An in-depth interview with Andy Scott – Watford FC’s UK Football Recruitment Director – who takes a closer look at planned changes to the Hornets’ Academy.
Can you give us an overview of the changes being made?
It's an exciting time for the Academy. The whole purpose of having an Academy is to produce players for the first-team. The club has moved forward on the pitch at first-team level over the last three to five years and now we’re trying to catch the Academy up. We’re staying as a category two Academy so we’ll still have the same games programme, but we’ll also be introducing a new B team in-between the Under-23s and the first-team that will play friendlies against category one clubs and that type of opposition, starting from next pre-season.
Effectively, there will be two training groups next season – the Under-18s and the B team – but we will have three teams and three lots of fixtures. The Under-18 team will be comprised of mainly Under-16s and some Under-18s who need the fixtures, and the Under-23 fixtures will be played by the Under-18s in the majority so that they’re playing up a whole category up and testing themselves. The B team games will be played by first-team squad members and Under-18 or professional players worthy or capable of competing at that level.
How do you believe the introduction of a B team will benefit those players who are too old for Academy football but not quite ready for the first-team?
We want to be able to test our players against teams that are closer in quality to first-team opposition than to Under-23 opposition. If you’re playing against the likes of Man City, Bayern Munich or Ajax – as we did recently – it’s going to give a better standard of opposition and allow us to develop those players early enough to enable them to play first-team football further down the line.
Similarly, in what ways do you envisage asking younger players to play up an age group will have a positive impact on their development?
Nine of our 18 Under-23 players are now out on loan, which means there is space for Under-18 players to move up. That way we can find out between now and the end of the season whether they’re capable of playing at that level. At the same time, we’re going to see whether those players out on loan can hack it with first-team football and how they respond.
With the younger players moving up, we don’t want to overdo their physical output so we’ll make sure they’re looked after properly. We're trying to push the players up already. On Saturday we had several Under-15s playing for the Under-16s and they beat Coventry with a really good performance. It wasn’t just the fact they won, but even more impressive was the style and quality of their play.
How important is it to have a unified style of play across the age groups?
It’s vitally important we have a consistent message all the way through the age groups so that we’re training them to be able to play at the highest level.
We need to implement a style of play that’s conducive to producing players who are capable of playing in the Premier League. They need to be comfortable on the ball technically and able to receive and pass the ball, as well as physically coping with the stresses of playing at that level.
How do you envisage these changes assisting with player pathways through to the first-team?
It’s twofold. We’re looking for pathways with our younger players within our own Academy, and we’re going to look at each player on an individual basis rather than within a collective age group. If we’ve got a 15-year-old who we think is exceptional and will become a professional here we’ll look at that case individually. That might mean they’re offered a scholarship or a professional contract early. It’s important we understand how individual cases fit into the model we’re trying to produce.
Equally, having a B team will give another stepping stone for those players who aren’t making the huge step up from Under-23s to first-team football, which is difficult because we’re a Premier League club. It gives them another opportunity to show what they can do against better opposition. As well as developing younger players that are homegrown, it also allows us the potential to recruit players from abroad who can come in at 17, 18 or 19 and fit into how we want to do things, develop for a couple of years and then go into the first-team from there.
There will also still be the option of loaning players out, so there will be a lot of different ways in which we can develop them and as long as we can show them a pathway based on what stage of development they are at individually, I think we’re going to be an attractive club for players to come to.
Is the key ensuring the right opportunities to progress are made available to players, whether that be through overseas trips – like the recent one to Ajax – or moving up an age group?
There are certainly plenty of opportunities for our young players here and we want to give them even more opportunities. Going to places like Ajax and seeing a different way of training and playing, and coming up against overseas coaches, players and tactics, can only improve our players.
Allowing our younger players to train with the first-team is also a fantastic opportunity and it’s terrific that the first-team staff believe in the players enough to bring them into training. For instance, as we’re speaking, Lewis Gordon – who is 16 – is training with the first-team. It gives them a taste of the standards they’re expected to meet, and that comes from buy-in from the club and the Head Coach. You can dip the players into different age groups and see how they respond mentally, and it also shows them the areas they need to work on.
How much emphasis will you be placing on scouting talent from the Watford area?
That’s going to be key for us. It may be an idealistic way of looking at it, but you always want to see players from the local area playing for the club. That’s why you always hear fans singing about players who are ‘one of their own’, and we need to start moving in that direction.
We were previously looking at recruiting players into the Academy from a wider area but we’ve changed our recruitment policy so that we’ve got scouts in and around the Watford area. We’re trying to look for local talent in the local area as well as improving our relationships with the Watford FC Community Sports & Education Trust and local schools and clubs. By doing so we’re simply focusing our attention on the areas we feel would benefit us and the club better.
What would you say are the Academy’s main selling points when it comes to prospective parents?
It’s clear that the club is committed to investing in what we’re doing and helping to facilitate that progression and pathway. The proof will be in what we do next and it’s not all going to happen overnight, but we are starting the process and making some changes that we think will encourage more young players to come here.
We’re going to make the groups smaller and we’re going to accelerate their pathway, so they’ll be playing up a year because we want to test them and find out how they cope. We’re not going to push anybody too far so we’ll keep a close eye on them, but there’s a mapped-out pathway that we’d like to think will make it clear to everybody what their opportunities are. We’re also going to be improving facilities and we’re always looking at what we can do to make things better.
All in all, it appears to be an exciting time for the Academy?
I think it is very exciting. It’s admirable that the club sees this as an opportunity to improve the club as a whole and ensure more players are brought through. The B team creates another stepping stone to the first-team and it gives players a more realistic chance of achieving that goal. The prospect of being involved in something new and different is an exciting one for everybody in the Academy.
We need to be different because in relative terms we haven’t got the finances of the top clubs. We’re not going to be able to compete with established category one clubs like Arsenal, Chelsea and Spurs. We need a unique selling point, we need to be different, we need to be attractive to players and to show them a pathway that other teams haven’t got, and we believe the structure we’re setting in place will facilitate with getting young players into the first-team. If we find a local lad in the first-team in three, five or even six years’ time, and we can keep the conveyor belt going, we will be happy.
Watch behind-the-scenes footage from the Netherlands as Watford's Development Squad beat Ajax at their Amsterdam training ground: