STEVE Clarke admits he is excited by the talent being developed in Albion’s Academy.
The Baggies boss included 16-year-old Isaiah Brown on the bench in Saturday’s 1-0 defeat at Chelsea.
And the following day watched him in action for the Baggies in their Barclays Under-21 Premier League Elite Group 2-2 draw with Arsenal, where several other players caught his eye.
“Izzy loved it and every time I looked at him he had a smile on his face,” said Clarke, who has also included youngsters Adil Nabi
and Romaine Sawyers in top-flight travelling squads this term.
“He enjoyed and it was a good experience for him.
“It would have been nice to get him on the pitch but with 20 minutes left we were still in the game so opted for experienced players.
“He's a grounded lad.
“The Academy, the likes of David Oldfield and those who look after the boys, do a good job.
“They keep the lads grounded and give them a good rounded education on what being a young footballer is all about.
“There are plenty of players getting a chance.
“I watched the under-21s game against Arsenal on Sunday and the two centre-backs, who are also full-backs, are both 17.
“Callum Jones and Wes Atkinson were in the middle, with Tom Smart at left-back and James Hurst at right-back, but Hursty had to come off and then a young lad Jordan Francis came on and did well too.
“It’s a young team and they’re doing okay.
“I think qualifying for the elite group stages was a really good achievement because there were plenty of teams that didn’t – Chelsea for one, and I know they spend an absolute fortune on their academy.
“We have a slightly different approach but we managed to qualify for the elite section and now we’re bringing in first-year scholars to play in our under-21s, so they must have some ability.”
Clarke, who took a very different path into St Mirren’s first team at the age of 18, has been an admirer of the Baggies Academy’s DNA from day one of moving to The Hawthorns.
And, now in its eighth year, it was recently granted Category One status under the new Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP).
He added: “I was 18 but I wasn’t established until I was 19.
“But it was a different situation and I didn’t do a football apprenticeship.
“I did an apprenticeship - but it was in a factory!
“I played part-time for the first three years at St Mirren and they’d more or less gone bust.
“They had to get rid of five or six players and there was nobody left so they had to play me.
“Our Academy has a philosophy and a way of working that was put down and shown to me when I came in.
“I like the way the Academy operates and I think it’s good for the young players to learn to play in a variety of positions and formations.
“Other clubs tend to simply play the same formation as their first team all the way through the club, and I don’t agree with that.
“You can’t sit players down and tell them we’re going to play this way or that way.
“I’m not sure what the figures are, but I would imagine 95 per cent of the kids coming through the Academy won’t make it here, so they have to go and play somewhere else, and maybe that formation is detrimental to them when they go to another club, who play a different system.
“I think you have to educate your young players as much as you can to play in different systems and in different ways.
“That said, the fundamentals are always the same – first touch, control, passing and passing lines, opening the game up, knowing when to close and defend, and knowing when to open up.”
Academy product George Thorne impressed for the first team on his return from a successful loan spell at Championship outfit Peterborough before suffering a season-ending knee injury in January.
And Clarke admits farming the club’s youngsters out is now key to their development if they are to improve their chances of breaking into a top-flight XI.
Donervorn Daniels (Tranmere), Cameron Gayle (Shrewsbury) and Bradley Garmston (Colchester) are all currently out on loan, while Saido Berahino was in form at Peterborough before picking up a knee problem.
“Seven or eight years is not a long time to set up an academy and get it running,” said Clarke.
“George is almost at a point where we can say we have brought him through and I think if he hadn’t picked up his injury we’d be able to say he’s come through.
“I had high hopes for Saido but his progress has been temporarily halted after picking up an injury during his loan spell at Peterborough.
“It’s difficult to get people through.
“You look at some of the big clubs who spend large amounts of money on their academies and there’s not too many players coming through there either.
“The average age for a player breaking into a Premier League team is over 21, and it used to be 17 or 18, now it takes a lot longer.
“It has made it more difficult for the younger ones to come through.
“If the average age for a debutant has gone up to over 21 then, as a head coach, you have to learn to be patient and not discard younger players too quickly.
“If it is not already the norm to loan youngsters out then it will certainly become the norm.
“I think it’s quite normal for the majority of clubs who are trying to work their academy system and trying to get players through.
“Off the top of my head, someone told me Chelsea have over 20 players out on loan, which is incredible.
“They’re all over Europe and they’re scattered all over the place.”