By Ryan Ferguson
He arrived with a flurry, bursting through two midfield challenges to take a through ball in stride. Mitch Duggan, the latest bundle of hope manufactured by the Tranmere youth department, was then bundled to the ground by a tired Woking defender. James Norwood missed the resulting penalty, but Rovers won 3-1, fuelling spirited chat all the way home. One recurring topic was the impressive cameo from the local teenager. It was a reminder of the old Tranmere philosophy, and perhaps a gentle nudge towards the club once again placing faith in its own young talent.
A week after his first appearance of the season, Duggan was pressed into action off the bench away to Dagenham. This time, he appeared as an auxiliary right-back, and did very well to stifle John Still’s gameplan, so reliant on energetic wing play. Mitch then earned his first start against Gateshead, and was one of the few players to emerge with pride intact. His direct runs, obvious football intelligence and impressive athleticism stood out, as Rovers fans found a new hometown hero to adore. In recent games, Duggan has even performed adequately as a right winger, providing balance and constant effort. There’s obviously still a lot to learn for any 19-year old man, but so far Mitch has embodied what we all yearn to see in a Tranmere Rovers player.
His success has placed fresh scrutiny on the club’s youth policy. Duggan is one of several homegrown players to be given professional contracts prior to this season, but so far he’s the only one to be granted a genuine opportunity. Goalkeeper Luke Pilling has found his path blocked. Defender Evan Gumbs has been sent out on loan multiple times. And Darren Askew, another promising youth, is yet to break through. However, much of the frustration among Tranmere fans surrounds the lack of first team opportunities for Tolani Omotola and Sam Ilesanmi, perhaps the most heralded players to emerge from the youth system since Dale Jennings and Aaron Cresswell. If Duggan can do it, why can’t they?
A centre forward with electric pace, Omotola made his Rovers debut seventeen months ago. It was a fleeting appearance against Bury in our final Football League game after 94 years, but I appreciated the symbolism. Here was the future, finally given an opportunity. All the failed loan players and short-term acquisitions would soon be forgotten, and youth would form the backbone of the Tranmere revival. Well, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. At least not yet. But hopefully the emergence of Duggan will lead to change in how the club operates.
Now 18, Omotola is doing really well at Witton Albion. He’s scored 11 goals this season, including a hat-trick last Saturday. Yes, it’s only the eighth tier, but what more can the lad do? More importantly, what must he think when, faced with an injury crisis, Rovers agreed a deal to loan Shrewsbury’s Ethan Jones, a player just two weeks older than him with nothing like the goalscoring record? That’s not to demean the ability of Jones, but it doesn’t send a great message to Omotola and other young players striving to make a name for themselves at Prenton Park.
Ilesanmi returned from a stint with Glossop North End recently. Another lively forward, he made the bench for our FA Cup qualifier with Barrow. Judging solely by statistics from their respective loan spells, it would appear that Sam has further to develop than Tolani, but both are banging on the door for first team opportunities. The more Duggan captures our imagination, and the more established first teamers fail to perform, the louder our shouts will be for these kids to be given a chance.
To be brutally honest, I would rather see Omotola or Ilesanmi fail than Jones. It’s simple logic. Nothing personal. If Jones struggles, he may rectify those mistakes and improve, but that won’t help Tranmere Rovers in the long term. Shrewsbury will capitalise at our expense. On the other hand, if one of our own players triumphs through adversity, that’s great for the club on many different levels. Not only will it help the first team now and in the future, but it will also inspire future generations, who will see Tranmere as a club of opportunity. We need to make those changes.
Of course, the coaching staff knows these players far better than me, you, or anybody else. Perhaps they’re not totally ready for senior action. However, you could say the same thing about any number of loan players who have flocked to Prenton Park in recent years. Why are we so willing to accommodate raw, unproven players from other clubs, when there’s a batch of our own starlets waiting patiently? That doesn’t make sense philosophically or financially. It’s just a recipe for discontent.
Obviously, not every loanee is garbage, and not every youth product is fantastic. Right now, Ben Tollitt, a winger from Portsmouth, is outperforming Jake Kirby, a youth graduate, on a weekly basis. Yet ultimately, it’s just a question of principle and sustainability. On the whole, I trust our success rate developing homegrown players more than I do our ability to identify and sign loanees. There’s been something amiss in the club’s recruitment culture for too long, and perhaps Duggan will be the first to change that.
Here, the curious case of Cole Stockton springs to mind. After making his Rovers debut in 2011, Cole showed glimpses of ability, but was never able to put it all together. Underperformance saw him loaned out to Morecambe earlier this season, and he’s scored five goals in 13 appearances since, playing at a higher level! How does that make any sense? Is it more to do with the player and his attitude, or are we doing something inherently wrong as a club? Only those in charge know for sure.
What I do know is that football fans love nothing more than a homegrown player doing well. Supporters can associate with youth players more. By and large, they’re from the same town. They understand what it means to wear that shirt. They know what is expected. In this regard, an effective youth policy is crucial in implementing a cogent ethos throughout a club. Rovers are making gains in this area, as Futsal becomes a key part of the curriculum, but more can still be done. Of course, the Elite Player Performance Plan makes it more difficult than ever to nurture young talent, as Premier League clubs are free to asset strip, but there’s a deeply entrenched tradition of trusting youth at Tranmere Rovers. It would be great to see that spirit placed back at the heart of our identity.
Mark Palios knows more about this than most people. He came through the Tranmere youth system en route to a distinguished career, and I believe in his ability to revolutionise the system in a new capacity. At his introductory press conference as chairman, Palios promised that Rovers would produce more players moving forward, and Duggan helps towards that aim. So does the Solar Campus development. Being a non-league club makes funding difficult, but can Tranmere better utilise the young professionals already under contract? I believe they can. Before we next rush into the loan market, perhaps they should be given a chance.
According to data from Transfermarkt, Rovers currently have the sixth-oldest squad in the National League, with an average age of 26.3. Last season, we were the third-oldest, behind Eastleigh and Guiseley. In the past three full seasons, the top five teams in this league had an average age of exactly 24, while the last three champions came in at 22.7 years of age, on average. There’s been a trend towards older teams succeeding more this campaign, but that certainly provides food for thought.
You don’t sign a player because of his age alone. Quality is the most important ingredient, and one that overrides everything else. A team solely comprised of 33-year old Premier League players – Yaya Toure, Bacary Sagna, Ben Foster – would win the National League easily. But, in more general terms, this data would appear to suggest that, on the whole, teams with a true balance of old and young players tend to fare better over the course of a full season than those skewed too far in either direction. Veteran players like Steve McNulty, Scott Davies and Steve Jennings are still really important to Tranmere, but perhaps they’d be even more effective with a larger splash of youth added to the mixture. Perhaps Omotola or Ilesanmi could be our wildcard in the race for promotion.
By all accounts, Micky Mellon did well developing several youth graduates at Shrewsbury, some of whom were sold on by the club. That’s a very encouraging sign, for it shows that the new Rovers boss is receptive to these ideas. By trusting Duggan and including Ilesanmi in the first team picture, Mellon has already helped Tranmere take some steps in the right direction. We can only hope there’s more to come, and that producing our own players will once again be a central tenet of Tranmere Rovers.