Ray of sunlight which pierces the gloom at Hillsborough

SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY may be consumed by the threat of relegation from the Championship but, according to academy chief Sean McAuley, not everything around Hillsborough is doom and gloom.

Under McAuley, Wednesday have had three youngsters nominated for the Football League's 'Apprentice of the Year' award in the last four years – David McClements, Mark Beevers and, most recently, Nathan Modest.

The statistic justifies the Owls' investment in academy football, according to the academy head coach.

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"To be honest, I don't see the award as so much a personal thing, for me," said McAuley. "It's just nice to show that the process these young players are going through is working.

"And if it is being recognised by people from outside the club then it is obviously working.

"It reflects well on all the coaches connected with the club – we have a very strong staff structure here and everyone deserves recognition for the success."

Judges take into account the record of the players, in all competitions, since they became apprentices, alongside their educational attainment, disciplinary record and any other outstanding achievements.

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Teenage striker Modest was the latest academy graduate to feature on the three-man shortlist for the award, but eventually lost out to Cardiff City's Adam Matthews. Former Owls trainee David McClements, now at Northern Irish side Coleraine, also featured on the shortlist in 2007, and defender Beevers won the award as an 18-year-old the following season.

Modest, 18, joined the Owls at eight and made his first-team debut at 17. He was shortlisted after coping well with the transition between Under-18 and first-team levels, and attending Wednesday's study support programme with local children.

"The club has invested very heavily in the youth academy here, and we believe in our philosophy," added McAuley, who has also had two spells as first-team caretaker manager.

"We chose these players, so we have to help them along. It's important not to write them off, we have to continue to make them into well-rounded individuals.

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"As well as footballers, we develop them as people, and a lot of lads here complete their academic courses, too. They can then take that knowledge and experience into other fields of life, if they wish to."

While Wednesday's first team are embroiled in a fierce relegation battle, the club's under-18 squad are bottom of the Under-18 FA Premier League and are only three points off the bottom in the Totesport.com Reserve League.

Despite their indifferent results, however, McAuley insisted passionately that the focus is on style over substance.

"If you look at the league table now, we'd have been in the same position when Beevers was this age," he said.

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"People look at the league table and think what they think, but it's an opportunity to develop these kids. I could, quite easily, send out a team to win academy games – I could have sent out Beevers when he was still in the academy squad, but I gave another 'youngster' a chance in there instead

"We're always mindful that we take the players to a certain level, and from then on we're not in control of their destiny – there's a different programme from there.

"But producing our own players is important, no matter what league you're in – every club would say the same thing. They give the club its own identity and culture.

"We don't take the credit when a player makes it into the first team, for the same reason we don't shoulder the responsibility if they don't. We set the environment and the players do the work from there."