Excitement is building at Mansfield Town over the club’s new U21s side which is seen as the missing link to hone young talent at the club into battle-hardened warriors for first team action.
The physical step-up from the youth team to first team is a big one which has seen many a talented youngster’s dreams ended.
Now the Stags’ plan to use the young players in a full men’s reserve league is expected to be the perfect stepping stone.
The club’s head of recruitment Scott Rickards said: “We looked at the gap between first team and youth league level at U18s and we had lads coming to the end of their scholarship age, and a gap to going into the first team and making an impact and playing at a reserve level.
“The boys had no through route to get game time and the chance to test themselves at a bit more physical level than youth football.
“We felt there was a big hole - a space where a lot of players end up at 18 not having an opportunity to test themselves at a U21s level. It was the natural progression to put that in place so the boys have more time to develop.”
He added: “For players we have to call upon at 18 to see if they are good enough, we can let them have another couple of years in the system to see if they develop further, whether it be physical, whether it be tactical or a different element of development they haven’t yet hit at 18.
“Within recent years we would have had to let those players go.
“For the football club the benefit will be giving the boys a little more time and hopefully getting more home-grown talent on the pitch. I think that’s what this opportunity should do and I believe will do.”
Mansfield are already well down the line in terms of recruitment for the U21s, who will be based at Melton’s Brooksby College.
Rickards said: “We are looking to recruit 20 players for the squad for next season. Four of those players will be given professional contracts at the club for a two-year period.
“We have already decided on those players now and three of them have come through our system, which is fantastic as it’s what they have worked hard for for two years.
“Then 16 of the rest of the squad will be non-contract players as they are non-professional players.
“Having the ability to house players here at the college from a recruitment point of view makes our job a lot easier as we’re not recruiting from such a small area – we can go national.
“If someone wants to stay they can. We can go as we want. Traditionally we’d have recruited from Mansfield and Nottingham and local areas.
“All 20 of them will do a degree with our partner Brooksby Melton College and study a Foundation Degree in Sports Science.
“That gives the boys a bit of a back-up within that two-year period if they don’t make an impact in the first team or they are unsuccessful and they don’t get a career out of the game.
“At least they leave with academic qualifications that set them up to go and get, maybe, a job not on the pitch but in a sporting environment somewhere else.”
Rickards and his colleagues will be casting an eye over many players over the forthcoming months.
“We will get out to watch as many youth games as possible, looking for local talent,” he said.
“We target numerous different fields of standard. You never know where you might find the next player from. It might be county football, it might be college football, it might be school football, he might be in the academies already.”
He continued: “We are going through numerous vetting processes, trial games, speaking to Academy managers, scouts, agents that all have contacts for players on their books who are coming to the end of their scholarships at 18 and haven’t managed to secure a professional contract. Or it may be a player that has come out of a first year pro contract at 19 and just hasn’t managed to secure another contract on top of that.
“These boys now have this U21s option and a further opportunity to progress for two years and see if they can develop and try to make inroads into our first team here at Mansfield.
“Before the season came to an end we did do open invites, with CVs sent in to us at the Academy, and the right candidates that have been vetted will be invited in for training or pre-season.
“They will then be looked upon as candidates to join the squad.
“We are quite far down the line now in terms of our recruitment, up to 70 per cent recruited. So now it’s a last push really to get the final few players in on board so we can put the squad together.
“Then we can make a plan of attack for pre-season for games and training.”
The day to day regime of the U21s at Brooksby will be very similar to that of their first team counterparts football-wise.
“We want to give the boys an experience that would be similar to that of the first team,” said Rickards.
We’ve tried to mirror the programme so, should they make the transition between U21s to the first team, they are not having to change their day to day training regime as such.
“The boys would be educated for 50 per cent of their involvement with the club and they would be football-coached for 50 per cent of it.
“They would then play their football in the Third Phase Development League which the football club are re-entering for next season, solely for the U21s squad.
“So those players will have prime access to that league, which is very competitive, and also viewed by our first team staff on a weekly basis.
“They will be putting themselves in the shop window, and it only takes one opportunity to pop up where maybe the gaffer wants a certain style of player or needs to back-fill the squad for training and these U21 boys will be in a prime position to go and affect our first team.
“I speak to numerous players daily about what stage they are at and what opportunity they are getting.
“There have been lads who are contracted to clubs who don’t get any game time or don’t get anywhere within their club as there are that many players in front of them who are 22/23/24, maybe even 19/20. So they find it very difficult to get an opportunity.”
The success of the U21s could play a huge role next season with the current emergency loan facility outside of the transfer windows gone next season.
“We feel we are going to carry the right number of players that will allow an opportunity at some point throughout the season to play a number of games throughout the season in our reserve team, which is one step down from our first team,” said Rickards.
“Adam has already said how important the U21s will be next season to his recruitment.
“The Football League transfer window is slightly different next year and when Adam has done his business in the window, pre and post-window he won’t have anywhere else to go.
“So having a fully-fledged U21 team in place that is full of young, talented footballers will probably excite Adam in terms of taking a look, dipping in and taking people into the first team environment.”
Competition in the reserve league will be very strong.
“Last time we were in it the reserve league consisted of clubs like Doncaster Rovers, Burton Albion, Chesterfield, Notts County, Hartlepool, Scunthorpe – some very well-established Football League clubs right through the tiers, who will all have young pros and youth team players playing at that standard,” said Rickards.
“So it’s great shop window for these boys to put themselves in. It’s not a diluted league or something made up. It’s a fully-fledged reserve league.
“When we played our home games last time they were at the One Call Stadium and the away fixtures at fellow first team grounds or at clubs local associated to them. They were decent pitches and decent stadiums.
“We pretty much had a fixture every week for the majority of the season.”
Rickards and Murray go back many years to being club mates at Derby County and he is relishing being back in the professional game in his new role.
“I played with Adam at Derby when I was younger till I was about 20, then came out the pro game, went into non-League and signed for my local team Tamworth,” said Rickards.
“Then I went back into the pro game with Kidderminster when it was the old League Three which Mansfield were part of. I played a couple of games against Mansfield over the years.
“At about 25 I decided to come out the pro game to pursue a career in on-League and really get a job in fitness and sports coaching. I’ve been in and around that most of my life.
“It’s nice to be back in the professional game now with good people.
“It’s exciting, though there is a bit of anxiety as well as it’s a new project. “Everybody is desperately trying to make sure we get it bang on. We’ve had high standards across the board this season from the first team to the youth team.”