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Interview: A catch up with Academy Manager Rob Williams

9 May 2024


Interview: A catch up with Academy Manager Rob Williams

9 May 2024

Following the conclusion of the 2023/24 season, we caught up with Academy Manager Rob Williams to reflect on the campaign.

In our exclusive interview, we discuss the individual achievements this season, how the academy has utilised the loan system and aims for the future as the programme continues to progress.

Rob, thanks for joining us. Another long and busy season done for everyone in the Academy. How do you feel this season has gone?

“Overall, really happy with where we’re at. Last year we said that we’ve moved on a long way since I first started and we’re another year down the line and the whole programme has moved on considerably. There has been loads of positive developments and I’m really happy with where we’re at.”

While results for the Under 18s weren’t quite what we hoped for, there were a lot of positives and plenty was achieved by many individuals so how pleasing has it been to see so many great stories come out of the Academy over the course of the last campaign?

“I say all the time, we’re about the individual, we’re not about the collective so much although you need a collective to help get the individuals through the programme.

“Dylan (Thomas) has been a shining light, as we’ve said a few times and he’s done so well. He’s had a tough end to the year with an injury so he hasn’t played for 6/7 weeks so his close season will be really important to make sure he’s ready to come back. I fully expect not to have him with us next season. A loan will be important but I expect him to be training with the first team consistently again.

“George Barrett is in a really good place; he’s had a really good year. He’s had five loans across the course of the season and multiple first team appearances on the bench here as well as the day-to-day training with the first team as our goalkeepers do so it’s been a really good year for him.

“Cayden Bennett is a bit of a standout. Anyone who makes a senior international appearance at 17, I don’t care who the national team is, you’ve clearly got some ability so the fact that he’s done that is incredible so hopefully he has a good close season and kicks on next season.

“There are others below that. Jaiy (Leydon) and Charlie (Wragg) who’ve both scored around 20 goals each, they need to replicate that sort of form next year, it can’t be a one season wonder so the close season is really important for them because they are now only nine months or so from a decision on a professional contract or not. It seems ridiculous to say that but by the time they get back, it will roughly be that sort of timeframe before they find out what they’re going to get.”

A large number of the second-year scholars have gained men’s football experience out on loan this season. How important has that been?  

“The loans for second year scholars have been really good. All the boys have been out, pretty much since December so a big thank you to all those clubs – Wolverhampton Casuals, Dudley Town, Studley and the various clubs we’ve used for loan opportunities have been really good because going from Under 18s football to men’s football is very different so that experience is important. We put a lot of them at the same time which can kind of go both ways because you lose all your older players so it means your Under 18 group is much younger but there’s value in that for the individuals who play up. I look at the Under 18s group and I reflect back on that night at Shrewsbury where we had five current scholars and two former scholars in the first team group, so really positive in that end of it.”  

A lot of hard work has been done off the pitch as well. Do you feel that there are now good systems in place and there is a strong connection to the first team?

“The alignment across the piece now is chalk and cheese to where it was. I have a weekly meeting with Matt Jordan and we talk about lots of things to do with the academy and part of that is how we play, what’s the style look like, how we link that across the first team so the formations that we use will be the same two formations that the first team will use.

“Our plan A will be the same as the first team’s plan A so it’s very close at that end, obviously lower than that it’s a little bit different but all of our coaching and the principles we focus our coaching around aligns with the way we want players to play when they get through the system, so front foot and aggressive.

“Even the relationships between first team staff and academy staff. Our staff can wander around the training ground, pop into the gaffer’s office or the coaches office and it’s the norm. That wasn’t the norm and if you’re going to get players through the process, it should be the norm so all those little bits, the seamless flow and the alignment across the programme is in a completely different place and as long as we keep going, hopefully it will become more fruitful.”

The Under 18s is a key part of the Academy but plenty has been achieved across all age groups so tell us more about what’s been going on in the younger age groups?

“I have to remember in my role that the Under 18s is the only bit of the academy people really see but they’ll see a result from a Saturday. So last Saturday they lost 1-0 to Preston, who have just won the league, and their team was made up of two first year pros, second year scholars and two first year scholars. We had no second-year scholars, not all the first-year scholars played and the rest of the group was Under 16s and three Under 15s. They beat us 1-0 in a game that was fairly tight and that will stand us in good stead moving forward.

“We’ve got to find a balance, I think us putting all of those second years out on loan at the same time meant we were stretched so we need to be a bit more strategic as to who goes out on loan, when and where. I look at the five Under 15s that have been involved with the Under 18s, a couple of them have played the last seven games and that hasn’t been done for a while. Although it’s a stretch for them, it gives us an insight into what their character is like, can they manage that intensity on a regular basis against kids who are probably four years older than them so that’s really positive and those five did really well.

“The Under 17s group got to the Northern Semi-Finals of the EFL Cup, while the Under 15s were unbeaten in their Floodlit Cup group but didn’t qualify because they won two and drew two but they more than competed which is really positive.

“As you work your way down, Under 13-Under 16s day release returned for the first time for a number of years so instead of a 90 minute session, they’re here for four and a half hours. The Under 12s, 13s and 14s have won tournaments and the Under 9s have done incredible as well. They’ve won two or three things and are in the final round of their EFL competition so you go all the way down it and we are winning stuff but it’s not just about that. There is a positive feel, you can feel an environment and you walk onto our astro turf and you can feel what is going on. There is energy, there is enthusiasm and there is life.”

Now that the season has ended, what does the summer look like for yourself and the staff in the Academy?

“We’ve been planning for next season over the last two or three weeks. The Under 18s have finished so they’re now off and will return with the first team. The new scholars will have their contract signing and inductions coming up. The staff will finish and those of us involved across other aspects of the academy will be in until the end of May and then there’s a bit of dead time before it kicks back in again. It will be nice to have a little breather, it’s been a long year. I would argue that there are few staff in a football club that work as hard as academy staff with the nights until 9pm and back in for 8am which is the unseen bit. It’s almost time to have a breather but there are still bits to do. Pre-season is all sorted for the Under 18s so we’re ready to rock and roll.”


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