At Tranmere Rovers, it is not just the Micky Mellon’s side representing Birkenhead. The U18 outfit managed by former Rovers midfielder, Andy Parkinson, also battle it out in the EFL Youth Alliance League. Like the First Team, the curtain has also closed on another season for Tranmere’s young hopefuls.
This term, the Whites finished in a mid-table position in the league. Whilst this might not appear to suggest a memorable campaign, the results on the pitch are not the main aim for Parkinson, who is more interested in player development and pushing players to the next level.
Parkinson said: “The priority will only ever be the individuals in the group, the team is just what facilitates the individual’s development. We’ve had some good performances over the season, collectively we’ve performed inconsistently, we finished seventh in the league out of 14 teams and finished above some big clubs.”
“The players we have come through our youth system here always punch above their weight and they’re always of a good standard - we always have a good mentality. They’re always resilient so that takes them a long way. What we’re looking for is that quality to take them to the next stage.”
Although Rovers U18’s didn’t finish in the upper echelons of the Youth Alliance division, the 39-year-old was pleased with two particular performances from his troops against the top-two sides.
“This season the champions of our league were Wigan and rightly so. Wigan have five internationals in their youth set-up, so they ran away with the league. They won the league and cup double, but we managed to go to their place in an away fixture and take a point off them. We were two minutes away from beating them, they equalised in the last minute so that was probably one of the stand out performances from the season.”
He continued: “Rochdale who finished second, we went to their place and again we were two minutes away from beating them and ending up drawing with them, so there’s been some highlights and some good performances over the course of the season. The inconsistency is probably why we finished seventh in the league table. If we would have managed to get a better run of results at home, we’d have probably ended up in the top four.”
Fourth is a position where the U18’s have been accustomed to finishing in recent years. Parkinson feels a run of wins would have fired Rovers into the top places.
“We finished fourth twice out of the last three years, so it’s probably a slight under achievement due to that inconsistency this season. If we’d have put a decent run together, I think we would have finished in the top four which is normally where about we are in the league.”
As like all youth teams at professional clubs, the main aim is to produce players for the first team - this view is echoed by Parkinson.
“We hold our own at youth team level always so that’s good, and that’s no different even though we’ve had an induction at the academy - the youth team is still competitive and it’s still producing players. The acid test is whether we can go back to a structure which allows us to produce quality first team players and that’s the challenge of this youth restructure - can we produce players that don’t only make their debut in the first team because we’ve had a lot of them over the last three or four years, but can they actually sustain a period of time in the first team?”
He added: “That’s the final challenge for players we develop at this football club because we’ve had a lot that we’ve developed and made their debut recently over the last three or four years, but we’ve only really had Eddie Clarke in that time whose made a sustained go at being a first team member of the squad regularly.
“That’s the next challenge for us, but we’ve now got a structure and a pathway in place that allows us to do that. We’ve restructured our recruitment for the youth team from U16 level, so we’ve worked hard me and the recruitment team, that we’ve been able to identify local talent and bring it into the football club. We can’t do that through a 9-16 programme anymore because we don’t have it, but we’ve restructured that so that’s gone really smoothly this season.”
As an ex-Tranmere player, Parkinson also feels it is important that the club have a group of staff in all areas of the club who know Rovers’ philosophy.
“Something we do when the players first come in is speak to them about the history of the football club, so the youth staff we’ve got, myself and Alan Morgan both played for the football club and we played for the football club in a period of time when the football club were successful. When we played, we were a Championship club, we were known as the giant killers because of the cup success we had, so there’s a lot of history.”
“The generation before me was the side which just missed out on the play-offs to get into the Premier League, so the history of the club is really big. The challenge for us is that young players are aware of that. We work really hard to make sure that they’re aware of just how big Tranmere Rovers Football Club is and how we’re now heading in the right direction again after a period of difficulties.”
“This generation have only seen those difficulties from a far, so they’re not aware of our history and our heritage, and how successful we’ve been at developing players in the past. We make them very aware of that value and we expect that from this football club. We’ve always been a community-based football club who values local talent and who develops local talent – giving people a chance.”
The former Rovers man also recognises that the responsibility for the young players is to have the values of Tranmere within them, if they aspire to be successful on the Wirral.
“They’ve got to have the right DNA. There’s something about being part of Tranmere Rovers Football Club that people from the outside can’t see. The staff we’ve got are all very aware of that from the first team manager – Micky (Mellon) was a teammate of myself and Alan Morgan as well. Michael Jackson was a teammate of ourselves as well, so we’ve got a good continuity between first team staff and youth team staff and that can only help the development of the players because it allows us to discuss the players that are developing.”
He concluded: “We’ve been able to outsource young talent as well. We’ve got Harvey Gilmour who come in from an outfield source from Sheffield United, another example of us recruiting young players and helping them along their journey. It’s the same as years ago, I came in from Liverpool as a 17/18-year old and managed to ply my trade here and get in the first team. So, it’s not just the players we bring through our youth development system, it’s also players that we can identify, recruit and bring in and help develop them further to get into our first team.”