Fighting for the future: How Gary McSheffrey is looking to clear the path for Doncaster Rovers youths
One person that can be guaranteed not to get carried away by the recent exciting times for Doncaster Rovers U18s is their gaffer.
Since becoming a coach following the end of his playing career, Gary McSheffrey has shown himself to be a tough taskmaster whose high standards are crystal clear to the players under his stewardship.
His work in developing the U23s programme at Rovers was excellent until it was shelved last summer due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Since then he has taken control of the U18s group but sees no difference in the ultimate goal of moulding players fit for the first team.
“We’ve had lots of players making an appearance here and there but haven’t made much of an impression on the club, either by appearing for the first team regularly or making the club money by being sold,” he told the Free Press. “How I want to do it is really affect players here, bridge the gap and accelerate it to make them ready for the first team better and quicker.
“It has it’s challenges but I think we’re slowly getting there.
“I think we’re getting a better calibre of player through the door each year and I think long term we can get a couple that will play first team football and keep their place.
“My role is to get them ready for first team football and you have to been ruthless with that in letting them know what the standard is, where they need to be and if they don’t do it they won’t stay at first team level.
“The reality of the level of football in the modern game, I do believe I’m passing that onto them really well.
“In a couple of years I’d like to think we’d have one or two appearing regularly for the first team.”
McSheffrey admits losing the U23s was a blow, particularly as it saw a small group of promising players departing the club as a result.
But while he says there have been challenges in recruiting young players with the absence of a reserve group, he believes there is now a more direct pathway to the senior group for the youth team - something reflected by seven U18s being selected in the matchday squad for the Papa John’s Trophy clash with Scunthorpe United.
“We had a good U23s programme going,” the 39-year-old said. “We had a good season in the Premier League Cup and we had some good players that were knocking on the door, on the bench quite often.
“It was a good cohort that had Lirak Hasani, Ben Blythe, Jack Watson, Will McGowan in it. When the pandemic hit we had to release three or four players that would have got a one-year pro had we kept the U23s programme going.
“The knock-on effect of losing that is when you’re speaking to parents of 14 or 15-year-olds that you’re trying to recruit from other clubs that are letting them go. They look at the pathway and U23s football gives them a couple more years to develop.
“It’s been a bit of a stumbling block with discussions about getting players in.
“But on the flipside, when we do get players in, they don’t want to leave.
“We’ve got a good environment at the club and those lads being involved in the Scunthorpe game shows if you’re good enough, the pathway is clear.
“It’s hard to compete with the big clubs in Yorkshire when it comes to getting players in, the best ones technically and physically.
“But I think at the minute Doncaster is a more inviting club for young players to have a serious chance of making it at first team level.”
Whether any of the crop of players that have made it into the senior squad on matchdays can make a permanent transition is down to the individuals according to McSheffrey.
Tavonga Kuleya was handed a start in the Papa John’s Trophy triumph at Scunthorpe while Will Hollings and Jack Goodman both came off a bench that contained four more of their current U18s team mates.
McSheffrey said: “I think at 16, 17 or 18 you’re happy for the lads that have been involved but there’s probably that inner jealousy as well, wishing it was them.
“I hope that is what they think.
“The manager has shown he’s not scared to pop a few in so it should give them hunger and appetite to those that were involved and those that weren’t as well to want to be involved as much as they can.
“I’ve said to them to take the confidence and keep playing well for the U18s.
“The position this club is in, there’s an injury crisis.
“I’m not naive - out of that group of players there is still so much developing for them to do. No one is ready for regular first team football as it stands but a few of them are ready for an opportunity to dip their toe in here and there.
“We won’t get carried away and I told them if they’re not involved with the first team for a couple of months, don’t be disappointed.
“I played quite a bit of football at 16 and 17 for the first team but then I had a two year spell with Coventry where I didn’t see first team training because it was a bit too early for me.
“I told them don’t be disappointed to come back to U18s football because some of you are still only 16 and have only just started at U18 level. It’s important when they get an opportunity that they make good first impressions and I think a few of them have.”