Following the conclusion of the 2021/22 campaign, we caught up with Academy Manager Rob Williams.
Williams re-joined the club back in March and has started to make an impact.
While results improved towards the end of the season for the Under 18s, the Saddlers finished bottom of the EFL Youth Alliance North West Division.
We discussed Rob's first couple of months back at the Banks's Stadium, the end of the season and hopes for the future in our Q&A.
Rob, it’s been a couple of months since you became Academy Manager. How have you found it so far?
“It’s been busy, it’s been hectic and long in terms of hours but I’m really enjoying it. We’ve made lots of little subtle changes as we go and over the course of time there will be some bigger developments and changes that we want to put in place. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it; I think we’ve got some really good people in the building who are going to help us drive the programme forward.”
What have you been involved in doing so far and what have you started to implement?
“Examples of some of the stuff would be I think we’ve improved and increased how we communicate with parents. Parents are obviously really important as part of the process when we’re supporting their sons as players so the level of communication has gone up which I think has been really positive and the feedback from parents has been really positive in terms of them knowing what we’re doing, what our plans are moving forward so that’s been a positive piece of work.
"I think the biggest thing has been a change of energy, change of approach. The word culture gets thrown around a lot but try and develop a culture where there’s growth and there’s development, people can feel that culture when they walk into the building and onto the astro turf when training’s going on.
"I think there’s been an upturn in energy, which I think it needed. I think some of that is reflected in some of things you see going on. An example of that is the scholars have had a fairly tough season but in the last eight games, not that we’re about winning football matches, there’s been an upturn in results which is linked to performance and performance is linked to the level of energy people put in so I think just little bits and pieces and they will be a couple of examples.
"The other full-time staff – Ben (King), Duane (Allen) and Kieran (Squire), they need a bit of driving and support as well so pushing them and giving them time to get some good stuff done has been really important and having someone to support them with that has been much needed.”
You mention about results on the pitch. Looking at the Under 18s, there was a bit more consistency in results towards the end of the season. Are you hoping that kind of pattern will continue next season?
“Since I’ve been here the Under 16s, so the new scholars, have been involved in every game so we’ve had a really young group. We had a reserve game against Bolton Wanderers and we had seven Under 15s in the group and we drew that game. Results are not the be all and end all, we’re about developing players that can hopefully progress through the programme and into the first team.
"That gives some insight in terms of the age of the group of players that we’re putting out for games, whether it be reserve games or Under 18s games and actually, there’s a strength in depth behind what we’ve currently got so if we can help them be better in terms of performance, the outcome starts to take care of itself. Yes, we’ve won games but the fact that we’ve been in the games we’ve lost, bar one, we’ve been in those games.
"I think perhaps a number of months ago they would have almost fell apart and ended up losing fairly convincingly. That comes down to energy, enthusiasm, work, players showing intent and how they go about training and playing and the big bit has been that for me.
"I’ve been really pleased with the way the scholars have gone about how they’ve done. They have had a fairly tough season but there’s just signs there’s a little turnaround in terms of attitude and mentality which hopefully next year will be a positive thing. We’re about developing performance. If you develop then potentially you start to get good outcomes out of those performances so there’s green shoots that we can see.”
You mention those good outcomes, one of those this season has been Jack Shaw who made the step up into the first team. We also saw Rio Sawyers make the bench for a game. Michael Flynn is looking at the academy so do you feel optimistic that could happen next season?
“Jack, Rio and Ronan (Maher) on top of that, the three of them have got a real opportunity. They’ve been in and around the first team over various points of the past season. The Head Coach has been really clear that if they’re good enough, they will get their opportunity so I think we’re in a positive place and those three have been in and around it.
"It’s incredible for Jack to have been around it and get some minutes on the pitch because what that does for him in terms of confidence and self-esteem is incredible so they’ve got a real opportunity and that’s a real positive.
"It’s great to see young players like Ronan, I coached him when he was Under 9s at West Bromwich Albion many years ago so it’s great to see he’s still around the professional environment. Hopefully, that leads to many more having that opportunity and I spoke to those three last week and they’re now senior players in that young group. The impact they can have on the new Under 16s coming through and the current Under 15s who will be Under 16s next year and have been involved a little bit in recent weeks, the impact they can have in terms of support and driving them on can be huge.
"Although it puts a bit of pressure on them in terms of what I want from them next year, they’ve got a real opportunity. They’re great kids who work hard, put the time and the effort in, demand good standards from themselves, from others in training and are consistently good performers in Under 18s and reserve games so hopefully that will continue into next year and beyond.”
Plenty of optimism for the academy going into next season?
“I’m really excited. I’ve come with the intent to push this programme back to, not where it once was but above and beyond that. I think we’ve got a real opportunity to do that and it needs a little bit of guidance and support.
"Part of my job is to help drive and support the other staff to help me drag it to the place it should be and I think we’ve got a real opportunity. The last six weeks has showed me that we’ve got some good players in the building, we’ve got some good staff in the building and we need to develop our programme a little bit to help those players flourish and we can be in a good place.
"Another thing to be aware of is these things take time as well, it doesn’t happen in five minutes. It takes time to implement and put in place some of the things that you want so there’s a bit of time that it takes to do that and do it properly. I think we’ve got a real opportunity and I’m excited at the prospect of that.”