The Shots’ Under 18 squad begin their 2017-18 season against Wealdstone tonight, with manager Lee Collier already seeing improvements.
“It’s been great, we’re six weeks in now and the quality has got better,” he said ahead of the Bostick Youth League fixture. “The players’ application has been first-class from day one and the quality they’ve shown has been very good. Results and performances have been very encouraging, but you can’t read too much into that – tonight will be the proof of where we are. We’re not expecting them to be the finished article straight away but we are expecting them to hit the ground running.”
Excitement has been building amongst the squad, who, Collier admits, have had to be held back during some sessions of the longer-than-usual pre-season schedule due to the levels of anticipation and commitment.
“We wanted to get the players in quite early, especially the new intake, because it can sometimes take them quite a while to get up-to-speed, in making the step-up from part-time to full-time football. We’ve played quite a few games and now we’re ticking over nicely.”
Those new players have “fitted in great” says the manager, whose ethos revolves around integration and team spirit. “We’ve got a very good group of boys, and they mix very well, whether the new intake or if they’ve been here for a year or two. We are one big family here, and we look after each other. It’s not separate age-groups, and the older boys need to look after the younger ones. They’ve done that very well, so we’ve been really pleased how they’ve settled in.”
With professionals sometimes struggling to make the transition to full-time football, and Gary Waddock recognising the need for Shaun Okojie to be managed in his first few months at the Club, do some teenagers joining the Academy need even more supervision?
“Potentially it can be worse, because they’ve been training two nights a week and now they’re full-time,” admits Collier. “You have to manage that but they were all given summer programmes to take away, and we wanted them to come back in good shape. On their first day back they were tested and we’re going to test them again at the end of pre-season, so we can measure where they are in terms of fitness and development.”
Individual targets, though, do not end there, and each player has a series of short and long-term goals to strive for throughout the season. “They’ve given themselves those targets, and passed them to us. We will monitor them and work with each player.
“On the playing front, we want to be successful. We want the Academy teams to be successful, because that’s part of football, but first and foremost it’s about a player’s development – the aim is for them to reach the first-team. We also want them to know how to win in different ways, but it’s not always going to be successful. We will lose games, and we want them to learn from that as well.
“It’s giving them scenarios, and experience of every different situation, so if they get to the first-team environment they know what to expect.”
The FA Youth Cup has showcased the early stages of many hugely successful careers, and Collier uses the example of Spartan South Midlands League club Broxbourne Borough, who last season won seven matches on their way to a fifth round tie against Aston Villa, as inspiration for his own players.
“We always speak about what it can do for your career, and where it can lead to. That run straight away puts them on the map,” he stresses, knowing that a cup run can boost a club’s profile as much as a player’s. “In our first year here we did very well in the FA Youth Cup, but last year we didn’t perform, so we want to do better this season. We want to make sure that we have a good run, and we’re very much looking forward to it. If we get a home game under the lights, here at the EBB Stadium, there’s no better environment to be in.”
Such thoughts only whet the appetite even further for the big kick-off, and Collier is raring to go as much as his players. “We all want to be in competitive games, and we’re looking forward to representing the Club again. The boys have been fantastic – we’re asking more from them than ever before, and we’ve seen them develop every day. The early signs are very encouraging, and with our improvements in medical and sports science expertise off the pitch, we’re definitely moving in the right direction. It’s looking good.”