Wolves Development Coach Steve Weaver says his players are relishing the challenge of mixing with the best in the country as they kick off the Elite Group Stage of the Barclays Under-21 League at Tottenham on Monday.
Wolves qualified for the top stage after the groups were rescheduled thanks to finishing second behind Liverpool in the first league, holding off the challenge from the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City.
They are now in a group including Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Southampton, Tottenham, West Ham, West Bromwich Albion, with the top three teams to qualify for the semi finals along with one other to emerge from a play-off between the lower two groups.
Spurs up first tomorrow (Monday) lunchtime offers the sort of tough challenge which will now be common-place for the Wolves’ youngsters, but Weaver insists it’s exactly where they want to be.
“When we started out we knew it would be a good achievement to finish in the top two,” he says.
“We managed to do it and then the realisation of the first four fixtures now shows what we’ve got to come - Tottenham, Manchester United, Liverpool and then a derby with West Brom!
“It will be tough but it’s where we want to be and the sort of tests which are good for the players.
“So we view it as an exciting challenge.
“It will be pretty relentless in terms of the quality of the opposition but we’ve got to get our heads down and get on with it and make sure we are more than competitive.
“We’ve already played Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea twice and it’s just a case of having that sort of quality in every game now and the standard across the board will be very high.
“The important thing is that after the first stage there are now 14 clubs below us who are not in the Elite section.
“We’ve had a good first half to the season and have been in amongst it and thoroughly deserve to be where we are.
“We have to go into the second half of the season exactly the same and we are not there just to make up the numbers.
“Although we know it will be tough and there are games where the lads will come up against some really top players they have done that before and this will be no different.
“We’ve not succumbed to anyone in the last five years and there’s no reason to start that now - win, lose or draw we’ll be a tough game for anyone else.”
Wolves started the season aiming to continue to send young players out for first team experience where possible, but in general only after they had already had their share of ‘reserve’ team football at Molineux.
A large group has been kept together to build up an understanding at Under-21 level, and Weaver believes it has paid dividends.
Wolves haven’t made massive use of the over-age rule allowing three over-21s plus goalkeeper to figure if needed, but have seen the likes of Wayne Hennessey and Ronald Zubar dip into the team to positive effect.
“We’ve managed to keep a good group together for the first half of the season,” he explains.
“But at the halfway stage it perhaps need to evolve a little bit, just like the first team does with the January window.
“Maybe some lads go out and leave you and get some football out on loan.
“We’ve got a new management team in place and it may be that they want some of the younger players who are not involved in the first team to get some game time and keep their games up that way.
“We’ll see how it pans out and will obviously be speaking to Dean when the fixtures come up.
“The lads who have played the first half will form the basis for the second half.
“I think we’ve got it right really so far this season.
“The lads that have been with us for a while have gone out on loan and the rest have been together as a group and done well.
“And it has worked with first team players who haven’t been featuring have been able to join us for games and dipped in and out and enjoyed it.
“We’ve had people like Wayne and Ronald who have come in for a game or two and have made good contributions.
“They wanted to play and be a part of it and have loved it alongside the young lads.
“Like everything else you work on 12 months and with our players it’s maybe even more January to January rather than season to season in terms of the squad – almost window to window.
“We will end up where we will end up but we will certainly give it our best.”
The arrival of a new boss in Dean Saunders not only gives the first team a lift in trying to impress but also the younger players, who have the chance to catch the manager’s eye.
Academy graduates who have emerged through the Development ranks such as David Davis, Anthony Forde and Danny Batth have been entrenched in the first team group this season.
Jake Cassidy has returned from his successful loan spell with Tranmere to come off the bench at Luton and then make a full debut against Blackburn, while Matt Doherty is also looking to build on his previous senior football after getting back from Bury.
“The new manager also gives the younger lads a bit of a fresh start in trying to impress,” adds Weaver.
“We’ve seen Fordey and David Davis involved over the last year and Danny Batth is in and around it.
“Matt Doherty is back and Jake has come back and come on at Luton and then got a start against Blackburn.
“From where we were 18 months to two years ago there are five players in the frame and that’s healthy.
“Add Wayne and Carl Ikeme to that and it’s a fair amount of younger players who have come through here.
“That’s not to say that will happen but it’s a good thing to aim for in an ideal world.
“It also shows the other lads that it can happen and that they have a chance.
“And it shows if you go off on loan and do well you can come back and be around it all.
“If they can show they are good enough then they know they will have a chance to be involved.”
SQUAD: McCarey, Iorfa, Ihiekwe, Tank, Reckord, Parry, Whittall, Price, Gorman, Winnall, McAlinden. SUBS: Cotman, Jakobsson, Cranston, Kellerman, Moli.