BARNSLEY under 18s have celebrated their history-making title win this week but are now focusing on picking up another trophy in the play-offs and forging professional careers.
They won 4-1 at Cardiff City on Saturday which meant they had an unassailable lead at the top of the PDL table for category two clubs across the country – taking the title for the first time in their history.
They are managed by Nicky Eaden who won several youth team titles with the club as a player under Eric Winstanley in the 1990s. Academy manager Bobby Hassell told the Chronicle: “It’s been a long process. I have been in situ five years and it’s always been the aim to improve each season. We were notoriously bottom for four years on the bounce.
“But we’ve recruited and coached better and got an identity into the team.
“The aim this season was to win the league. We have done it comfortably.
“They have a lot of goals in the team and technically good players but Nicky has got the basics into them – defending, organisation and winning second balls.
“There are six or seven who we think have a right chance of getting in the first team.
“It’s up to us to give them the right pathway and ultimately it comes down to the first team manager’s opinion.”
Eaden said: “It’s great. I have loved it this season. The lads have been great.
“We are underdogs but I think that suits the club and the town.
“I have been trying to get the players to cope with the mental side of football and prepare them for the harsh realities of the first team. That’s one of the biggest deciding factors.”
The young Reds now host Charlton Athletic today from midday on the training pitches, then complete their season on April 29 at Watford. They will then play in an end-of-season play-off involving the top two from the North and South leagues. Hassell said: “I have had texts from academy managers saying we’re the best team they’ve seen at academy level for a long, long time. We’ve never played the same team twice because we have had to change all the time.”
Barnsley are thought to have a far smaller academy budget than some of their league rivals.
Hassell said: “Like the first team when they are in the Championship, we compete against teams who pay a lot more.
“We have just been through an audit and it’s the first time they have shown everyone’s budgets. We were bottom.
“There are two clubs, including us, at the bottom then about £600,000 to the next lowest. On average, clubs were about £1.8million above us.
“But we have an identity which a lot of academies don’t. A lot of our teams are doing well, not just the 18s.”
The current captain is Jonathan Bland. He said: “I am loving it here and thankful for the opportunity. It’s a great feeling to win the league.
“But Nicky always reminds us that we haven’t done anything yet. We all want to get to the first team. That’s the hunger you have to have in sport. All the focus is on the play-offs now.”
The Reds knew they could win the league once second-placed Sheffield United lost at Swansea City earlier that day. Emaissa Nzondo netted twice with Josiah Dyer also on target while Cardiff scored an own goal. Eaden said: “I didn’t want the lads to take their foot off the gas when Sheffield United lost. I went the other way and challenged them.
“The lads really responded and were excellent. We were 3-0 up at half-time.”
The first team are also in contention for promotion this season.
Hassell said: “It’s an unbelievable season for the club. I think the first team are the best team in the league to watch along with Ipswich. They are pushing for promotion, the under 18s have won the title and the 21s are still in touch with the play-offs. It’s an amazing turnaround from where we were last year.”
First team coach Michael Duff said of the under 18s: “I have enjoyed watching them this year. I have seen quite a lot of them. You can see they are well-coached.
“There is a clear identity to what they want to do and the club wants to do with pressing and other things. It’s hard to win a title and they will remember it for the rest of their lives. But it’s about getting into the first team now.
“It’s really good for the club and I imagine a few will get contracts.”