Sam Long signed a new long-term deal with the club yesterday, and for many, it pointed to the current progress within the academy.
I do wonder if people are entirely aware of the academy setup, and how we’ve suddenly produced the likes of Freddie Draper, Oisin Gallagher and Sam Long. The truth is this; we’ve cheated the system. To a degree, we’re circumnavigated the accepted academy norms to boost results without nurturing talent from the age of 11. Mind you, there’s every reason for us to do that in the short term, and it isn’t going to be something we do regularly going forward.
For those who do not know, the likes of Sam and Freddie have come from other clubs to enter the two-year scholarship from 16 to 18 with the Imps. Sam had been with Crystal Palace, Freddie was with Derby and a host of our other young players have come from across the Football League. We’ve done this to produce immediate results from within, although it isn’t a fast-track to success. Those players still need to be coached and managed for two years, and they need to be developed and given chances. I know plenty of people are asking why in these Covid hit times teams are not forced to play more of their young talent; that’s not a question I’m answering here, but nor is it a Lincoln City only problem.
I have heard criticism in the past (Mr Pearson, happy new year to you) that we don’t create enough talented footballers, and you rarely see a young player getting an extended run in the first team after coming through the system. I think to look at this objectively, you have to ask this question; are we talking young players we’ve scalped, such as Sean Roughan, or our own academy products? If it’s the former, I can see the point (although a handful such as Roughan, Long and Draper have had first team exposure, which is good). If we’re complaining the academy hasn’t produced over the last decade, then there’s an altogether bigger picture to understand.
When we dropped out of the Football League, our academy was in real danger of closing. Teams could simply take our best talent, as they did with Ellis Chapman, for little or no reward. I’m led to believe we did get compensation for Ellis (Darren can correct me if I’m wrong), but it wasn’t mandatory, it was something negotiated for that single deal. What incentive was there for the club to sink money into an academy that could simply be raided at any time? It’s like you growing veg at home, buying seeds, attending to them every day, just for your neighbour to pop over at the end and grab all the good stuff. If there’s an analogy for the academy at Lincoln City between 2011 and 2017, that’s it. In fact, if it weren’t for Roger Bates and a group of hard-working staff and fundraisers, our garden would have closed a long while ago.
Summer 2017 was only four-and-a-half years ago, so technically a player affecting the first team now would already have had to have been in our system for three or four years, assuming we grabbed them at 11. However, the academy as we know it today is very different, and we had little going for us in terms of attracting young players at the time. There have been plenty of young players in Lincoln who have slipped through the net over the years, and when you’re a National League team, the holes in the net are much bigger. In 2017, young players could easily be attracted to Leicester City or Nottingham Forest, and at the time, even Scunthorpe United were a more attractive prospect than us.
That’s changing due to several factors. Now, we’re a League One side and therefore a bigger draw. Our academy is no longer one that others can cherry-pick from without consequence, and there’s a lot of work that goes into attracting players. Sure, that’s players from Ireland or London now, but further down the spectrum lots of local boys are being signed by the club. However, they’re being paired with lads from other locations across the area (within an hour in the lower age groups), to ensure the cream of Lincoln’s young players mix with those of a similar standard. It’s like this; if you’re the best player in the city, and you move to a club where you’re still the best player and you’re loads better than everyone you play with, it’s tougher to develop. If you’re the best player in your city, and you move to a club where you’re now in a pool of ten or fifteen of similar talent, it’s easier to progress. I appreciate it’s not that simple, but Lincoln City’s academy doesn’t want to just be the best of the Mid Lincs League, it needs to have other players of talent to help bring our own local boys on.
That process is ongoing, but in reality, the academy has been working in this manner for a couple of years or more. Better players have joined at the top level and progressed to the first team; Ellis Champman and Sean Roughan two poster boys. Ok, Ellis found his chances limited, but what’s he doing now? Impressing at Cheltenham, proving there’s a path to the professional game through the Imps academy. In an ideal world, he’d be doing it for us of course, but he’s still lived the dream. The same goes for Sean Roughan; I don’t know why he doesn’t get more games, but he played a handful in League One last season, which gives young players hope of a proper pathway with us.
Hayden Cann aside, we are simply polishing already talented young players right now, but every time news breaks of a deal for a young player, such as Sam’s, or first-team starts for one, such as Freddie’s, it helps impress upon the other young players that there is hope for progression with us. An academy such as Crewe’s doesn’t just start in 2017 and produce Perry Ng four years later; it grows and evolves with the club.
There’s no hiding from the fact our academy hasn’t always produced top players; we’ve had some decent, hard-working lads from it (Connor Robinson was a favourite for a while), and the odd one has gone on to play a bit of football elsewhere (Gary King went to Accrington), but in truth Lee Frecklington and Scott Loach aside, it’s not been that productive in terms of players moving up, or those impacting the first team. I think Sam’s deal, and of course Freddie’s exposure, are the green shoots of growth that we’re seeing, and hopefully an indication that over the next six or seven years, we’ll see players who have been with us from 13 or 14 coming through as well.
Thanks to everyone who has read the site this year and of course to my patreons who keep the set going for a couple of quid a month; you’re all great and hopefully you have a wonderful New Year’s Eve, and a good 2022.