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Youth Development Week: A catch up with Academy Manager Rob Williams

22 March 2024


Youth Development Week: A catch up with Academy Manager Rob Williams

22 March 2024

This week is Youth Development Week where all EFL Clubs have been celebrating success stories within their academies.

In addition to an interview with Under 18s defender Cayden Bennett, who is currently on senior international duty with Saint Kitts & Nevis, we caught up with Academy Manager Rob Williams to discuss how things have been progressing in the academy this year.

Bennett’s call up is one of a number of positive stories to come from the academy this season and Williams is delighted that the defender has been given the opportunity to go away on international duty at senior level.

“We’re really proud of him,” Williams said.

“It’s on Cayden, it’s not on us. We endeavour to facilitate an environment where they can develop, flourish and make the most of what ability and talent that they have but in the end, it’s on them.

“They get selected based on what they do, not what we do.

“We’re pleased for him, pleased for his family, pleased for us and it’s great for the club. I can’t remember the last time a 17-year-old Walsall player had a senior international call up.

“I want him to get a debut and get a cap so that’s the next bit. I’m really happy, he’s a great kid and I’m sure it will only help him moving forwards.”

There have been a few other individual success stories as well.

Dylan Thomas has made three first team appearances while Charlie Wragg and Jaiy Leydon have been in fantastic goalscoring form for the Under 18s team.

Thomas, Wragg, Leydon, Bennett and Geoge Barrett also formed part of a five-strong current academy presence on the bench for the first team’s Bristol Street Motors Trophy tie away at Shrewsbury Town back in November.

Williams believes the experiences all those players have had this term will set them up well for the future and has been particularly pleased to see Thomas make that step into the first team and getting his senior debut.

“Dylan’s kind of been the standout this year because he’s made debuts and so on,” explained Williams.

“The boy has got talent, there’s no question about it and he’s a great kid. It’s been important for me since I’ve been here that when we recruit players, we don’t just recruit what we think are good footballers but good people, good characters that are going to bring something to the building and have the personality to progress.

“Dylan is a great lad and has thoroughly deserved what he has had this year. The feedback from the first team is always really positive, he trains really well. He’s spent more time this year with them than he has with us which is a positive thing for him. He’s making really good progress and hopefully he’ll kick on.

“In terms of the Shrewsbury game, having all those boys involved was incredible. Dylan was the only one who got on the pitch that night but again, more wants more so the next thing for us is can we get two or three on the pitch, which would be incredible.

“The experience that night will stand them in good stead being around a first team dressing room, warming up on a first team pitch when there’s a crowd who might give them a bit of stick if they miss a goal in the warm up. We can’t give them that in Under 18s football so the experience itself is positive.

“The other four, Cayden going on international duty is incredible. Jaiy and Charlie have scored 37 goals between them this year. Those two individuals are performing to a high level and have also trained with the first team.

“All five of those are in a really good place and there are four others hot on their heels who want to be the next one.”

Williams has been in post for exactly two years now and believes the academy has made good progress in that time but he is striving for more improvements.

“I feel like we’ve made loads of progress,” he commented.

“People will say that I would say that and that’s a fair point but I look across the whole programme and look at the progression opportunities for players from academy into first team, it’s so much tighter than it was, even from this time last year.

“I know Mat (Sadler) at some point mentioned that it is probably as tight now as it’s been since Dean Smith was here.

“I look across the whole programme in terms of our principles and our syllabus has been in place for 18 months so we’ve got a clear way we’re trying to get academy teams to play which fits in to where the club is at and what the owners want.

“We’re really clear around the players we try and recruit in terms of the style we want to play so all that is now embedded and it will only grow.

“There’s loads more to do but really happy with where we’ve got to.”

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