Under-23 Coach Hayden Mullins reflects on a season of progress for the Hornets' development squad.
How satisfied were you with the overall performance and development of the Under-23s over the course of the season?
“Under-23 football is about professional development and trying to progress players so that they’re ready for the first team – whether that’s here or somewhere else – and overall I think it was a very pleasing season.
“The most pleasing thing for me and the club is that we saw a lot of players go out on loan and perform really well. Andrew Eleftheriou’s playing in Norway’s top division, Alex Jakubiak was up at Falkirk scoring goals, Randell Williams went to a club that was promoted out of League Two and Michael Folivi ended up playing in a play-off final at Wembley, so it was a fantastic experience for them all and brilliant to see.
“I also thought the younger lads who stayed behind with us performed very well and they were excellent right up until the end of the season, when we finished with a 1-0 win, which was brilliant. So it was great to see them all applying themselves so well.”
You ended the season fourth in the table, having finished ninth out of 10 the year before. What do you put that progress down to?
“We all know that results aren’t the be all and end all at this level, but football is ultimately all about winning and that’s what I wanted to try and get into the boys this year. When you play, you play to win, so it’s pleasing to see that we finished in the top four.
“The players’ attitude in some of the games we’ve played has been superb. At Bristol City we were 4-0 down after 25 minutes, but we were 5-4 up after 50 minutes. Seeing them get back into that game and showing that character and will to win – even though we ended up drawing 5-5 – was fantastic.
“It wasn’t just that game either. The players have taken on-board what we’ve tried to instil in them and it’s been very pleasing. All the boys that have been involved have been outstanding and it’s been a pleasure to work with them this year.”
They certainly didn’t seem to know when they were beaten. Is character one of that group’s greatest strengths?
“Yes it is. The character and resilience they have is ultimately a big part of what they’ll need if they’re to make a success of it in the first team, whether that’s here at Watford or somewhere else.
“It’s not always going to be easy for them, there’s going to be tough moments and times when they’re up against it with fans and managers who are not happy with them, and you need that strength to get through these things in your career.
“I’ve said it to them a number of times, whether it’s here or at another club, they’re going to need that bit of fight wherever they go. They’ve responded well, they taken it on-board and they’ve showed it in abundance this year.”
It must be a tough task creating team spirit when the nature of Under-23 football is that personnel will change so much from game to game?
“The boys know each other well, they spend a lot of time training and playing together through the different age groups, but it is a challenge at times with players going out on loan and the Under-18s who step up having college schedules to work around. But that’s just the nature of it.
“The way they’ve taken things on-board has been excellent. We saw a lot of players go out on loan but then we’ve had the likes of Ryan Cassidy and Lewis Gordon – who are both first-year scholars – stepping up and they’ve both been excellent this year.
“You don’t always have a lot of time to work with the lads and get into them what the team requires of them, but it’s all part of their learning process.”
How important is it to be able to test younger players by playing them in a higher age group?
“You’ve got to remember that a lot of these players have been playing in the 16 to 18 age bracket, and then they’ve stepped up to Under-23s football and they could be playing against players of any age from 18 upwards.
“When we played Charlton they had Johnnie Jackson, who is now their assistant manager, and Jason Pearce, who is club captain. These guys are 30-plus and this is what our players are coming up against.
“When you step up to the first team you’re playing against players in their prime, and at Watford that means world-class players who are playing in the Premier League, so we’ve got to try and prepare them for that. The earlier you can expose them to that kind of challenge, the better it is for them.”
What's the challenge you’re setting the Under-23s going into next season?
“The challenge is to try and get as close to the first team as they can. When they come back into pre-season there’s always a chance to try and get yourself onto the first team’s pre-season tour, so that’s where it all starts.
“When I was a kid at Crystal Palace I took my chance during pre-season and ended up staying in the first team, so it’s important that they come back fit and ready to hit the ground running, knowing that they could have that chance to be in and around the first team.
“We know that bridging that gap from Under-23s to Premier League football is tough, but if we can push a few players that way next season it will be brilliant for everybody involved at the club.”