Sheffield United on the move as they build lasting legacy

Sheffield United are set to go against the grain in splitting their academy from their first team.

Workplace: Billy Sharp and Sheffield United players in training at Shirecliffe.

Liverpool are one of tha number of clubs doing the opposite, having sold their historic Melwood training ground ahead of moving the senior players in alongside the juniors in Kirkby next season.

Having academy youngsters at close quarters with a club’s star players is seen as a good way of providing role models to developing talents and giving a greater sense of unity between the juniors and the professionals.

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At present, the Blades have a similar set-up at Shirecliffe but their academy only has category two status under the Premier League’s Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP), and there is not enough room to meet the requirements for the top status, which brings certain advantages.

They are, therefore, looking to move the juniors out in the long-term, as well as upgrading facilities for the first team in time for next summer.

“We’re not embarrassed at what happens at Shirecliffe, it’s spit and sawdust, and the players are there to get their hands dirty,” says Wilder, “but in terms of the intensity of the Premier League and recovery being key, and video analysis going through the roof, these are things we need to keep pace with and, unfortunately, at this moment we’re struggling to hang onto the coat-tails of teams spending the numbers they are on training facilities

“It’s a place of work as well. Not only are we buying good players, we want to improve them in all aspects of the game, from a physical point of view, a technical and tactical point of view.”

Premier League football is often characterised as short-termist and in many respects it can be, but it is heartening to see a large chunk of television money reinvested in top-of-the-range training facilities, so much so that even relatively new complexes are being left behind.

Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder. Picture: James Wilson/Sportimage

Leeds United moved into their Thorp Arch home in 1994 and housed their academy there from 2004, but are now looking to move again so their academy can also aspire to category one status. In September, Leeds City Council signed off initial proposals for a £25m complex on an 18-acre site much closer to the city centre and a five-minute walk from Elland Road, in Holbeck. As well as looking to provide better facilities, Leeds also want them to be more accessible to youngsters living in the city. With their lease at Thorp Arch running until 2027, it could be some time before the plans come to fruition.

Sheffield United’s Shirecliffe base was opened in 2002. It is part of the portfolio of properties the club will buy from previous owner Kevin McCabe by the summer as part of the £40m add-ons to Prince Abdullah’s takeover of the club.

Even England’s national team built a new training ground, opening the state-of-the-art St George’s Park in Burton in 2012.

The controversial EPPP, designed to raise standards in the development of young footballers, puts huge demands on academies in terms of such things as coaching and pastoral care, staffing levels, and the number of indoor and outdoor pitches.

FUTURE PLANS: Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder chats with assistant Alan Knill during a training session. Picture: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

The Blades are thought to be looking at the old RAF Norton Aerodrome site as a possible new home for their juniors.

Again, the world’s top footballers are often miscast as being motivated by little more than money, but Wilder is right to argue that a top training ground will help them to sign a higher calibre of player.

“These things will attract players, I’m sure, and the boys will see the benefit in the summer and going into next season,” he said.

Winning promotion to the Premier League has opened the door to a potential windfall for every season they can stay in the division. They will earn more than £100m in prize money and their share of the various television deals for this season, and look guaranteed to be back for another.

They are sixth in the Premier League and with Manchester City banned from European competition for the next two years – a decision they have promised to appeal – qualification for the Champions League, however unlikely it seemed at the start of the campaign, is a possibility.

The Blades are determined not to squander this new-found wealth, with Wilder and chief executive Stephen Bettis talking about building a legacy.

“The whole point of promotion to the Premier League for us is also looking to create a legacy from it and that’s improving the first team but the facilities as well,” said Wilder recently.

“Without a doubt, we’ve highlighted the first-team building at Shirecliffe needs improving and updating so we’re in discussions and close to finalising a new first-team building to be built in the summer and, hopefully, ready for next season.”

Wilder added: “You’re always looking to improve and sometimes it’s not always shown in points in the table.

“Legacy is also a big thing. When we all depart, we need to ensure this club has established itself in the Premier League and is here to stay.”