Carlos Corberan has said it himself – West Bromwich Albion must look to their own academy this summer to help fill the gaps around the first team as they cautiously navigate their way through what is sure to be a difficult transfer window.
While it may be reflective of Albion’s off-field plight, the blooding of young players can however be beneficial.
Captain Dara O’Shea, who was crucial to Corberan in Albion’s rise last season, has been sold to promoted Burnley for £7m and he likely won’t be the last high profile departure from The Hawthorns ahead of this new Championship campaign. He is, though, a successful case study for the academy – not one that involves being poached by a rival club as a teenager, either, but a player who worked to break into the first team, went on to make over 100 appearances, earned international recognition and earned Albion a useful sum in transfer fees.
What is abundantly clear at The Hawthorns, and with the academy set-up, though, is that if you are good enough – and hang around long enough – you’ll be granted first-team exposure. Since the beginning of the 2021-22 season, the club and their various managers in the meantime have given minutes to 16 players from the club’s under 21s and 18s.
Corberan is prepared to hand out more debuts in the new term, too, to help flesh out the first-team squad at his disposal. More even than that, if players in the first-team environment during this pre-season period catch his eye and can prove themselves, it may ease the recruitment department’s workload a little in the off-season.
“We are going to be watching the new generation of West Bromwich Albion players because we have some talents in the academy who I will be forcing to be part of our pre-season matches with the senior team,” Corberan said. “In the new challenge and situation for the club, the academy has to have an important part to play. The academy players can be the future of the club.
“Players who have previously been in the under 21 team can be part of the first team in pre-season and it’s up to them to show us that they are ready. Maybe we can find a player from the academy who can help the club cover one position instead of having to go to the market.”
Last season the likes of Jamie Andrews, Ethan Ingram, Mo Faal and Jovan Malcolm were all handed first-team minutes at various intervals. All have been seen training with the Albion first-team in the early stages of this summer’s pre-season, as has the returning Tom Fellows, and all – unless there are any opportune loan deals which present themselves – are expected to be in and around the first-team again for the new season. Beyond those players, Corberan is sure to be casting his eye over one or two others.
Harry Whitwell: The midfielder is an exciting prospect. Richard Beale said last season: “He is a really, really good learner and sometimes people don’t place as much emphasis on that as they should do. He takes information on board quickly, he will ask a lot of questions and move forward with that and transfer it onto the pitch, which is really positive for a young players’ development. He’s a strong runner with close control, he scans very early and plays in the future, sees where the opponents are and and where the space is.
“For a first year scholar that is good going and a good marker that he is moving in the right direction. He’s humble, a really good lad and we are excited by him. He’s got into the England set-up, he’s played every game that he’s been available to us and in every single one he goes from strength to strength. He’s a real asset for the football club and he’s one to look out for in the future for the fans.”
Zac Ashworth: A player who Albion fans will be familiar with, but who is sure to be a little closer to Conor Townsend in the left-back competition upon his return from his first loan outing in the second half of last season. Ashworth earned positive reviews after joining Burton Albion in January and helping them secure another season in League One which, at one stage, looked unlikely.
“Before I went out he spoke to me in his office for 20/30 minutes analysing loads of my clips and highlighted areas which he thinks I’m good at and others I needed to improve while on loan,” Ashworth said of Corberan prior to his loan. “That meant a lot to me because he could’ve just picked up the phone and asked if I was happy to go out, but for him to speak to me on a personal level, say where he saw me in the long term and say he’d keep an eye on my games really helped me and it was a really nice touch.”
Caleb Taylor: The latest success story of the Albion-Cheltenham relationship, with the Robins likely to come calling again this summer to request whether any other burgeoning youngsters are ripe for development. Taylor was a regular under Wade Elliott throughout the season as they, like Burton, secured another year in the third tier. Taylor returns to Albion with every chance of being involved in the first-team from the off.
“I think he’s been excellent. I couldn’t speak any higher of him. Everyone can gauge his performances – they’re out there for everyone to see, he’s been excellent,” Elliott told BirminghamLive in March. “He’s really low maintenance. Genuinely couldn’t speak higher of him. There’s loads of room for growth, because that’s his mentality, his nature – he wants to learn, he wants to work and he wants to improve. He’ll be the type of personality which is continuously wanting to get better.
“I wouldn’t put a limit or a tag on where Caleb can or can’t go, but you can see how talented he is. From working with him, he’s a dream for a manager. I think Caleb has bags and bags of potential to keep moving up the levels.”
Kevin Mfuamba: A player who is highly thought of by many senior staff at the club and who has already had a fair bit of exposure in the first-team training environment since Corberan was appointed. Like the above names, holding midfielder Mfuamba – who is still only 16 – is expected to be assessed again this summer after a series of impressive performances for Beale’s under 21s throughout last term, either side of his injury which ruled him out for a period.
“Since I’ve come back from injury, I’ve trained with the first team quite a bit,” Mfuamba said towards the end of last season. “The staff have been very good with me, and the players too, especially with me still being 16. It’s positive to see the senior boys put their arm around you and be good to us.
“From the sessions I’ve had with them, I’ve learned to pick up the pace and do extra gym work because those guys are strong, but it’s helped me be confident within myself and show my ability, because we’re there for a reason.”
Who else is bubbling under the academy surface?
There are plenty who are in with a shout and mustn’t be considered too far away, with detail stickler Corberan and his staff likely to keep an eye on developments from afar. It’s a big 12 months for the likes of Reyes Cleary, Josh Shaw and Reece Hall, who all move into the final year of their respective contracts, while goalkeeper Ronnie Hollingshead, midfielder Matt Richards, defender Alex Williams and forward Eseosa Sule – who only arrived from Celtic in January – will be sure to want to impress.
Then you have a group of younger players who have begun to earn themselves minutes in the PL2 team after playing regularly for Leigh Downing’s under 18s – Akeel Higgins, Evan Humphries, Layton Love and Fenton Heard are among that crop.