Walsall Head of Youth Dean Smith has admitted that attracting and keeping young players at the Banks’s Stadium is hard now that all the Saddlers West Midlands rivals are Premiership Clubs.
Aston Villa, Birmingham City, West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers might all be in the big time but Smith is confident that the Saddlers do possess one trump card – the well-proven fact that if a youngster excels at Walsall he will find himself playing first-team football as a teenager.
Richard Taundry, Manny Smith, Darryl Westlake and Will Grigg are examples of those to feature in the first-team squad during their teenage years and Smith inisists that this route gives players a realistic chance of carving out a career in the game.
“It is hard for us to find 11 players every year,” Smith said. “The big Clubs are trying to snap up players and that makes it a lot harder for the smaller Clubs like ourselves to retain the registrations of players when big Clubs are coming in and offering free boots and bags and whatever.”
“It’s a competitive industry but we know – and we have the stats to prove it – that we get players through into the first team.”
“To be fair, some of the Premier League Clubs locally do get players through – Villa and Wolves have.”
“But the Premier League is such a big industry that the likelihood of young British players getting through is minimal. Those players’ best chance to make a living out of football professionally is with a Club like Walsall.”
“The Premier League Academy system is a different type of game to ours. Sometimes you get a player who has played in the Academy system at a big Club and you have to re-educate them to our game. Whenever I watch an Academy game it’s ‘we have the ball then you have the ball’.”
“I’m not having a pop at Premier League Academies because that’s the way that league is turning with all the high-profile players on show all the time.”
“But there are not a lot of tackles being made. I love listening to Mick McCarthy who always says tackling is part and parcel of the game. If you look at some of the tackles that people are clamping down on at the moment, ten or 15 years ago nobody would have blinked an eye.”
“But our game and the game below the Premier League generally is very much ‘we have the ball and when you’ve got the ball we’ll try and stop you having it’.”
“That’s the way it has to be. When you come to Walsall Football Club and make it through as a pro then it’s all about results.”
While professional football offers many opportunities to young players the rewards can only come through hard work a point that Smith stresses to all his young players.
“I came through the Walsall system and made my first-team debut at 17 because I was a hard-working lad. And some things in football don’t change. One thing I tell the lads is hard work and attitude will get you a long way.”
“But a lot of things have moved on – sports science, nutrition, hydration. It’s a quicker game now and the boys have to be football athletes.”
“Our Apprentices are all on an athletic development programme when they all have their own website with individual training programme to run in conjunction with their football training. We try to cover every aspect we can to give them the best chance of making it as a professional.”