Blooding the youngsters: When and how?


Once again Tranmere seem to be in possession of exciting young players with a tonne of potential, but how and when should they be integrated in to the first team?

If Tranmere’s 1-0 win at Maidstone on the last day of the 2016/17 season proved anything, it’s that throwing some young players in to the mix doesn’t necessarily mean you weaken your team in this league.

Rovers are a club steeped in history and tradition of bringing young players through the ranks, developing them as excellent first team players and then selling them on for significant fees. When the young team walked out at Maidstone in April, many of the lads on show were making their first team debut – nine of them, in fact.

While some have since been released, of the ones still here, two stand out. Goalkeeper Luke Pilling and central defender Declan Drysdale.

Pilling’s talent has always been well-known by those who keep tabs on the Tranmere youth teams. He played a blinder in the Maidstone game, and in the summer that followed he represented Wales Under-21 in the Toulon tournament, winning goalkeeper of the tournament no less.

Despite being out-of-contract and subject of speculated interest from Brentford, Rovers were able to convince the young keeper to sign a new one-year deal in the summer.

Declan Drysdale, still just 17, remains out of contract however, continuing to play for the club’s youth team on his previous youth terms. He was offered a professional contract in the summer, but to our knowledge, has chosen not to sign it.

Declan Drysdale during the pre-season friendly match between Tranmere Rovers and Liverpool at Prenton Park, Birkenhead, England. (Photo by Richard Ault/

A young player full of potential, Drysdale is a defender who likes to get the ball down and play out from the back, and also has that quality of never looking rushed or panicked. He was also excellent in that Maidstone game, and has had reported interest from Fulham and Birmingham City since the new season kicked-off.

To keep hold of these players, it looks like Rovers need to provide a pathway from youth team to first team. But at what point does that turn in to playing time at first team level?

Pathway to first team football

In the case of Drysdale, while it will become important for him to feature in the first team squad over the coming year or two (should he still be at Rovers), he’s still fairly young. Therefore, let’s discuss the Luke Pillling scenario for the time being.

We don’t know what goes on behind-closed-doors in contract negotiations, but you’d expect Tranmere would have been hoping to tie the Welsh stopper down to a contract much longer than just the one-year he signed. Therefore, we have to speculate on why the deal was for just a single year, and you’d be inclined to think that it comes down to two things; playing time and the division in which Rovers find themselves in.

The problem we have is a nice one.

We’re lucky enough to possess one of the best, if not the best, goalkeeper in the league in Scott Davies, but at some point will Tranmere need to make a decision as to how to keep Pilling at Tranmere long-term, even if just for the purposes of one day securing a decent transfer fee for him.

It invariably means him becoming number one at Prenton Park, or at the very least getting some significant playing time on a regular basis, but when should Rovers do this?

Davies has, for the most part, been outstanding since joining Tranmere just over two years ago. Any other club in this league would jump at signing him, you’d expect. But with Pilling fast-maturing and attracting attention from elsewhere, does Micky Mellon begin to give the youngster first team minutes now?

We’d expect the answer is “yes”, and that he will be seen in the FA Trophy, if nothing else. Perhaps even in the FA Cup? We may see this weekend.

It’s likely, however, that Pilling will have to wait for a drastic drop in form by Davies, or perhaps injury or suspension to Tranmere’s number one, before he gets a run of first team matches in the league. This is probably the right thing to do, and nobody can criticise Micky Mellon for this approach.

However, it does potentially jeopardise one thing Rovers have always had in their favour – a clear pathway to first team football for those players deemed good enough.

What are your thoughts? Should Pilling, and perhaps Evan Gumbs who has found opportunities tough to come by, be getting first team starts now?

Discuss in the comments below or on social media.

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