Colney Chat | Chris McGuane
By Kevin Affleck
Chris McGuane was slightly bleary eyed after adjusting his body clock following the successful trip to Japan with the Hornets' Under-18s, but he’s not lost any focus on his goal as the head of Watford’s productive Academy.
“The number one priority is to produce players that go and play in our first-team and have a long career,” says McGuane.
“But we have to recognise that there are 150 boys in our system. They are not all going to play in our first-team so part of our responsibility is to get them a career in the game.”
Watford do a damn sight better than most in developing their own: Carl Stewart became the 60th player to emerge from the Academy and play for the first-team when he charged on as a second-half substitute against Burton Albion in the FA Cup back in January.
The 61st may well, one day, come from the current crop of Under-18s who flew the Watford flag proudly in Japan recently, returning from the Far East with some silverware in the shape of the Global Arena Cup. The Under-18s also won their league last season which suggests the club are doing something right in the development of players.
“Yes, it’s nice to go and win tournaments and win the league last year but that isn’t the be all and end all,” says McGuane.
“It’s about experiences and development. Of course we want to win every game we play but, actually, in the longer term, sometimes it might be just as beneficial for their development that we go to these tournaments and lose in the semi-final or the final.
“The ideal would obviously be to win the league, win these tournaments and get 11 players in the first team but you have to be realistic.”
McGuane and his staff will not get too high after winning international events nor too low after the Under-23s are on the receiving end of a going over.
“We just try to be competitive and not lose sight of what our role is, which is to ultimately help these lads form careers,” he says.
“We want that to be here but if it isn’t, we want them to have a career in the game.”
To back up McGuane’s point, Sean Murray, Connor Smith, George Byers and Josh Doherty were all picked up by league clubs after they were released last season. Luke O’Nien, meanwhile, continues to earn rave reviews for Wycombe Wanderers. It shows the system is working.
“We are pushing forward and looking to add new things to the programme and develop and improve it,” said McGuane.
“We have built up a really good group of staff and we’ve got some young players that are starting to come through. We have seen Michael Folivi, Carl Stewart and Brandon Mason come through but there are younger lads who should come through over the next three or four years who we are going to be really proud of.”
For now McGuane is keen on developing more rounded individuals, as well as footballers, at the top of the academy system by taking them to places like Japan to play a 16-team tournament against local and international sides.
“It brings lots of benefits,” he said.
“The big one from this was playing six games in four days. It really tested them from a physical and mental point of view. Also, none of the lads had been to Japan and it gave them the chance to experience a different culture, different types of football, different opposition – you don’t get that in the programme we have got here.”
They also had to cope with adversity. Goalkeeper Andrew Thomas rolled his ankle in the first training session; Harry Forster missed a couple of games with a wrist injury while Ashley Charles rolled his ankle in a tackle. It put the small squad of 19 to the test.
“They’ll only benefit from playing against new teams, and playing games in such a short space of time shows them they can do things perhaps they thought their bodies weren’t capable of,” said McGuane.
“It also allows us to watch them closely. We know the players well any way: we know them inside out on and off the pitch. But being with them 24 hours a day you can see how much they are drinking, how much they are eating, what time they are going to bed, how they conduct themselves, who gets on with each other.
“You do find out an awful lot about them and pick up bits and pieces. You get more of an insight. The lads loved it.”