“We’re never happy, we always want to push forward so there’s still a lot of work to be done.”
It is a mantra frequently espoused by Gary Waddock, and one that also drives Stephen Mills, the Club’s Youth Development Phase Manager, as he prepares for 2018.
Manager of The Shots’ Under 13 – Under 16 squads, Mills has seen his teams consistently punch above their weight in games against exalted Premier League, Championship and EFL Academies, and is already feeling the benefits. “We’re never happy, which is a good thing because it helps us maintain our standards, but when you see Luke Skinner, our Under 16s goalkeeper from last season, on the bench for the first-team, that shows that we’re doing something right.
“We recommended Luke to the Under 18s last year and they trusted us on that. It shows that Gary and James are looking at our players and are willing to trust our judgment on those players. Hopefully the players can see that too and will want to join us.”
Recruitment is a huge part of any youth set-up, and whilst the ultimate aim is to see players progress right through the age-groups from Under 9 to the first-team, Mills knows that attracting the best players in their mid-teens is also vital.
“We’re a small club really. We’re trying to recruit the best local talent, and it’s still an option at any age,” he explains, using another rising Academy star as a prime example. “Brian Galach has done really well, having previously been at Leyton Orient, and I know that there are other players that Gary and James have looked at that have been involved with us at Under 16 level and below. It’s a huge credit to what everybody is doing here.”
One of several stand-out moments of the Youth Department’s year was games against teams like Brighton and Hove Albion and Fulham, having already visited Manchester City in January 2017. “It’s absolutely unbelievable when we compete against Category 1 or 2 Academies,” he enthuses, “and we’ve done that several times across different age groups. To play as well as they did was exceptional, and probably far beyond what we should be doing.”
Such achievements are testament to the professionalism of all staff within the Department, and a desire to provide the best possible platform for even the youngest players to build upon and maximise their potential. “It’s about trying to provide even more for our kids – we’ve already made big progress from last year, with our sports science and analysis staff,” he says, with all age-groups now able to access similar expertise as the first-team, “but we always want to push forward and provide more. With the different links that we are starting to create we can now build that base and provide our kids with even more than they got this year.”
There remains, though, the need to remember how far the Department has come. “When we first started, almost two years ago, we had virtually nothing, and now we’ve got around 250 players and 24 members of staff – all of those players play games every weekend, so it’s no mean feat what we’ve done. There’s huge progression all round, and we’ve just got to continue,” says Mills, before highlighting the desire amongst individuals to do well: “We’re going back to some clubs and competing a lot better than last year, so we’re seeing that progress first-hand. The players always want to do more, and at our level that’s massively important.”
Appropriately, plans for 2018 amount to so much more than simply ‘more of the same’.
“There are lots of things that we want to change for next season already! We did a lot of recruiting in the summer, of staff and players, and they all seem to have settled in well. Now we hope the players used the Christmas break to get themselves refreshed and ready to come back for another good six months,” explains Mills, with itineraries for European tours currently being drawn up, to improve not just their footballing skills but also their abilities as young men.
“Tours are a huge thing for our kids, to have that opportunity to go abroad and play with different players and experience different cultures. Now our teams have done well it helps us, because more teams are very keen to play us. The highlight for us is testing them against the best that we can,” he concludes, knowing that everything, in the end, serves a single ambition for coaches and players.
“To see last year’s Under 16s progress into the Under 18s and be involved around the first-team proves that the pathway is there. It’s what we’re all trying to do – provide the first-team with the best players. We’ve all got to work together.”