Academy chief outlines the 'best result' amid U21s struggles

Harry Leonard scored twice in Rovers U21s' win at Spurs
Harry Leonard scored twice in Rovers U21s' win at Spurs

Stuart Jones says the best result for Rovers’ Academy is seeing players making the grade at first-team level, rather than outcomes in the age group matches.

Five more Academy graduates have made their debuts in the Rovers first-team this season, with several more featuring heavily in the pre-season programme.

The club marked 600 consecutive league matches with at least one Academy product in the matchday squad in the weekend defeat at Luton Town, with five of the 18-man squad having come through the Brockhall ranks.

While Rovers brought up that milestone on Saturday, the Under-21s were recording their first Premier League 2 win of the season at Tottenham Hotspur, while the Under-18s also put their first points on the board with victory over Leeds United.

Both have challenged at the top ends of their respective tables in recent seasons, but have found the going tough in the early weeks of the 2022/23 season.

The Under-21s had lost their opening five Premier League 2 fixtures, scoring only once, as well as suffering defeat to Brentford B in their opening Premier League Cup group game.

The Under-18s meanwhile had lost all three of their league fixtures before coming out on top against Leeds United.

Rovers are doing things differently this season to previous years however, with Jon Dahl Tomasson keen to get matches played at the same time to keep similar training schedules.

Where previously the Under-21s would play on Monday or Friday nights, they are now playing the majority of their matches alongside the first-team at the weekend.

It has enabled the likes of Joe Rankin-Costello, Dilan Markanday, Wharton, Sam Szmodics, all to drop down from the first-team to play for the Under-21s, as well as enabling Jake Batty, Lenni Cirino, Jake Garrett and others to train with the first-team squad throughout the week before reporting for duty with Mike Sheron’s side.

A number of scholars have also made the jump up to the Under-21s, as they did last season, when Rovers lost only once in the second half of the season to climb up the Premier League 2 table, the top division in Academy football.

“As ever, when you’ve got some young players who have come into the Under-21s set-up, some that have been with the first-team all week and then drop down to play 21s,” head of Academy Jones explained.

“I think it’s about having patience as those players integrate.

“I understand that people will look at results but the best result for us is seeing Ash Phillips and Adam Wharton making their debuts and players training every day with the first-team and getting opportunities.

“That’s what it’s about.

“We want to win games, players want to win games, but ultimately we want to develop players.

“If results don’t go our way it’s important we take learning from that as part of their development and review games and what we can learn from games.”

Rovers maintaining Category One status enables their young players to compete against the best sides in the country, something Jones believes is invaluable.

So too he feels is the benefit that young players get from being around the first-team set-up even if they haven’t yet made their debuts.

He added: “That’s the way we want it at this football club and it’s really important for their development that they transition into the first-team and then back out from scholars right the way through.

“I think that brings success in terms of development.

“They have to experience the first-team environment and if that means they are up there for days a week and drop down to play for the Under-21s then great because they will have learned so much from those four days which is really important.”

Rovers endured a similarly slow start to last season, not picking up their first win until matchday 7.

They did so in their sixth Premier League 2 fixture of this campaign with the 3-1 win at Tottenham Hotspur that lifted them off the bottom of the table and level on points with Spurs.

Captain for the day Jared Harlock opened the scoring in the second minute, before two goals either side of the hour mark from Harry Leonard made it 3-0.

A late consolation for the hosts from Harvey White saw them stay above Rovers on goal difference and still occupying the final relegation place with six of their 26 fixtures played.

Sheron’s side are in action again tonight as they face Peterborough United in their second Premier League Cup group game.

Rovers are bottom of the four-team group after the first round of matches, with Posh having drawn with Aston Villa in their opening fixture.