West Brom: Mel's Trust In Youngsters Is A Positive Sign
Entrusting the senior players with the responsibility of keeping a club afloat in a division is difficult enough, but even more so with fledgling youngsters. A time when West Bromwich Albion are pulling out the stops to avoid relegation has coincided with a rather heavy injury list, which has forced manager Pepe Mel to try out some of the more inexperienced members of the squad in recent games.
Liam O’Neil has been the main beneficiary of some lengthy injuries to the likes of Chris Brunt, Claudio Yacob and Morgan Amalfitano (who have all recovered now). The tough-tackling midfielder was called up to the squad for the away trip to Swansea in mid-March, presumably just to make up the numbers and soak up the experience. But with Albion leading at 1-2 in the dying minutes, O’Neil was subbed on for his Premier League debut and he contributed effectively – making some important blocks and shutting down space. Having personally seen him play in a number of Under-21 games over the course of the campaign, it was extra special to see such a wonderful prospect being given a go on the biggest stage. And he didn’t look fazed by it whatsoever.
O’Neil was signed from Histon and put into the Albion ‘Development Squad’, where he has come on leaps and bounds. He has one major asset in his favour and that’s his versatility; being able to fill in adequately in his primary position of central midfield or at centre-back, as well as full-back. In his interview after the Swansea game, he came across as a very humble and well-spoken lad, thanking Mel for giving him the platform to build on. For several weeks after his appearance at the Liberty Stadium, he continued to feature in the match day squads but only recently has he been squeezed out due to a host of seniors returning upon injury. Next season is going to be O’Neil’s most important yet.
As for Donervon Daniels, he is another hugely promising youngster who has been called up to a few match day squads, but has yet to get on the pitch. The 20-year-old is a powerful, vocal central defender who is not only aerially adept but can pick out a fine pass under pressure too. He’s the captain of the Under-21 side and has spent time at both Tranmere and Gillingham on loan since 2012. From what I heard, there was nothing but positive reviews of how Daniels fared in his loan stints and it was a learning curve for him.
Born in Montserrat, a small Caribbean island, Daniels’ religious belief and faith in everything he does stands him in good stead for the future. There’s this burning desire and hunger to improve, to get the better of his opponent, to work, work, work. It’s fantastic to see such an engaging young professional going about his work in that manner. Daniels consistently stands out in Under-21 matches and he has a particularly impressive game in the defeat to Wolves at the Ricoh Arena a couple of months back. He’s always shouting, organising, reshuffling. There’s no break, no lapse in concentration or shirking of responsibilities. You can see why he’s so highly thought of and if he has a good pre-season camp, then Daniels could well be challenging Jonas Olsson, Gareth McAuley and Craig Dawson for a first-team place next season (assuming Diego Lugano walks through the exit door).
The final youngster who Mel has called up is winger Kemar Roofe, another individual who has benefited from a number of loan spells away from West Brom. The 20-year-old began his career at Albion and rose through the ranks, from Academy status to Development Squad member. In April 2011 came a relatively important step in his career as he was shipped out on loan to Icelandic club Knattspyrnufélagið Víkingur, meaning Roofe had to leave his family behind and adapt to a new country and culture. Of course, this is all part of the learning process.
Just a year later and he signed his first professional contract on an 18-month deal with an option to extend. His glowing displays for the youth team drew the attention of Northampton, for whom he signed a one-month loan deal. I remember many Northampton supporters praising Roofe for his impact when his time was up, and earlier this season he joined Cheltenham. His career path – in terms of loan patterning – has been very similar to Daniels and the pair look to be making their breakthroughs at more or less the same time. Roofe was named in the 25-man squad for the home match against Cardiff in late March, after he reportedly impressed Mel in the training camp in Spain back in February. I went to watch Roofe and the Under-21s against Burton Albion in Birmingham Senior Cup semi-final action last week and unfortunately, Roofe picked up a knock which we hope isn’t too serious. He’s another who, with the right direction and advice, is likely to feature a lot more prominently next year.
The great thing is that there’s lots more young Albion players waiting in the wings, ready to make their mark. The aforementioned trio are setting the tone and hopefully with Mel’s tendency to experiment with youth (he also did this at Real Betis), the recent call-ups will act as a catalyst. Let’s not forget Saido Berahino either, another Academy graduate who has been a full member of the senior squad for the whole season. This is testament to the quality of the club’s youth programme and structure, and we should be seeing plenty more breaking through next season and beyond.