How Wolves are preparing young stars for Nuno’s first-team

Recent months have seen an influx of young names being included on Wolves’ Premier League teamsheets by Nuno Espirito Santo.

With an injury list like one which has never been seen before at the club under the Portuguese boss and an increase in named substitutes from seven to nine, it has allowed Wolves to reward several of the talented young players the club has among its ranks.

No fewer than nine players who began the season as members of James Collins’ under-23 squad have been involved in at least one senior matchday squad so far this season.

Add those numbers to Morgan Gibbs-White, Oskar Buur and Maximilian Kilman – all of whom were part of the gold and black development squad at the early stages of their careers – it demonstrates that Wolves are definitely doing something right when it comes to getting players ready for Nuno and his first-team.

What makes it even more impressive, is the fact that eight of the players who have featured in a senior squad this season – Gibbs-White, Owen Otasowie, Theo Corbeanu, Lewis Richards, Taylor Perry, Luke Cundle, Christian Marques and Nigel Lonwijk – have come through the club’s Academy at under-18 level and below.

“Our job is to fulfil the player’s potential,” says Steve Davis, Wolves under-18 head coach – a former professional with more than 500 appearances for clubs across the EFL, as well as manager of Leyton Orient and Crewe Alexandra.

“That’s what we do in the under-18s; we take the players out of their YDP [youth development phase] at 16– or even earlier if they’re good enough – and start their scholarship before pushing them to their potential as hard as we can.

“We challenge them. It’s quite a tough environment that we’ve created and a real challenging one, because we’re trying to prepare them for first-team football.

“We’re trying to turn them into first-team players for Wolves – first and foremost. But if they can’t become a Premier League player, then we look to turn them into Football League players and give them a good career in the game.”

A conscious decision has been made ahead of this season by Jeff Shi, technical director Scott Sellars, as well as Collins and Davis, that the current professional development phase, which includes the under-18s and under-23s, will see players move sooner through the age categories based on talent and regardless of how old they may be.

This has led to an under-23 squad with an average age of 19 and an under-18s which mainly consists of 16-year-olds. Both are by far the youngest average ages in their respective leagues.

Filozofe Mabete, Temple Ojinnaka, Dylan Scicluna, Ty Barnett, Mason Rees and Ethan McLeod have regularly made up a proportion of under-18 squads this season, yet all of them still class as schoolboys and not one is a first-year scholar – with some not even old enough to be scholars next season.

But despite the young age of the squads, it hasn’t had an effect on the team’s positions within their league competitions, with the under-23s currently sat second in Premier League 2 Division 2, with a game in hand over the league leaders, and the under-18s fourth in U18 Premier League North, behind only Manchester United, Liverpool and Manchester City – yet, with two games in hands over the Reds, who Wolves beat 2-1 back in November.

“If they’re good enough, then they’re old enough,” Davis added. “We’ve got some 15-year-olds in our group right now, and it’s a challenge for them, but they need to be pushed to achieve their potential.”

For that potential to be achieved, Wolves need to continue to push their players along what has become a conveyor belt of talent moving through the age ranges.

When a player is ready to move up from the under-23s and into the first-team – as has been the case with Gibbs-White, Kilman and Buur in recent years, while Owen Otasowie and Andreas Sondergaard have made the full-time step up this month – that leaves a gap in the development squad which needs to be filled by under-18 talent.

When those under-18s move up, it leaves a space open for an under-16 or under-15 player to make their own, and so on. This process means Wolves’ best young players always have to prove themselves against opposition which are older, but if they want to make it as a first-team player at the club, it’s a challenge they need to be prepared for.

Davis explained: “When we think our players are ready to go up, we recommend them to the under-23s. There are some occasions when they might bounce back down to our group if they’re not quite ready, and then they have another go, before going back in to the 23s.

“When they’re with the under-23s, that will give them more opportunities and more exposure for the first-team. It’s a natural progression. The first-team staff get a chance to look at them, they get to know them better and then they have to make the judgement on them.

“The way I always look at it is: ‘If Nuno wanted one of our players, would they be ready to go down to the first-team?’

“That’s what we use as a target and as a gauge, but it’s not only about their ability and potential, but them as a person – Can they deal with criticism? Can they deal with being told what’s what? Can they deal with the training session and what’s involved in it and the communication of it? But we also have to trust them. We have to trust they’re not just going to go around kicking people!

“But if I’m doing my job properly, then after six months, they should be ready to go down to the first-team if they are good enough and have the other aspects of the game, in terms of their personality and character.”

Supporters of a club are always on the lookout for young local talent coming through their football club, and one of those players who will be aiming to continue his journey along the Academy conveyor belt is under-18 captain and boyhood Wolves supporter Ollie Tipton.

Having joined the Academy at 11-years-old, ‘Tipo’ has this season become one of the key players, leaders and voices in Davis’ young squad as he directs his teammates on the pitch every Saturday.

But his progression over the past 12 months has been down to hard work and graft, and that dedication was rewarded over the Christmas period with a professional contract and an opportunity to train with the first-team, under Nuno and his staff.

“Ollie worked really hard in the first lockdown,” Davis said. “We set him some challenges after talking about what he needed to improve, and even though he was locked in and couldn’t go out, he could still do drills at home.

“We set him quite simple, old-fashioned challenges, such as the ball hanging from a line, so he was doing lots of heading work in his garden.

“Once lockdown was over and he was allowed to come back, he continued to work really hard with his gym work and he hit the ground running because of the groundwork he’d put in. He was back in top condition and had an excellent pre-season, where he was on top of his game; he looked stronger, he looked fitter, he looked mentally prepared for what was ahead of him.”

That hunger heading into pre-season has not worn off for the 17-year-old defender, who has gone on to lead the under-18s scoring charts this season thanks to a run of six goals in six games, as he notches penalty after penalty.

But it has been the consistency of performances in competition as well as training that has been the part of his game which has impressed Davis most.

“He’s been our best player this season. He’s been consistent, it wasn’t just he started well in pre-season and tailed off, he’s kept his commitment going, he’s kept improving, he’s working harder on different aspects of his game, and the improvement in his physicality has given him greater confidence as well.

“He’s showing really good leadership skills as he’s started to talk, organise and influence people around him, and he’s got the qualities of his passing, while he’s stepping in more and being a lot braver with his play. He’s dealt with one-v-ones and the defensive side of his game really well, he’s heading balls out of the box now, he’s attacking it better and looks a lot harder to beat in one-v-one situations.

“A lot of the things he had to develop, he’s getting better at, but I hope he doesn’t rest on this now, he needs to keep working hard and keep pushing on.”

Tipton and his teammates will be hoping to get back to winning ways this weekend as the under-18s host Burnley following more than a month away due to the Christmas break in fixtures.

Ahead of the mid-season stoppage, Davis’ side were on their most difficult run of form during the season having lost to Man United in the league before an FA Youth Cup defeat to Norwich City.

But with developing players at the forefront of a youth coach’s mind, Davis and his fellow Academy staff are taking great pleasure from seeing their young stars getting opportunities in the first-team.

“I thoroughly enjoy being part of it,” Davis added. “It’s great to see that you can have a good influence on the early part of a player’s career when they’re easily taught, and they can take those ideas on board and taught new skills.

“It’s great to see them learning and taking that into their further careers.”