Rob Edwards believes the integration of the youngsters to the first-team squad has helped Wolves Under-23s win the Premier League 2 Division Two title.
While the silverware and adding to their winning mentality is all good grounding for the youngsters, the 36-year-old coach recognises only too well that producing players for the first team is the bottom line.
Midfielder Elliot Watt started the Carabao Cup win at Sheffield Wednesday, fellow midfielder Pedro Goncalves came off the bench in the same game, striker Benny Ashley-Seal got minutes as a replacement in that tie and the following one against Leicester, left wing back Ryan Giles started the FA Cup fourth round tie at Shrewsbury and striker Niall Ennis came on as a substitute in the replay.
In addition, defender Max Kilman has been an unused substitute five times this season and fellow stopper Cameron John once.
“I think it’s been pretty successful,” said Edwards. “We’ve had five players making debuts in the cup games, we’ve had two or three lads get on the bench in the matchday squad in the Premier League, and first and foremost that must be the remit.
“There’s been a good core group of players who have trained constantly in and around the first-team group for large parts of the week, every week of the season, which has been really good for their development.
“This has then culminated in us as a group and the lads being able to win the league, which has been a great way to finish the domestic season.
“There are still a couple of games left for the first-team, which we have to be prepared for, and we’ve got to a tour away in Hong Kong, so the season’s not over yet, but it’s been more than a good year.”
Meanwhile, Edwards says winning the title is his best moment in two decades in football.
The former defender was ecstatic after the dramatic finale which saw Wolves come from 2-0 down with nine minutes to go to beat Manchester United 3-2 with eight minutes of time added on last Friday.
Victory was all the more sweet as United played four players with first-team experience – James Garner, Angel Gomes, Tahith Chong and Mason Greenwood.
That win left Wolves all but certain of being champions, which was confirmed on Monday night when Southampton, who needed to win by 12 clear goals, beat Sunderland 5-1, handing the crown to the Molineux men.
Edwards played over 100 times for Wolves, made around 250 senior appearances, won 15 caps for Wales, won promotion to the Premier League with Blackpool and Norwich and played in the top flight for Villa and Blackpool. But he says this achievement tops the lot.
“It was probably one of the best feelings in 20 years of professional football I’ve had. It was amazing, I felt so proud of the boys,” said Edwards.
“We hadn’t come back from 2-0 down this season, we lost 2-1 at Mansfield being down 2-0, we couldn’t get back into the game against Newcastle, and you worry because you’re up against United, who possibly have the best team when all of their players are playing.
“During those last 25 minutes the lads ran over them and it was one-way traffic. You’re obviously taking a risk because United have some real qualities and are a danger on the break, with quick free-kicks and are clever in their play, but our lads found a way.
“They deserve all the credit because they believed, and they fought for everything.”
Although Wolves won the title on goal difference, they were consistently the best team over the season. They boasted the joint highest number of wins with 13, joint fewest defeats (five), second highest goal tally (45, fourth-placed Newcastle scored one more) and second lowest number of goals conceded (22, runners-up Southampton leaked one fewer). They also had two of the three level highest goalscorers in Ashley-Seal and Ennis with 10 each, while right wing back Oscar Buur had the second highest number of assists with six.
“You don’t win the league on the last game, you do it because of the previous 21 games,” reflected Edwards. “The lads have been the most consistent team; Southampton and Reading have both ran us very close, and it just came down to goal difference in the end.
“Throughout the whole of the season we’ve had the best goal difference, we’ve been top of the league for most part of the year, so they’ve been up there and have had to deal with the pressure of everyone trying to catch us. Sometimes they have, and they’ve had to fought back, but we managed to get back on top.
“To win the final two games – and needing us to score late goals to win both of those games – shows a lot of character and should give the lads a lot of belief going forwards.”