IT could be flight or fight time for several young Wanderers players as Dougie Freedman prepares to send them out en masse for footballing experience.
Should all go well in the transfer market this month, the Whites boss plans to send a selection of starlets out on loan to earn their spurs in Leagues One and Two.
Chris Lester, Tom Youngs, Zach Clough, Conor Wilkinson, Cian Bolger and Hayden White are among those in need of first-team exposure but – to many fans’ chagrin – Freedman feels unable to integrate them into his own side right now.
The Scot has come under fire from supporters for failing to blood younger players on a more regular basis, particularly as he makes no secret of his record of doing so at former club Crystal Palace.
But Freedman insists he has their best interests at heart as he prepares to send them out for more exposure in the lower leagues, and he assured fans his players’ progress would be closely monitored.
“I know what I am doing when it comes to developing a young player and along the line you have to drip feed them first team football,” he said. “I know that.
“But I don’t think we’ve been in a position at any stage of this year to give them run-outs.
“It has been either scrapping, as we were at the start of the season, or we’ve been going fairly well, like we have just recently, so I didn’t want to make too many changes.
“The plan is that five or six of them are now coming to that important 19-20 years old and need to play.
“I need to see by the summer whether they are capable of getting into a Championship side.
“For me the next stage of their development is the loan system, which I think can be very good, especially at League One or Two level where they can go and get roughed up and it’s better than the under-21s.
“In the end, if they are any good, as Tom Eaves was last year, I can simply pull them back.
“But I keep close tabs on them and I’ll always have someone there watching. That way, if they hit the ground running I can bring them back – which means there is always a chance of coming into the team.”
Although Rob Hall, recruited from West Ham’s academy in the summer, has made a handful of appearances under Freedman this season, the route into the first team has not been easy for the majority of home-grown talent.
Eaves, Sanmi Odelusi, Tom Youngs and Josh Vela have featured sparingly, but as the club continued to struggle at the wrong end of the table, the boss insists the time has not been right to give them their chance.
Other youngsters recruited by Freedman from elsewhere such as Bolger (Leicester), Wilkinson (Millwall) and White (Sheffield Wednesday) have been working within the development squad.
“They have not been at the club for long and so it’s really important they get the feel for the place, and the club’s culture,” added Freedman.
“You cannot just throw them in too early.”
The problem at present is some of the younger players are currently the manager’s only back-up at first-team level.
White, Vela, Andy Kellett and Oscar Threlkeld have all appeared on the bench over the course of the last couple of months and unless signings are made in the current transfer window, Freedman may have to restrict the number of players he sends out for regular football.
“It would be a shame,” he said. “Four or five of them definitely need to go out. And we have had enquiries for every single one of them.
“I would be very surprised if they don’t go out. The only problem is right now, because of the squad, they are on the bench. We need them.
“I do want to strengthen in certain areas and if I do, then these boys will go out and get experience that is absolutely crucial for their development as footballers and young men.”