So far so good – that’s the verdict of Wolves’ Development Coach Steve Weaver after the Reserve team’s impressive start to the season.
Wolves headed into their group in the new Barclays Under-21 Reserve League alongside some pretty illustrious company, with Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool all drawn in the same section.
But the first six fixtures have yielded three wins, two draws – most recently against City at the Etihad Stadium last Tuesday – and just one defeat.
Throw in a comfortable Birmingham Senior Cup victory against Rushall Olympic, and the young players seem to be benefitting from a slight switch in emphasis this season which involves keeping more of them at Molineux as opposed to going out on loan.
“Since pre-season we’ve built up some good momentum and apart from ten minutes at Chelsea it’s been very good,” says Weaver.
“We’re in there with the big clubs who are investing a lot in youth development in terms of recruitment and the players they are bringing in.
“I think that sort of investment is working its way down with the big clubs now, and they are starting to do at youth level what they are doing in the senior set-up in terms of bringing in players.
“We’ve probably had a bit of a different approach this year to previous seasons and have kept more of the Development Squad here and let the older players out on loan.
“We’ve taken that decision to see where it takes us, meaning we’ve always got a basis of ten or 12 players in and around it to make a team up.
“This can be subsidised by one or two of the senior boys if needed although we haven’t really done that yet apart from the Man City game when they needed a runout.
“Even then people talk about Anthony Forde playing for us who is a first teamer now but he is only 18.
“And Dave Davis is still eligible, Frank (Nouble) and Björn (Sigurdarson) are under-21, Danny (Batth) only just over.
“Hopefully that shows that we have got some good young talent able to play.
“It has gone well so far and is perhaps what we might now to look to do in the future in terms of keeping a good group of players here to go with the seniors who need games and taking one or two from the Under-18s as well.
“We will still loan players out if it suits them and us but we have seen such a progression in the lads in keeping them together and developing as a team that it is reaping its rewards.”
Part of the slight re-think behind younger players is due to the changes in the reserve system this season, with the new Under-21 league a part of the Elite Player Performance Plan.
Wolves achieving Category One status means they face top opposition at both Academy and Reserve team level, meaning those young players fighting to get into the manager’s thoughts face a good level of competition and can develop together as a unit.
That’s not to say players won’t continue to be loaned out where it is deemed appropriate, but with Ståle Solbakken keeping a close eye on the Under-21s, many have the opportunity to impress.
“The EPPP has changed the thinking in that it’s not now about players getting into the reserves and then being sent out on loan,” Weaver explains.
“We have got an Under-21 League and have been told by the Premier League that this is a serious league and they want to push it, and we have seen the league tables up on Sky.
“It’s a bit different from previous years, and we are trying to back it and stay with it.
“Aston Villa have taken this approach for a while by keeping a group together and doing really well in reserve team football.
“It has served them well, and some of those players have then gone on to the first team.
“I also think it is good for our Under-21 players who are in and around the first team picture – like Fordey and Dave Davis - to play for us if they can.
“It helps them as well and is important for them because it means when they are called upon they are ready to go in and play having got those minutes under their belt.
“I think we have probably just got it right so far and are quite happy with the model as it is at the moment.
“But we will still look to send lads out on loan.
“I think there is a case that when players have maybe had their shelf life with reserve team football and they do need to make that step then they may have to go out, as has happened with Jamie Reckord, Matt Doherty and Sam Winnall.
“There is a time when they need to go out and get first team football somewhere and I’m sure that may end up being the case with the likes of Michael (Ihiekwe) and Ethan (Ebanks-Landell) as well.
“The other good part about it is that Ståle seems quite happy that players can make the step here from Under-21s to the first team.
“If they are good enough they will get their chances.
“Maybe that is also easier in the Championship but I think that is what the Premier League are trying to do with this league, to narrow the gap to first team football.
“And if it does prove for us a good step towards first team football then there is no need to send players out on loan.”
The flexibility of Wolves’ approach however can also be viewed with the excellent progress being made by striker Jake Cassidy, in his second loan spell with Tranmere.
Cassidy is one of those who has already had extensive experience at reserve team level, and is now furthering his development at Prenton Park.
Not only furthering his development however, but catching the eye with some impressive performances, seven goals from six games in September earning the League One Player of the Month award.
“To be fair to Jake he has had a really good spell with us from November last year to March,” says Weaver.
“He did really well and we just felt he needed to go and do that in first team football.
“Some people’s games are geared towards first team football and I think Cas can be one of those in that he doesn’t really care who he is up against.
“Physically he is a big and powerful athlete even though he is 19 and coming up against men rather than lads he could knock about easily has done him good.
“He has taken to it like a duck to water and his goalscoring record with Tranmere has been great.
“He was at that cusp where he probably needed some first team football.
“You just have to pick and choose with players in terms of when they go out for loans and where they go and a lot of them have gone out and done very well which is something we pride ourselves on.
“And we keep a very close eye on them.
“We get reports on each game and Dave Bowman and Chris Badlan make it part of their remit that our scouts go out and watch our loan players and all that information is fed back into the system.
“I’ve seen Jake three times this season, Matt Doherty, Jamie Reckord and Sam Winnall already since their moves.
“Ståle is very open to what we have to say and is certainly aware of how the loan players are doing.
“It’s worth remembering that sometimes it can be up and down with young players, one good month followed by one not so good so it’s always a bit of a rollercoaster.
“From our point of view it is just nice to have a team playing in a similar way to the first team.
“It has helped Danny Batth get closer, Dave Davis and Fordey has been playing, Zeli has got on and Pricey has been about it and others below are sniffing around it as well.
“I think we are getting to a good stage now with these young players and maybe it has taken a bit of time to get to this stage but it’s going well.”
*Wolves next Under-21 fixture is at home to Chelsea on Monday night at Telford (7pm).