The fact that Torquay United’s Youth Team lost their opening Youth Alliance fixture on Saturday (1-0 away to Yeovil Town) will not cause too many Gulls fans to lose much sleep.
Not that the Yellow Army has little interest for the success of the club’s next generation – in fact, quite the opposite.
Six years ago, the club made the decision to scrap the Youth department. It was a cost-cutting measure, taken after the club’s failure to sustain the conveyor belt of young talent which produced the likes of Lee Sharpe, Matt Gregg and Wayne Thomas.
Not only were the fans deprived of seeing ‘one of their own’ rise through the ranks and make their name in a yellow shirt, but the chances of the club generating the kind of transfer fees that these home-grown players commanded were also diminished.
These three players alone brought in close to £1 million, but there were many more. Instead, promising local youngsters had to look further afield – namely towards Exeter City and Plymouth Argyle – to pursue their careers. Newcastle’s Brixham-bred starlet Dan Gosling will forever be acknowledged by United fans as ‘the one that got away’.
However, when the new consortium took charge in the summer of 2007 following the club’s relegation from the Football League, plans were almost immediately put into place to revive the Youth Scheme.
Just a year later, a team was entered into the Youth Alliance after a gap of four years, including a new batch of trainees to boot.
Under the guidance of Matt Williams, the Young Gulls made steady progress. Further evidence of this came last season, in the shape of the club’s run to the 3rd Round of the FA Youth Cup - the highlight of which was beating a highly-rated Norwich City side 1-0 at Plainmoor along the way, watched by a crowd of over 500.
By then, the club had already offered a pro contract to young left-winger Saul Halpin, having initially caught the eye of the Gulls management (and fans) during a pre-season match against League One Bristol Rovers.
6ft tall and genuinely two-footed, he signed an extension to his contract this summer. Also joining him in the senior ranks are two more products of the revamped scheme - captain and centre-half Ed Palmer, and striker Ashley Yeoman, last season’s top scorer at U19 level.
Whilst manager Paul Buckle has made it clear that there is no pressure on the graduates to have an impact on the first team immediately, his squad is already packed full of promising youngsters, many of whom are currently first team regulars - proving that if you’re good enough, you’re old enough.
It’s easy to forget that well-established stars Eunan O’Kane and Billy Kee were both only 19 themselves when they made their debuts for the Gulls.
Of course, as with any youth setup, some of the starlets will make the grade whilst others won’t – that will never change. But the chances of Saul, Ed and Ashley becoming first team regulars, and fulfilling their potential was further enhanced in the summer by the club’s decision to field a competitive Reserve Team for first time in a decade.
Crucially, this means that no longer will 18 year old rookies have to make the huge jump from the Youth Alliance to League Two – a gap that many found too much.
United’s board have continued to invest heavily into the whole youth department, in terms of both time and money. Perhaps the most important signing made by the Gulls this summer won’t even kick a ball for them.
New Head of Youth Geoff Harrop’s arrival from Northampton, to work alongside Matt Williams (Centre of Excellence Manager) and Robbie Herrera (Technical Development Coach) means that the talent conveyor belt has now been fully repaired and is up and running once more.
The progress in the space of 3 years is quite phenomenal, and the club are just beginning to reap the rewards. There has certainly never been a better opportunity for youth to flourish at Plainmoor.
The views in this article are that of the writer and may not replicate those of the Professional Footballers' Association.
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