Traditionally, Ipswich Town has had a reputation for developing its youth players and forming a formidable squad of homegrown talent.
Whilst the likes of John Wark, Kevin Beattie and George Burley might not have been local lads, the principle was the same, as they were nurtured through from bright young talents, scouted from every corner of the United Kingdom, to first team regulars.
In recent times, many would rightly argue that the supply of gifted youngsters coming through the ranks at Portman Road has dried up. But now, it would seem it is an issue that is firmly back on the agenda, with a crop of exciting prospects emerging.
The FA Youth Cup winning team of 2005 did not really go on to fulfil its early promise. Owen Garvan might have been the stand out name among those players – but even he has now left the club.
The player who scored the winning goal, Ed Upson never made a true impact on the first team before he was released this summer.
Yet now, we see a new breed of youngsters coming through – and it looks as though Roy Keane is giving them a chance to shine from a very early age.
Last week saw Town travel to Exeter in the Carling Cup, and with the first team squad ravaged by injury, Ipswich fielded their youngest ever starting XI – bearing an average age of just 23.
That might not sound overly young – but with a scattering of seasoned professionals such as Colin Healy, Brian Murphy and David Norris, it was no wonder the average age was brought up a couple of years.
Indeed, there were great signs of promise too. Luke Hyam is the big break through this season. As mentioned in my previous column, he put in a superb shift against Middlesbrough on the opening day of the season.
He has since added to that with outstanding displays in the holding midfield role against both Exeter and Burnley at the weekend. Performances akin to those of Claude Makelele or Javier Mascherano.
The starting back four in the Carling Cup fixture was also one of intrigue. Not one of the players were over 20, with Tommy Smith (aged 20) considered too much of a first team regular to be risked! Jack Ainsley begun the game at right back alongside two very promising centre-backs in Troy Brown and Tom Eastman. Former Liverpool trainee Shane O’Connor was on the left.
I mention Tommy Smith there – he really is still a youngster at the club, and yet another highly promising one. This summer he travelled to South Africa to compete in the World Cup with New Zealand.
Smith was actually born in Macclesfield, but qualifies for the All Whites having spent a considerable amount of his childhood living in the country.
Most Ipswich Town fans were in agreement that linking up with New Zealand would be the best option for Smith, as he would no doubt benefit considerably from performing on the biggest stage there is in football.
He did very well in fact, forming a solid looking back line for the Kiwis that included Ryan Nelson of Blackburn Rovers and West Ham’s new summer signing Winston Reid.
Bizarrely, though New Zealand exited the tournament at the group stage, they would be recognised at the only team in the tournament not to experience defeat – despite facing the defending Champions Italy, who they held to a hard fought draw.
Last season it was Connor Wickham who really burst onto the scene for Ipswich. His performances in the under-18s and reserves meant he had forced himself into contention for a place in the first team.
The season began at a steady pace for him, as he got to grips with Championship football. However, he exploded onto the scene as he scored two goals (plus one in the penalty shoot-out) for Town against Shrewsbury in the first round of last season’s Carling Cup.
Yet it was not until the end of the season that Blues fans really begun to appreciate what a talent they had on their hands. His goal-scoring rate upped another level, and he began to cause serious trouble to experienced Championship defenders.
An injury time goal against Scunthorpe United got him off the mark in the league last campaign, before he went onto score impressive goals against the likes of Newcastle and Derby.
At just 17 years of age, Wickham stands at a massive 6’3” tall, with the scary thing being that he is still without doubt, growing. But he is most certainly not just a physical presence.
Wickham brings so much more. He probably has the best first touch of anyone in the Ipswich Town squad at the moment, he has pace and a deadly eye for goal from anywhere around the 18-yard-box. Essentially, he is already at the level of most Championship players.
His impressive form continued into the summer, as he linked up with the England under-17 squad for their European Championship campaign.
There he struck up a lethal and mightily potent strike force with Arsenal’s Benik Afobe – a pair that almost certainly will go on to feature for the England first team at some point. Wickham, however, was the star performer with goals in the semi-final and final helping England to secure the title.
Going into pre-season, Wickham was looking sharp. However, an injury to his ankle that has left him in a cast means that he has missed the start of the season.
The season has, nevertheless, started well for Town and it is likely that it has something to do with the young stars that Roy Keane can now call upon and, as he puts it, “not lose any sleep over.”
Disclaimer: The views in this article are that of the writer and may not replicate those of the Professional Footballers' Association.