell in non-league, which ended in 2010, is being repaired.
He said: “Now we’re doing well, have consolidated and are looking to go up we have a base and are an attractive club.
“Those players who were going to bigger clubs are probably looking at us now and thinking ‘I’ll give it a go’.”
Richard Blackmore, United’s youth and community trust manager, is convinced progress is being made.
There are hopes a development side will be introduced next season to act as a bridge between the youth team and first team, which would be the final piece of the jigsaw.
He said: “I’m not saying it’s going to be this year or next year, but I believe we’re on the right pathway.
“We’ve still got improvements to make, but we’ve definitely progressed.
“I do believe it is a matter of time before we produce players with the systems we’ve got in place.”