Ever since it began, I’ve been a keen advocate of Ilkeston FC’s ‘going young’ policy, particularly in its early years as Kevin Wilson’s team, scattered with promising young talent, came so close to earning promotion to what is now the National League North.
However, in my opinion, this ethos now has to change, because quite simply it is no longer working.
Yes, there have been fantastic success stories in the form of players such as Che Adams, Ash Hunter (albeit not an academy product) and Rai Simons who have gone on to play regular league football, as well as several others who have moved to higher levels having come through the ranks at the New Manor Ground.
But even as we all wait for the overdue cash from Sheffield United following the Che Adams transfer to drop through the letterbox and hopefully give a little security for the short-term at least, to me it seems abundantly clear that the youthful ethos no longer has a place at this level of the game, or for that matter any other.
The current Ilkeston FC squad is made up largely of teenagers. There are some talented players in that crop, no doubt about it, but quite simply a team with this make-up will go nowhere, apart from quite possibly down if things aren’t done differently.
It’s important at this stage to state that none of what I’m saying should be perceived as being critical of the young players themselves, nor of the coaching of the likes of Paul Holland and Steve Welsh who quite frankly are doing well to get any kind of team out given the apparent financial constraints facing the club at the moment.
But therein lies the issue - just why, given how the club has operated in recent years, are they still finding themselves in a position where money is horribly tight, players and staff are not being paid and a team of players hopelessly short of the overall experience required to compete in the harsh world of the Northern Premier League is being put out every week to try and haul them up the table.
Some experience was recruited in the summer and initially that looked like a good move.
However, Liam Hearn left before a competitive ball had been kicked, and Luke Foster, Anton Brown and Rory Coleman were conspicuous by their absence last weekend against Workington despite, to the best of my knowledge, being fit to play the game.
That begs the question of whether they will feature again, and if not, are we resigned to watching a team full of teenagers - aside from the relative veterans like Ross Durrant, Matt Baker and Danny Gordon who are in their early twenties - try to keep the club afloat in more ways than one?
If the Adams money comes in, then things will clearly be helped, but the reality is that even though the figure I’ve been told is coming is a considerable one, I honestly don’t know just how long it will be able to sustain a club which is quite clearly struggling to attract investors and sponsors, nor do I believe there will be a situation where some quality and experience will be able to be recruited. After all, that would surely only ensure the money dries up that bit quicker, once whatever remaining debts there may be are paid off.
In my eyes, Ilkeston FC has to now revert back to being a part-time club, with part-time staff and part-time players, but with the hope of a return to the decent crowds this big town can surely produce and with a far more appealing team to watch.
Things worked well in Kevin Wilson’s spell, but that team had a far better balance of youth and experience, and even then you only have to look at how the model Wilson himself helped create then worked at his next club Nuneaton Town.
A good start was followed by them (only just) missing out on the play-offs last season, but they started this campaign very badly and then Wilson left his post last week, with Nuneaton fans expressing their displeasure at the whole model he’d introduced.
Had Ilkeston been promoted under his tutelage, would they have survived at a higher level? We will never know, although it should be said that Wilson remains one of the top managers in the non-league game so could well have continued the upward momentum with the Robins.
What we do know is what happened in the past with Ilkeston Town among others, including near neighbours Eastwood Town, and if this youth ethos is ever to be scrapped in favour of a return to part-time football then every care must be taken to ensure those kind of failures don’t happen again.
But if you were to ask most Ilkeston fans now whether they’d rather watch a team full of youngsters struggle most weeks and with little chance of promotion, or a part-time team with experienced and quality players, perhaps featuring the very best of the youngsters from an academy which I hope would still remain in some form, then I think I know how said fans would be prepared to spend their money.
Quality players aren’t cheap of course, but I’d say a club Ilkeston’s size could quite easily become attractive to those willing to put cash in and that in turn could be key.
But even a club which is steady, safe and free from financial concern would be far better than what we’re seeing at the moment.
Much of the fans’ vitriol has been sent in the direction of current owner Nigel Harrop and regardless of what he inherited, how much of what he inherited may or may not have been unexpected and how many of the current problems are his fault or someone else’s, the fact is that surely how things are now were not how he planned it.
Could he sell the club? Well, it’s probably not the most attractive of propositions for a buyer at the moment and for a big change like that to happen mid-season might cause more disruption than it’s worth, but it could be a very long season if any move like that was to wait until next spring, and if Ilkeston are relegated it would clearly decrease the club’s value anyway.
But something has to change and it has to change fast. Fans are staying away in their droves - attendances are regularly below 300 now compared to averages of over 4-500 in recent seasons - and too much is being expected of young players whose development is being, in my eyes, severely stunted rather than aided by playing en masse in a big boys’ division.