AFC Wimbledon’s U21 players may be riding high as London Senior Cup champions, but chances are they will reach no higher.

For these wannabes, having Neal Ardley at the helm has its good and bad sides because, having cut his teeth as academy manager at Cardiff City, he knows what is needed to succeed as a professional, but he also knows the odds are stacked against the young stars.

Ardley last week handed 18-year-olds George Oakley and Will Nightingale professional contracts, while Tom Beere, 19, and Chase Jacquart, 18, have signed for a second year.

But while it may seem they have made it as a pro footballer – that could not be further from the truth.

Ardley said: “The hardest part of producing a young player by a mile is that bit between U18 and first team – it is the biggest gap to close.

“A developing player has incremental steps between U14s and U18s, and then there is a three-year step to U21s.

“That is hard enough, but in that stage a young player may be playing a senior pro, an U21 lad and a 17-year-old, so there is a spread of opponent. But when you get to first team level it all changes.

“You’re playing as an 18 or 19-year-old against pros with 400 league games under their belt.

“You’re in front of a crowd who moan and groan if you don’t get it right, and it is a win at all costs scenario, if you lose the manager loses his job.

“The gulf is huge, and you cannot expect people to jump straight into it.”

He added: “That is why the U21 academy is so important for developing players.

“They learn about the game and the pressures therein.

“In truth they learn about becoming a man.

“Then you hope they are ready for the first team.”