Inside Middlesbrough's academy: Transfer strategies, Jonathan Woodgate's influence and exciting opportunities for Boro's youngsters
“The pathways into the first team are growing all the time,” says Middlesbrough’s under-23s boss Graeme Lee when discussing opportunities for the club’s young prospects.
The former defender knows all about the challenges when trying to make it as a professional footballer, following a 17-year playing career, and now has the task of assisting Boro’s next generation.
Lee was promoted from assistant to lead coach with Boro’s under-23 side in the summer, a role which has taken on greater significance in recent months.
New Boro head coach Jonathan Woodgate has repeatedly spoken about giving youth a chance at the Riverside, and it’s Lee’s job to bring through the talent.
“It’s a bit more full on,” Lee tells the Mail when asked how his role has changed. “Being the leader you’re responsible for making sure everything is done right with the players and communication with the first team.”
“Every day I come in, go and see the first team, see what numbers they want, the bodies they want and then relate that back to my assistant and 18s, what we might take from them.
“The responsibility is making sure everything runs smoothly. Before you’d just take your instructions and go from there.”
That pathway from the under-23s to the senior side has already been clear to see this campaign, with Woodgate handing Championship debuts to Hayden Coulson and Stephen Walker.
During pre-season, 12 academy players were promoted to train with Boro’s first-team before filtering back to the academy side.
Their situations are constantly being monitored, though, with Lee and Woodgate in regular communication with one another.
“Every morning and every afternoon before and after training we’ll speak about players,” explains Lee when asked about his relationship with Woodgate. “Who is going to move up, what he needs that day and how training went.
“As the week is going on we’ll discuss players and the possibility of them playing for my team or possibility in the first-team squad.
“Our communication with each other is on a daily basis and the relationship is good and hopefully that continues.”
One of the toughest aspects, though, is making sure players receive suitable game time and don’t allow their careers to stall.
Boro are keen for their academy players to go out on loan and experience first-team football, yet the club’s lack of options have forced them to change their transfer strategy this summer.
“We have had to re-evaluate who has to stay because the first-team squad is not massive. The 23s squad now, if we lose any more players, I think we’re down to 14, 15,” adds Lee.
“The ones who are in the first team, our hardest job is to make sure they get game time, and if that game time is getting minutes for us and still being involved with them, that’s how we’ll have to manage it.
“What we don’t want is our better players or those near the first team sitting on their bench and missing out on valuable game time.
“We’ll manage that to make sure when the players are going up with them they’re ready and ready and fit enough to make an impact.”
“The pathways are growing all the time and there are opportunities for the lads, it’s just down to them to step up and catch the eye.”
Even so, the gap between the under-23s league and the Championship can often seem like a steep one.
Many have claimed the junior leagues should return to an open age reserve division to give youngsters a chance to play against men.
Lee though, does believe the current set-up has a purpose.
“The 23s league is how you approach it, how you want to play the game” says Lee. “We want to play the game at same tempo as what the first team play their games and make it as real as we can.”
“The environment of 23s has always been questioned but we’ve had lads who have just needed that extra year to develop and that under-23s platform has given them that.”
One thing which will help the transition between the under-23s and the senior side is the way which Boro want their teams to play, right from the younger age groups to the first team.
“There is a style in which we want to play, possession-based, winning the ball back quickly,” adds Lee.
“That’s not just Jonathan and the first team, that’s a club philosophy of how we want to play, you can play within that, in an ideal world we’ll play 4-3-3 but some weeks I might play 4-2-3-1, it depends on the bodies on the pitch.
“Throughout the academy they’ll play so many different formations. The more the lads learn the more they’ll understand the game. As long as our principles tie in with how we want to play the game.
“When people look and see Middlesbrough Football Club, whatever age group, they’ll recognise how we want to play.”
Another challenging aspect of Lee’s role is trying to keep players grounded when they receive their first contracts and are tantalising close to a career in the game.
“It is a difficult job but we say to the lads, ‘every day this is your job’ and they’ll get told when they’re stepping out of line, we’ll keep them in check as much as we can,” Lee adds.
“What they do outside the club is difficult but we always speak to them about how they are representing the club, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing.
“We try to keep them grounded, we try not to give them too much and discipline them if they’re late or not doing things right but they’re young lads, they still want to enjoy what they’ve got.”
Still, with first-team opportunities increasing all the time, the reward for Boro’s academy players are better than ever.
It’s Lee’s job to maximise and develop the club’s next generation, especially when the club are looking to promote from within.