'Where greatness is made' - Inside the Sheffield United talent factory that helped England win Euro 2022
Walk into Sheffield United’s training centre and two plaques will greet you, both commissioned by the Football Association (FA) after England’s women’s national team lifted the European Championship trophy at Wembley this past summer.
Printed boldly on glistening metal sheets are the names of two Lionesses who helped bring football ‘home’ – Beth England, the Chelsea forward, and Ellie Roebuck, the Manchester City goalkeeper – both of whom spent significant periods of their formative years with the Blades.
In the bottom corner, though, is the most important bit. ‘Where greatness is made’, reads a small icon which serves as a deserved nod to what the Yorkshire club has done for the national team and how it contributed to a game-changing summer.
But these plaques are not just a mark of history – they are also a sign to the young girls and boys that pass through this building, who aspire to one day lift trophies like England and Roebuck, that this is a great place to begin that dream.
Sheffield United’s women’s team play their football in the Women’s Championship, the second tier of English football, which contains a mixture of full-time and part-time teams.
The Blades, with less financial might than some of their rivals, fall into the latter category.
A youth set-up that has produced talent like England and Roebuck – as well as playing a big role in the development of Millie Bright, the Lionesses’ colossal centre-back – comes in handy, then.
No Championship squad featured more teenagers than United’s last season, with head coach Neil Redfearn, who had spells as manager at Leeds and Rotherham in the men’s Championship, having a reputation for giving the kids a chance.
After all, it was he who gave Kalvin Phillips his debut during his time at Elland Road, as well as Norwich City’s Sam Byram and Burnley’s Charlie Taylor.
With the Blades, he has another talented crop that he is nurturing.
Exciting winger Lucy Watson may have departed for Chelsea this past summer, but United have a ready-made replacement in 17-year-old Mia Enderby.
The England youth international is one of several teenage talents making a serious impact on this squad – alongside other names to watch such as Chene Muir, Tamara Wilcock and Charley Docherty.
What, then, makes this place such a talent factory?
Well, for one, there is nowhere else in the region that can offer what it does.
Ash Thompson, coach of the under-21s, describes it as “the place to be” while Enderby, who joined from Leeds’ regional talent centre (RTC) just like Thompson, notes how “there’s not really any club in the area that has the same pathway”.
“When I first came in, the one thing that I remember writing in my vision is that I want to make an academy and a bridge that everyone in the region sees as the pinnacle for youth football,” Thompson tells GOAL. “I think we're well on the way to doing that, as well as having a bit more to go.
“I think we compete against the academy sides in this region because our offer is slightly different. There are more first-team opportunities. It is something we're proud of in the local area.
“We just did trials. We got the better players from Leeds coming, the better players from York, Hull, Doncaster. Our catchment area is growing, and I think that is down to the fact that the girls know they're going to get a chance.”
Key to that, then, is a manager like Redfearn who will give top talent the opportunities to shine.
“We're not an academy, we are a first team, so we've got to win football matches,” he explains. “But we're getting the balance right between exposing them to that first-team environment and then we're getting the benefit of their development, because now they're getting to the point where, if I'm honest, they're ready. They're becoming a big part of the squad.”
“I feel like he's got a lot of confidence in the young players,” Enderby – currently playing for England’s U19s at 17 years old – says of Redfearn. “I feel like just having him encourage you, it improves your game massively.
“There are a lot of players at England, in my age group, still playing U21s and I'm playing first team. I think it's a privilege.
“I feel like my minutes in the Championship and playing with older women, it's improving my game with England as well.
"I'm getting faster, I'm getting stronger, I'm getting more technical. I feel like having that is helping me a lot.”
The environment allows talent like Enderby to thrive, too. It’s evident that the group of players these youngsters move up into is a welcoming one, which is more important than some might think.
Courtney Sweetman-Kirk has a ton of Women’s Super League experience under her belt, most recently for Liverpool, and as vice-captain of this team, is one of those expected to help the next generation feel at home when they make the step up.
“It very much keeps me on my toes. I'm getting old now,” she laughs.
The forward makes sure to whisper the age gap between herself and those teenage team-mates to GOAL, then admits they’ve already roped her into TikTok videos that she hopes will never “see the light of day”. It’s clear that this isn’t a cliquey group of players and that’s why these youngsters settle so well.
“When they come through, it's nice. It’s just a really nice opportunity to pass my experience on," Sweetman-Kirk says.
"When I was younger, when I went up to the Leicester first team at 15, I had Rachel Williams put an arm around me, Ellen White when I was at Notts County. I think it's only right to sort of pass on the experience I've got.
“I think it's something, actually, that the senior players work very hard on, to cultivate an environment that is welcoming. We've got a fantastic group year on year.
“I think it's important that the girls come up and they feel a part of it. And I'd like to think that they will tell you that they do.”
Enderby promptly obliges.
“I love this group,” she beams. “When I first got here and I was young, they all brought me under their wings. I feel like having that, it's just helped me settle in.”
That is not a coincidence, either – it’s by design.
“I think that when we look to recruit, we look to recruit good people, more than talented, technical people,” Redfearn explains. “I think that's key because if we get the environment right, we'll develop players better, we'll have a better team togetherness.”
It’s something that is mirrored across the club, with each member of staff taking a genuine interest in what is going on beyond their realm of responsibility. It means a good environment but also an organised one, which is essential to this conveyor belt of talent.
“We all see the value that the RTC and the Academy teams have got underneath us,” Thompson says, explaining how “closely” he, Redfearn, technical director Richard Meek and general manager Zoe Johnson work together.
“There are lots of people working collaboratively. I think that's something that we do as well, even throughout the RTC. Whether you're an U12s coach, an U14s coach, an U16s coach, you know what's going on around you.
“I did a lot of work with the U16s last year when I was new in. I coached them a lot. I went to a lot of their games, so I have a really good understanding of what's coming up underneath us already.
“There's a real element of succession planning, so every girl in our pathway, we see where they're going.
"Already in my mind, I know the dates of birth of the U16s. I know when they'll be eligible and ready to train and those kinds of things. I think that that matters. No one is working in silos. It allows us to plot everyone's journey.”
For Redfearn – and certainly many more at the club – he’d like those journeys to involve staying in Sheffield.
“The big thing for us now as a football club is that we don't just develop them for other teams,” he says. “I want to develop them for Sheffield United.
"There's no point me being here and working for Sheffield United if Man City is going to take them, or if Chelsea is going to take them. I might as well be working for them.
“So, we've got to get that right, as a football club. But if we can do that, they can form part of a challenge to get promoted into the top flight.”
The FA is looking at the lack of compensation given to clubs who lose their homegrown talents, with United getting nothing from Chelsea for Watson – though Blues boss Emma Hayes has actively called for this to change. Those funds would be huge for reinvestment.
The ability to compete with the best teams in the country in academy football something else that would help, with Thompson describing that system as “a bit of a closed shop” at the moment.
Only top-flight clubs, and Championship side Durham, are in the WSL’s academy league. “Once those applications open, I think it's something the club are very keen to look at,” he adds.
For now, though, this club is doing incredible things despite some factors working against them. That’s down to a great group of players, the cohesion of the staff and a willingness to give opportunities to the talent coming through the RTC.
“I think that's something we have loads of pride in, the Chene Muirs, the Mia Enderbys," Thompson says. "There are loads of talented 16-year-olds around the country, but how many of them are getting first team opportunities? It's limited.
“I think we're definitely a team that are leading the way on that in the Championship.”
England and Roebuck might be the only names with plaques on the walls at the training ground now, but the way things are continuing to go in Sheffield, they may well have company in a few years’ time.