'Without question the academy is important to Watford's first-team management' (From This Is Local London)
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Watford's head of academy: 'Without question the academy is important to the first-team management'
The calibre of players at Watford’s disposal due to the Pozzos’ world-wide scouting network means the first team no longer relies on its academy graduates like it used to.
In the past the Hornets named ten or 11 players from the academy in a match-day squad but that started to change before the Pozzos’ takeover, with Sean Dyche reducing the demand on the club’s young players with a host of more experienced signings.
Local boys such as Lee Hodson showed they could play at Championship level but the full-back was replaced by an Italy international in Marco Cassetti and that is the reality of the Pozzos’ recruitment system.
Some would use this example to emphasis the positives and some the negatives. Whatever your view, it seems unlikely Watford will name ten or 11 academy graduates in a league squad in the future.
But that does not mean the academy is no longer important to the club or producing Championship-quality players.
Last season the Hornets used eight academy graduates which was the second highest in the division behind Middlesbrough and this year the club have already named eight in their 18-man squad for their six games so far this season.
The regulation relating to the use of home-grown players – six of an 18-man squad need to have been registered in the English or Welsh leagues for three years before their 21st birthday – will ensure any temptation for clubs to name a completely foreign squad is not possible.
But Gianfranco Zola is a head coach who enjoys developing players. He took three scholars – Daniel Wilks, Carl Stewart and George Byers – on the club’s pre-season trip to Italy and Luke O’Nien joined Under-18s teammates Bernard Mensah, Tommie Hoban, Connor Smith and Sean Murray in receiving contracts in the last year.
Watford’s academy has been run by Chris McGuane since December, after the coach was promoted from his assistant academy manager position after Nick Cox departed.
McGuane said: “It’s without question – the academy is important to the first-team management and the club. This was highlighted again when our three scholars travelled to Italy recently as part of Gianfranco’s squad.
“Opportunities are there for our young players within the academy. The staff at the club have always shown an interest in how our young players are developing, as well as involving them with the first-team squad.
“It was a fantastic experience and learning opportunity for Carl, George and Daniel to be a part of the squad and they must now use the experience with the aim to fulfil their potential.”
Watford’s long-term plans regarding the academy have been emphasised in the last year with the club signing impressive talents from abroad in Panos Armenakas, 15, and Arie Ammann, 16.
“As an academy we are always looking to bring in the most talented players that are available to us and we are delighted that Panos and Arie, amongst other players, have joined the academy recently,” McGuane said.
“Recruitment is a key area within the academy and with the history of the club giving young players the opportunity to progress and develop is there for everyone to see.”
Watford are the first club in the country to have the full educational and footballing programmes linked together within one school, which is the case with the Harefield Academy.
It is a project which is sure to be copied by other teams in the future and has been recognised by other clubs not only in the UK but also abroad.
McGuane explained: “Opportunity is still a strong message we give our players and this won’t change. It’s our job as staff to make sure we continue to develop talented players who will play for our first team.
“We have a fantastic relationship with the Harefield Academy and the environment that is created for the players to train and learn on a daily basis remains unique and provides the boys with the best possible chance of achieving their ambitions.
“It’s important to us that we develop these young players both on and off the football pitch, both in their education in football and as individuals.
“Our academy and club has a fantastic reputation which will always attract players to want to play for us – we’re very well respected not only in this country but also abroad.
“I was in Holland earlier this year and people were coming up to me who know about our academy there so it’s not just here we’re recognised but abroad as well.”
Last year the Premier League's controversial Elite Player Performance Plan was implemented, which meant clubs needed to apply for one of four categorisations, with 1 being the highest and 4 the lowest.
With one of the leading academies in the country, Watford were initially planning to apply for category 1 but that would require millions of pounds of funding and the club would be entered into an Under-21 league.
The Hornets decided they did not want to pay the additional money or acquire more players to fill their Under-21 squad so opted for Category 3 status, while still continuing to run their academy largely the same as before.
When asked if the decision to become a category 3 club had changed anything at Watford, McGuane replied: “No, not in terms of how we operate the academy. A lot of hard work has gone in across the years and since I’ve been here we’ve got the same fantastic group of staff and we’re still delivering a programme that all connected with the club can be proud of.
“We constantly review things to improve what we do. There are changes that we would always make to improve our programme and what we do within the academy to still deliver the same quality that we have in previous years.”
He continued: “It’s still very similar in terms of what’s being delivered.
“I’ve got day-to-day challenges to make sure we deliver the highest standard programme for the boys and make sure we have the right environment for them to learn and grow.
“They have a fantastic opportunity to develop and improve so I wouldn’t say the roles for anyone are different.
“We’re always looking to improve and add things into our coaching programme and make sure we’re doing the best for them and they’re developing at the rate we need them to.
“We have created a unique and pioneering learning environment that maximises the potential of our players as well as forming a clear philosophy and style of play within our teams.”
On not playing in the Under-21 league, McGuane continued: “The variety of the opposition that we’ve been able to play is a positive. Each team we come up against offers our players a different challenge, different problems to solve, different styles of football to come up against and that's great for learning.
“We still play a lot of teams that are classed as Category 1 and Category 2 because of the reputation we have and the quality we have in the academy. So those clubs still wanted to have fixtures against us so for me to have those fixtures is a crucial part of our players’ development.
“The club is still very much supportive and behind what we’re looking to achieve looking forward to the future – there’s no question about that from my point of view.”
And are there any negatives?
McGuane replied: “Not for me because I don’t think the high quality programme that we offer our players has changed. We continue to enhance the experience for our players who are registered at the club. It’s a fantastic place to be.”
The most controversial aspect of the EPPP was the change to the compensation system for acquiring young players.
The new system hasn’t been implemented yet but instead of transfer fee disagreements for young players going through the current tribunal system – where fees can be reasonable sums and the outcome unpredictable – there will be set figures which will be determined by how long the player has been at the club. This system will almost certainly leave the ‘selling club’ considerably worse off when it comes to transfer fees.
But McGuane said: “I don’t see it [other clubs signing Watford’s best young players] will be an issue. I am confident that what we do, the environment we create and the opportunities available will mean players won’t want to leave this club.”
Should Watford secure promotion to the Premier League they will be due tens of millions of pounds.
Watford would then have a decision to make regarding whether to remain as they are or become a Category 1 or 2 club.
McGuane said: “We are always discussing how we will improve and develop the academy. You can’t stand still in football and we will always do what we believe is right for us as a club and the players in our care.
“We are very committed to the academy and want to improve all the time.
“We do discuss the EPPP internally regularly and will continue to do so.”
This article first appeared in Friday's Watford Observer.
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