FC Halifax Town: "It's really important they're involved in everything we do" - Links between youth team and first-team stronger than ever

It's no coincidence that Pete Wild's tenure at FC Halifax Town has overseen stronger links than ever between the youth team and the first-team.

Saturday, 20th November 2021, 9:33 am
Craig Waterworth, of Calderdale College, with Town boss Pete Wild and head of youth development Steve Nichol

Wild was an academy coach at Oldham Athletic for 10 years, eventually becoming head of the club's academy, while assistant manager Chris Millington worked alongside Wild in the youth set-up at Boundary Park.

Both are passionate advocates of developing and nurturing young players, so it's little surprise that, with them on the other side of the fence, Halifax's youth development programme has never felt closer to the senior setup.

"When we came here there was a complete divide between the first-team and the youth team, and that was no fault of the youth team," Wild said.

Craig Waterworth, of Calderdale College, with Town boss Pete Wild and head of youth development Steve Nichol

"But having been on the other side of it, having worked at a football club that produces young players, it was really important that we got a one-club mentality and everything that we did was through the whole of the football club.

"That was the first objective, we've tried to do that and over the last few years we've always had young players training with us, we've tried to develop young players, like Jay Benn.

"The more they're around our environment, the more they understand what we're after and the more we can work together.

"We work closely with them (the youth team) to make sure that the best players are getting an opportunity to train with us, we want to produce players here, to be football and financial assets for the football club.

Jay Benn. Photo: Marcus Branston

"So it's really important they're involved in everything we do. Milly is probably more their port of call than me at the moment, he has that working relationship with them, but I try to get to as many games of theirs as I can.

"Steve also sends me a weekly report on what they're doing and where they're up to, so there's complete synergy between the two environments.

"That's what we wanted, that's how proper football clubs work. If we could get in the Football League and get the category status that would be even better.

"But one of the biggest selling points we can offer here is that if you're good enough, you'll get a chance. That's what we want to get across to potential players."

"We speak regularly with the first-team staff about various aspects of the club," said head of youth development Steve Nichol, "whether it's about understanding how the first-team play or what their requirements are from youth team players, as well as the progress of players.

"I think we have a really good mentality at the club and good people who share a genuine interest in football with a passion to support the development of players across the club.

"Pete and Milly have been in our roles previously so they appreciate the time and effort that goes in and understand how they can support that, they know how to incorporate young players, and what's best in terms of creating a pathway for young players.

"There's a great pathway for players to progress here, or to give players a stepping to progress through other avenues in the game."

The most obvious example of the close ties from youth team to first-team is defender Jay Benn, who made an impressive start to the season as the club's first-choice right-back before picking up an injury, proving there is a pathway for young players at the club.

"That's what we had at Oldham, we brought through player after player after player, and that's what we want to do here," said Wild, who addresses new youth team recruits at the start of each season.

"I say to the youth team players at the start of every season, can I trust you in our environment, can I trust you in the classroom to do your stuff and give a good representation of the football club?

"I tell them what I'm looking for, tell them that the first boundary they've got to get over is the youth team staff, so they've got to be recommended by the youth team staff to us, and if they get over that boundary then they get their opportunity.

"I tell them every year what we're looking for and then it's down to them how they progress and listen to the quality staff we've got at youth team level."

"If they're good enough, they'll get a chance, but it's the whole package.

"Me and Milly know what it takes to produce footballers, footballers that are now playing in the Premier League, Championship etc.

"But what they will get here is the opportunity."

"We know when they’re ready Pete will give young players a chance with Jay Benn being the prime example,” said Nichol.

"Jay was on the verge of being released by the club at the end of his youth team programme because, at the time, there were two right-backs ahead of him in Jacob Hanson and Michael Duckworth.”

“Since the arrival of Pete and Milly he was retained, given the opportunity to continue his development by training with the first team and going out on loan. He proved himself in the leagues below although that process was disrupted by Covid due to the non-league season being curtailed, we have seen the rewards prior to Jay’s injury this season.

"When young players leave our youth team at the age of 18, it’s unrealistic to expect that many will be automatically ready for the first-team.

"They need time to develop and grow.

"We have had and currently have good players in the youth team programme, but it's about how we keep them developing beyond that.

“We know from Jay’s progress it can be done with patience, the right environment and a pathway.”

Nichol says it is a weekly occurrence that youth team players will train with the first team.

"We have two third year's at the club at the minute, who came out of the youth team last season," he said. "They're non-contract players playing for Eccleshill, who have been on a great run recently, they train with the youth team and first-team every week.

"We have a number of players who are up and down with the first-team on a regular basis.

"Sometimes it depends on what the first-team requirements are in terms of positions, but also it will be players that are performing well at that time."

Wild says Town's recent West Riding County Cup win against Ilkley, when a mix of first-teamers and young players was fielded, was a good example of how the two are being integrated.

"You look at the Ilkley game and how well they did mixed in with our players, they'd never played together before but they did really well on the evening," he said.

"We want a clear pathway from youth-team to first-team, at first-team level we want a pathway for the young players that gives this football club the next five, six years worth of players, so there's always players coming through."

Wild says there are similarities in both setups, such as the attributes of players they look to sign.

"But I don't want to hinder them from playing different systems, I think young players should be exposed to different ways of playing, so we're not as prescriptive as 'you must do this' and 'you must do that'," said the Town boss.

"It's more the attributes of the players and what they bring to the party."

"There's certainly a lot of similarities between how the first-team play," said Nichol, "what they look like, and what we're trying to do.

"But that doesn't mean to say the formations have to be the same, the formation may change to suit the players we have at that moment in time. There will be similarities in how we play with and without the ball.

"So if one of the youth team players steps up into the first-team environment, the terminology used and what they're being asked to do will be very similar, which will help them bed into the environment."

Nichol said efforts to strengthen the links further between the two setups is an ongoing process.

"It's continually evolving as the club and the youth programme move forwards," he said.

"We are looking at how we can bridge the gap from the youth team to the first-team, from the age of 18 to 21.

"There are a few different ideas that me and Milly have spent time working on that could enhance what we currently do."

"I think the recruitment's got better," said Wild, "and that was one thing when we moved Gav (Gavin Atherton, youth team head coach) up to his current role when Mike Jefferies left, that that coach needed to be as good at his networking and his recruitment as he is as a coach because we need to be in-front of better players.

"So we've gone a different way in recruitment, we've gone into the cat one, two and three clubs earlier and I think that's bearing fruit.

"The amount of Zoom calls I did with players and parents last year to help the youth team out and make sure they knew the first-team was on board with what was going on, I think that's massive and I'll continue to do that if the youth team need me to help them get a player.

"I know the feeling of when managers are having the youth team and want to be part of it, and I know the feeling when they're not.

"The best thing I can do is make sure I'm true to my roots and loyal to what got me here, and that was youth development."