IT is three years since Owen Coyle walked through the Reebok doors beating the drum for home-grown talent – but will his successor be the one to finally make good on his promise?
Thanks to the hard work of Jimmy Phillips and the like at Lostock, the Eddie Davies Football Academy was recently awarded the prestigious Grade One status by the Football Association, which should enable the club to continue competing for the cream of the North West’s crop for the next few years at least.
The award is the fruit of three years of planning and restructuring at the £3million facility, and no little amount of pressure.
If there has been one criticism of the Academy since it opened its doors officially in 2008, it is that the number of youngsters actually making the grade has been a fairly poor return for the estimated £1m-a-year it costs to run.
Coyle was certainly hoping the academy would deliver when he first arrived, pledging to bring back the local feel of the team and making no secret of the fact that Phillips and Co were expected to live up to their end of the bargain.
A challenge was laid down – and the likes of Joe Riley, Josh Vela, Adam Blakeman, Mark Connolly, Michael O’Halloran, Rob Lainton and Jay Lynch were very publicly fast-tracked into the reckoning.
Yet their actual chances out on the field were few and far between.
Injury may have played its part for Riley and Vela in particular but to most fans, the best view they got of the next generation was on a windy Tuesday night at Leyland.
On Saturday against Sunderland, Dougie Freedman drafted Riley into his starting line up for the first time – even though the full-back would again fall victim to an appallingly unlucky foot injury.
There was also a substitute bench appearance for highly-rated winger Chris Lester, while Sami Odelusi, Tom Eaves and Zach Clough have also been mixing freely with the senior stars in order to prepare themselves for action.
David Lee and Tony Kelly’s magnificent Under-18s are living proof that the layer of talent just under the surface of the first team is looking very rosy indeed – with Clough’s goal record a particular source of encouragement.
And you might argue there is no better man to have in the hotseat than one who has already shown a knack for bringing talent through the ranks at Crystal Palace.
With Coyle, it seemed that circumstance would often obstruct his intentions to bring younger players into the mix. Premier League football – and particularly that at the wrong end – is a harsh environment in which to learn.
As Wanderers head into the first league game in January well off the promotion pace, you wonder whether that could work in Freedman’s favour as he, too, looks to formulate a longer-term vision for the club, which will inevitably carry with it a lower wage bill.
Vela’s return in the Under-21s last night was a big step, and, had the young Salfordian not picked up a bad knee injury against Crawley Town in the League Cup back in September, then he may well have been a fixture and fitting of the team Freedman took over.
The 19-year-old has the spirit and stomach for Championship football but the manager has been careful not to place too much pressure on him as he makes his return.
“I wouldn’t encourage building young players up but he’s certainly made a big impression on us since coming back to training,” Freedman said. “I can understand why people rate him highly. He’s a young man with all the right ingredients to be a good player for this club. He comes with a certain hunger, which is needed.
“He needs to learn the game, of course, but those ingredients can get you a long way.”
Riley also did himself no harm before hobbling off against Sunderland, and judging by his manager’s encouragement, it might not be long before he gets another opportunity.
Lynch has deputised well for Adam Bogdan in recent months, while fellow keeper Lainton has also beaten a year of injury issues to stake his claim.
Plenty has been said about Eaves – who memorably scored a hat-trick against Wanderers playing for Oldham shortly before signing for the club – but the success of his recent spell at Bristol Rovers indicates that he, too, could force his way in.
Unlike Coyle, Freedman has yet to make any bold statements on his plan of action but his managerial record suggests he is willing to give youth a chance.
The appearances of Riley and Lester last weekend could be the start of a very different direction for the Whites.