Can Swansea City's academy be the gift that keeps on giving?

Joe Rodon
Joe Rodon has graduated from Swansea's academy to the senior squad having joined the club as an eight-year-old

Each time a youth product reaches Swansea City's first team, his shirt goes up on the wall at the club's academy.

The joke doing the rounds right now at Landore - home of Swansea's youth set-up - is that they will soon need a new wall.

The senior side are in Carabao Cup action against Cambridge United at the Liberty Stadium on Wednesday night (19:45 BST).

The likelihood is a significant chunk of the squad will be academy graduates.

There were seven among the 18 players selected in the first round, when Swansea beat Northampton 3-1.

Ben Cabango
Ben Cabango has won Wales age-grade honours

Welshman Ben Cabango, 19, made an assured debut that night in central defence.

There were also first-team bows for Jordon Garrick, a winger Swansea spotted playing in the Northern Premier League as a teenager, and midfielder Kees de Boer, who arrived in Wales as a 17-year-old having been released by Ajax.

"I was sitting in the stand and I could feel myself welling up," Swansea's academy manager, Nigel Rees, tells BBC Sport Wales.

"There is no better feeling than seeing players who have been with us take the field in the first team, and the last 18 months has been a special time."

New Swansea boss Steve Cooper has spent a career coaching young players, so it is no surprise that he is taking a keen interest in the club's youth ranks.

But the path from Landore to the Liberty Stadium was mapped out last season, when a raft of academy players - some who had been at the club for a decade, others who joined in their late teens - burst on to the first-team scene under Graham Potter.

"Academy players have to be given an opportunity and that was done really well last season," says former England Under-17 coach Cooper.

"If we can continue that I will be really pleased because I believe in giving young players a chance, but we are not just going to hand out opportunities. They've got to earn it."

Daniel James celebrates for Manchester United
Dan James has scored twice in three Premier League games for Manchester United this season following his summer move from Swansea

Among the debutants last season were Joe Rodon, George Byers and Dan James, who scored his second goal for Manchester United last weekend.

This time last year, James was still to start an EFL game.

Oli McBurnie is another ex-development squad player who flourished in a Swans shirt last season and is now starring in the Premier League with Sheffield United.

It was Swansea's relegation from the top flight in 2018 - and the exodus of senior players that followed - which made space for so many youngsters to come through.

But what has been impressive is the way so many have flourished.

"The young lads probably wouldn't have had an opportunity if Swansea had stayed up," says pundit and former Wales international Iwan Roberts.

"But what happened last season shows how good those players are. They did not look out of place.

"They could have struggled, but they looked like they had been in the team for years."

On three occasions last season, Swansea fielded league starting sides with an average age of 23.5 years or younger. They were the three youngest first teams in the club's history.

They gave more minutes - by some distance - to players aged 23 or under than any other club in the division.

Joe Allen and Ben Davies have both come through at Swansea in recent memory, but this has been a remarkable period given the number of players stepping up and making the grade.

Academy status

Swansea's academy has held category one status - the highest level - since 2016, and Rees feels that is key.

"When you start the programme, you put all the work in, but it doesn't happen overnight," he says.

"It's like a vine. You plant it and it takes two or three years to grow. You might get the odd bunch of grapes in that time but, all of a sudden if you have nurtured it right, you start producing in a much bigger way.

"That's what's happened here. This is our fourth season going into a category one programme and the curriculum is working."

Category one status means the price of running Swansea's academy is thought to be around £4m a year due to facilities, staffing levels and travel costs involved.

With money tight after Premier League relegation, there was talk last spring of downgrading to category three status - but Swansea eventually opted to stay as they were for at least another season.

Kees de Boer
Kees de Boer arrived at Swansea after being released by Ajax

In return, Swansea's youth sides play against the best young players in the country, which Rees views as crucial to their development.

Cooper knows academy football having previously worked at that level for Wrexham and Liverpool, and says Swansea have "to be proud" of James, McBurnie and the numerous youth products in his team.

But he wants more.

"Who's next? That has to be the mentality," Cooper says.

"The objective is to produce players for the first team. We've got to work with the academy every day to make that happen."

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