From winning streaks to 8-0 defeats, fitness frenzies and a forbidden ferret called Mr. Wilson, it has certainly been a unique season at Walsall Under-18s.
When the team recorded its first COVID-19 case in January, head coach Miguel Llera lost the relentless-pressing, finely tuned side he had begun the campaign with and had a serious challenge to bring players back to first team standard.
“In England, fitness is the most important thing. You can be the best player in the world but if you are unfit, you can’t compete,” said Llera.
“Everybody had to self-isolate twice and that changed the season for us because the players came back unfit afterwards.
“We had to do nearly a whole pre-season in two-to-three weeks with the league ongoing to get the players to the standard the first team require.
“When we reached 80% fitness level, we started to win games. If the season carried on like this, we could’ve easily fought for the top.”
A teasing tale of what could have been for Young Saddlers without the exceptional circumstances faced was exemplified by the four game winning streaks at either end of the season when fitness returned.
The Spanish head coach admits that even he was impressed with the levels shown on the pitch when his team hit their groove.
“[What surprised me most this season is] how good we could be when we were good. The season was up and down a lot, but I think that when they gave everything, they realise that in this group we have a lot of players who could be [professional] footballers.”
Belief is a tough thing to nurture, particular amongst young players who are coping with intense pressures from home, education, football and a pandemic that has limited social contact and obliterated normal life.
Llera empathised with his players, having been separated from his own children in Spain for over five months, and expressed pride in the strength of character Young Saddlers have displayed through such a testing time.
“I’ve always been proud. It has been a tough year for everybody, and a lot of my players have problems at home, illnesses or are looking after family members.
“In a professional environment, players get paid, they have money, and they don’t have the pressure our kids do.
“They are studying and some of them are the man of the house at 16-17 years old.
“They have the pressure on them and can start to get mental health problems.
“They need the consistency to be able to say, ‘my job is football’ and after 18 months, some of them deserve the chance.”
A message that rings truer than ever as the game opens up more and more to the dangers of mental illness on young footballers graduating academy systems.
Dealing with contract rejections and coping mentally when injuries wipe out chances of a successful career is something Llera spoke candidly on and gave his youngsters advice to carry with them regardless of where their footballing trajectory takes them.
“It’s not failure. For me, when we are talking about not giving a contract, it is not failure.
“Football does not end with Walsall.
“This group of players can be footballers even if we cannot give contracts to all of them because of logistics and the economic situation of the club.
“I don’t call it failure; it is another stepping stone in your journey. It will make you tough. it will make you learn.
“Hopefully we take the right decision.”
A tough decision that will be made with the assistance of new Technical Director Jamie Fullarton.
The Scotsman’s previous role as Head of Emerging Talent at Crystal Palace leaves him well placed to help induct the Saddlers side of the future into the professional game and Llera hopes the example of Liam Kinsella is followed in 2021/22.
“In the case of Kinsella, who is Player of the Year, he needed two or three years to develop. This is his fifth or sixth season as a pro and he is Player of the Year.
“The thing we can’t forget is that they are early 18s and 17s. We need to give these players the trust and the time that they need to develop.
“Jamie [Fullarton] will catch up with me, we have already had a couple of meetings, hopefully he can see more games to have better knowledge of the lads because I’m pretty sure that we have players ready for the first team.
“Everybody wants a Sam Perry or Joe Willis, and we try to do that every year. It is difficult with the resources we have.”
The academy has proved its worth with both Player and Young Player of the Year awards going to academy graduates Kinsella and Perry this season.
Llera has also given opportunities for the Under-16s, 15s and 14s to taste Under-18s football this campaign when the squad was forced into COVID-19 isolation for several weeks – building character and experience despite the squad mismatches and big defeats.
“I went to Rochdale and the academy manager gave me a hug. When we were playing with 14s and 15s, they were smashing us [8-0]. He came to me and said ‘Miguel, what you did was brilliant’ giving the chance and experience to them.
“The environment we have created, with all the clubs, I am very proud of that. They are coming here and laughing and joking with the academy managers; it is a great relationship.
“I want to say thank you to the [Walsall] community. I think we came back to having a really strong relationship with the community. It is really important for the club to build that. They are really important to us.”
That community spirit is something that has been infectious throughout other academies in the league.
When Walsall visited Montgomery Waters Meadow for the final game of the season, Shrewsbury Town staff decorated the dugout with ‘NO ENTRY’ signs featuring an image of Mr. Wilson, in homage to Llera’s pet ferret who was barred from attending.
“My partner has a ferret and when we went to see the academy players at Thomas More, she was taking the ferret like a dog. He is very friendly, everybody loved it and the other team [Shrewsbury Town] took some photos with him. It was funny.
“I had a complaint from the school that it can’t happen again and that there are no ferrets allowed.”
Llera, his backroom staff and Mr. Wilson will be hoping for a less eventful season next time around after the Spaniard returns from a well-deserved break with his family.