Miguel Llera tested his young players’ mettle in the EFL Youth Alliance this week by opting not to cancel three Under-18s fixtures due to entire squad, 10-day COVID-19 isolation and instead promoted Under-16s and 14s.
Bad weather had postponed the majority of games since the Christmas break and with March 1st scholarship award deadline fast approaching, Llera gave the youngsters a taste of what is to come at Under-18s level if they could prove they have the right character.
Walsall’s 14, 15 and 16-year-olds became the Under-18s as an even younger Young Saddlers were comfortably beaten 5-1, 7-0 and 8-0 by Oldham Athletic, Fleetwood Town and Tranmere Rovers respectively.
Assuring the players that the results were irrelevant, Llera’s reasoning for dropping the youngsters in at the deep end takes him back to 1996 when he was spotted as a 17-year-old by then Real Madrid talent scout and later World Cup and Champions League winning manager, Vicente del Bosque.
“He invited me to come to train with Real Madrid.
“The coach was sending the ball into my chest, tough passes. I remember I was complaining saying ‘why are you giving me a bad pass?’. In another game against Real Madrid B, the trialists were involved and we lost eight or nine-nil.
“When it was 2-0 and I couldn’t do much because of the superiority of Real Madrid– I gave up.
“I didn’t get the chance to play for Real Madrid. In that moment I was saying ‘it’s not fair, he put me in the worst team’, they were smashing us. I only knew later that they were testing me.
“They were looking at me in difficult circumstances [to see] if I could deal with this situation – but I gave up – because I was 17 and no one told me that before.
“I realised years later that he was testing me, and this is what we have been doing with the kids. I know that it is difficult. I told them don’t care about the score, I want to see character.
“In difficult circumstances I want to see people fight and encourage each other and be aggressive.”
This has been a uniquely challenging season for awarding scholarships due to many game cancellations, government restrictions and squad isolations preventing full opportunities for players to showcase their ability.
Llera made clear that the results were immaterial, and this week of heavy defeats was a time to judge persistence, teamwork and attitude of the players for academy progression.
“We have had to sacrifice the games. Supporters must know that these results are isolated.
“I told the players: ‘I don’t care about the score I want individual performances and a desire to compete’.
“It helps us see if some Under-16s are capable of managing Under-18s football. We have to take a decision about who gets a scholarship for the next year.
“Make mistakes and learn from the mistakes, that was the most important thing for me.
“My message was to: ‘try to do your best, keep positive, don’t give up, show me [good] attitude’.”
Jenson Kilroy is one of those players who has earned his scholarship already through attitude and application. Without the sparkling interventions of the young goalkeeper, those score-lines could have stretched far into double figures.
“His character is amazing. I want to be honest; Jenson has been doing really well. We offered him the scholarship and he accepted it.
“These are the kind of kids we want. Even in a difficult situation we want them to show character.
“For me it is even more important than being a good or bad footballer. Kids with character are easy to coach; they learn more and are going to improve more in the long-term.”