Reece Staunton departs Bradford City with opportunities for club developed players harder to come by

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By Jason McKeown It was a significant moment in the most insignificant of games. Bradford City were 3-0 down at home to Rotherham in their final Football League Trophy group game, having already qualified for the next round, when in the 74th minute young defender Reece Staunton was introduced from the bench. His debut came at the age of 15 years and 332 days – making him the youngest-ever player to appear for Bradford City. Nearly five years on and still only 20, last week Staunton waved goodbye to Valley Parade after apparently requesting to move permanently to non league neighbours Bradford Park Avenue. City had a plan to loan him out again, but Staunton had had enough of waiting for a first team chance that looked increasingly doubtful. He will now get regular football but will operate at the sixth tier of the pyramid, in a semi-professional league. Staunton’s surprise Bradford City exit comes at a time when two of the club’s other highly rated youngsters – Finn Cousin-Dawson and Kian Scales – have headed out on loan. And Saturday’s 2-0 victory over Newport County had a first for Bradford City since April 2018. They didn’t have a single club developed player in the starting XI or on the bench. In the summer of 2018, the Football League had introduced a rule that all EFL sides much have a club developed player in its matchday squad. It’s why, since 2018/19, there’s been a least one Bradford City youngster on the bench, or former academy player like Luke Hendrie and Matty Foulds in the 18-man squad. That decree seems to have been quietly scrapped for this season, with the Football League instead maintaining the homegrown rule – which means at least seven of the 18-man squad have to have been registered with a club in England or Wales for at least three seasons before their 21st birthday. At our level, that’s not a difficult rule to abide by – every single member of City’s squad meets this criteria – but at the top of the Championship it’s already a challenge. Watford, for example, had to take a different recruitment approach this summer to make sure they had enough homegrown players, and early season team selections have seen some non-homegrown players left out of matchday squads so Watford can abide by these conditions. What it all means for a team like City is less significance in having club developed players involved in the squad. Although the four seasons that they’ve operated with the club developed rule suggested it was ineffective anyway – given the intention was to get clubs to play more youngsters. At times City have had an academy graduate on the bench seemingly as a token gesture, as Danny Devine and Ellis Hudson can probably attest to. They warmed up with the other subs during the game, but stood next to no chance of ever actually getting on. Nevertheless, the rule change was clearly a blow to the prospects of Staunton, Cousin-Dawson and Scales, with the former deciding enough was enough. And given the summer recruitment activity at Valley Parade, it’s easy to understand. Staunton has seen three new centre backs brought in, including Romoney Crichlow on loan from Huddersfield Town – he’s behind a young player borrowed from another club. With Yann Songo’o still at Valley Parade, there are four centre backs ahead of Staunton in the queue. He played left back pre-season, but is behind two specialists in this position and will know that Crichlow can also fill in here. So Staunton is fifth choice centre back and fourth choice left back. That is not going to add up to much game time. It might have been so different for Staunton. Two years ago, the early promise that saw him make a first team debut before he could legally buy cigarettes was starting to be fulfilled. In the Covid season of 2020/21, Staunton began in the team and was a key component in the 3-5-2 system then-manager Stuart McCall adopted. As McCall tried to get City replicating the success of Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United system where centre backs came forward with the ball and joined in attacks, Staunton was a brilliant fit. The set up suited his ball-playing strengths and he at least was starting to flourish. Indeed, he was so important that the formation only worked if he was available. When injury problems slowed Staunton’s progress and Ben Richards-Everton had to fill in, City’s form collapsed. Staunton was rushed back into the side for a November trip to Leyton Orient and early in the second half went down in a heap. It would be the end of his season and the beginning of the end to McCall’s third spell as manager. For the player, it was dreadful timing. Given Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars replaced McCall in the dugout, Staunton would have found an environment where he would have got plenty of chances that season. But he missed the pair’s entire managerial tenure, and by the time he was fit Derek Adams was in charge. In the meantime, Cousin-Dawson and Scales excelled from first team opportunities under Trueman and Sellars. Not that it counted for much when Adams took over. The 2021/22 season was a difficult year for all three. Adams made little secret of the fact he didn’t rate them, criticising their ability in public more than once. Cousin-Dawson was the only one of the trio trusted with league appearances, but even then Adams preferred to pick the struggling Oscar Threlkeld over the youngster as much as possible. Scales didn’t figure once in League Two. It’s no coincidence that Staunton’s one and only league opportunity came a week after Adams was sacked and Trueman became caretaker. Alas, he picked up another injury and couldn’t complete the 90 minutes at Oldham. Whilst Adams received a lot of supporter criticism over his treatment of City’s younger players, Mark Hughes has avoided the same scrutiny. The reality is the prospects of Staunton, Cousin-Dawson and Scales have been just as limited under Hughes as they had been under Adams. The difference is that Hughes is too classy to publicly criticise them. But the underlying message is still the same. It’s no wonder then, that Staunton has decided to move on. With City’s ambitions rightly focused on promotion from League Two and a climb back up the pyramid, it’s hard to be too critical about the lack of chances Hughes is affording younger players. He will no doubt be aware of the revolving door managerial situation at the club, and ultimately has to get results now to avoid adding to the quick turnover. Hughes wants and deserves to have the best squad possible, and to pick a team based on merit rather than individual backgrounds. The club is not a charity and three points on a Saturday is what matters the most. But still, it is sad to see another youngster of huge promise leave in Staunton. And it remains disappointing that the club continues to fail to bring through youngsters who can grow and drive it forwards. In recent years we’ve seen different youth age groups chalk up some notable achievements, but it’s not translated into first team suitable players down the line. It’s a situation the club has experienced for many years now. Does it matter? Yes and no. If City are successful this season, no one will mind that it will be a group of players who weren’t born in Bradford. When City went on the history makers run a decade ago, and indeed throughout the Phil Parkinson years, few supporters really cared that academy players were rarely seen in the first team. And with the youth set up still making the club money by producing the likes of Darryl Ombang (sold to Leeds at 16-years-old for a reported six figure fee), the financial costs of having an academy remain justified. But still, you’d like to think that one day it will be different. That many of the kids of Bradford right now can rise to the ranks of starring at Valley Parade. And that in time Bradford City supporters will have reason to chant “he’s one of our own” on a matchday.

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