Interview: The revolution at Wolves' academy being spearheaded by Scott Sellars
The Wolverhampton Wanderers that Scott Sellars works for now is a very different club to the one he joined almost five years ago.
Back in 2014 Wolves were only one step on their remarkable journey from the lower leagues to the Europa League, having just won the League One title under Kenny Jackett.
In July 2019, having undertaken a number of roles at Compton Park, Sellars now has one of the club's most important positions – academy manager.
He took over from the well-respected Gareth Prosser earlier this year and is tasked with revolutionising the way the club's youth system works.
When Sellars, a former midfielder who played for Leeds, Blackburn, Newcastle and Bolton during an impressive career at the top level of English football, joined Wolves, the primary aim of the academy was to produce players for Wolves' first-team.
That, with Wolves now having aspirations of breaking into the top six of the Premier League and beyond, can no longer practically be the case.
Jeff Shi's remit to Sellars is to make the academy self-sustainable. That means buying and nurturing young players who realistically will never play for the club, but instead be sold on for profit.
Sellars explains: "As an academy we feel we've got some catching up to do.
"We're being asked to be self-sustainable – something that doesn't cost the club any money.
"That can come by selling players or getting players getting to our first-team.
"Hopefully the academy becomes something where I don't need to go to Jeff to ask for something, I can say 'it's in the budget, we can do it', and effectively become the CEO of the academy where you'll make the big decisions.
"It should be self sustainable. I've looked at academies across England that cost millions and millions and I'm not sure they get their returns.
"It's got to be valuable to the club. If it's not valuable, what's the point?"
The most well-known – or perhaps notorious – model along these lines is that of Chelsea, who sent 41 players out on loan last season.
The Blues have let the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku leave the club at a young age, only for them to have hugely successful careers elsewhere, while Mo Salah and Nemanja Matic were also sold in their early 20s.
Sellars says there's a reason why that wouldn't happen to Wolves: Nuno Espirito Santo.
"We're different because we have a coach who's got a bit more faith in young players," Sellars said.
"The players here don't think the door is shut to them.
"Nuno wants to develop young players. He's done the short-term bit and got us up, now he's looking at the club as a whole and what he can do to help develop these youngsters.
"If I look at the Chelsea model, yes you can say there aren't young players in the first-team, but it works for them in terms of selling on players.
"There's a model there that can work.
"You can buy them very young, or buy them at 15 or 16. There's also the Monaco model, they've bought and spent a lot of money on young players, but sold them for a lot too."
It's a new concept for the club to get its collective head around, but with the first-team's progress under Nuno having been so rapid, the rest of the club is playing catch-up and that includes the academy.
For Sellars, by trade a tracksuit coach used to being out on the grass all day, it's a new challenge – and one he's embracing.
"There are lots of things I've never really dealt with, in terms of I've always being an on-the-grass coach," he added.
"Picking teams, trying to develop players, budgets, leadership meetings, lots of things.
"The club wanted me to take responsibility. Jeff wanted a football person as a figurehead for the academy.
"It fitted well. It was a natural step at my age (53). I did the masters course last year, a degree in sporting directorship which gave me insight into the business side.
"It's a very different club to what I came to, nearly five years ago.
"It was a Championship club with aspirations to build slowly. To go from that to seventh in the Premier League and in the Europa League is a massive jump."
New additions in the form of young signings are constant – and there will be more in the coming weeks as Wolves look to improve the quality of an under-23 side that will help flesh out the first-team squad next season, as is Nuno's preference, potentially giving relatively unknown youngsters the chance to impress in the Europa League.
PSG youth captain, 19-year-old defender Raphael Nya, has joined on a three-year deal while big things are expected of two 16-year-olds, centre-half Christian Marques and Northern Irish striker Lee Harkin, another two recent signings.
The likes of Cameron John and Terry Taylor were around the first-team setup last season and they could be the next to follow in the footsteps of Max Kilman, Elliot Watt and Benny Ashley-Seal who all made their first-team debuts. Teenagers Lewis Richards, Taylor Perry and Luke Cundle have also trained with the first-team at St George's Park this week.
As well as producing first-team players or buying and selling young talent, Shi wants the under-23s to make an impression in the top flight next season after their thrilling promotion last season.
"Jeff wants us to be challenging," Sellars added. "I was told we had to get promotion last season.
"A few years ago I didn't feel we were competitive enough but we produced one or two for the first-team, like Morgan (Gibbs-White), Niall Ennis or Ryan Giles.
"We had one or two, but we didn't have a great team. We're now going for a stronger team."
As well as scouts across England, Wolves have three working full-time in Europe, while there are plans to expand to South America and Africa.
Sellars has visited Brazil and China in recent months, while the club's youth teams have been to Japan, Germany and China and faced opponents such as PSV Eindhoven, Sparta Prague and Cruzeiro in what's become an international venture, one made easier by the higher profile of the first-team.
Wolves are also looking to partner with overseas clubs, after linking with Jumilla from Spain (a not-so successful venture) and FC Dac from Slovakia (a burgeoning partnership that has greatly benefitted Connor Ronan).
Loans manager Seyi Olofinjana also has a crucial role to play in overseeing the dozens of youngsters who'll be out on loan next year, either in the UK, in Europe or at a partner club.
Each player's circumstances dictate different options, Sellars said.
"For example, after a year out injured Niall Ennis needed to train with us every day, get him to play with us and get him back to how he was.
"If he was in and out the team somewhere on loan, it would have been another year lost.
"Every individual is different. Connor Ronan went to Walsall and from a playing point of view it was a disaster, he didn't play.
"Then he goes to DAC, plays every game, then went to the Toulon tournament and now he's flying again.
"Connor's confidence was low, it didn't go well at Walsall or Portsmouth, but from minute one it's gone well at DAC.
"Christian Herc did the same at DAC.
"We're looking for the right level for them and what their needs are as a player, rather than just 'get him out on loan'.
"It's about the level. Jumilla was successful for some players – Donovan Wilson did really well and has got a lot of interest from clubs in Spain, as has Ryan Leak.
"DAC is great, the facilities are fantastic and the style of football is suited to our players. We'll be using that a lot more and we're searching for other clubs.
"We've got to be realistic about their futures. The best time ever for young players here was when Wolves were relegated to League One.
"This is the worst time ever for an academy from that point of view, so we've got to look at the bigger picture.
"Morgan Gibbs-White is an exception. I don't see many Morgans about, if I'm honest. If we can get one or two every couple of years, we're doing OK.
"If not, we work with them and find them a level and a value."
It's all a world away from Sellars' introduction to senior football, when coming through the ranks at Leeds United in the early 1980s.
"I was 16, training with the youth team," he said. "There was an injury and they needed a midfield player for the reserves against the first-team – I played and I was waiting for that moment and did well.
"After the game I was in the boot room, I cleaned Frank Gray's boots. He came up to me and gave me a pair of boots. I thought I must be OK. So I'd taken the opportunity. Sometimes I think young players don't.
"It's massively harder to break through now. The pressures on managers to be successful means they'll buy a 26-year-old who's been there and done it, even if they have an 18-year-old academy lad who they think might be better than that 26-year-old in the long run. There's just no time."