Watford's reliance on their academy has reduced following the Pozzo takeover, of course it has. But claims the club have abandoned developing their own players due to the vast number of foreign talents at their disposal is simply not true.
There were times Watford would regularly select 18-man squads with ten or more academy graduates. The financial circumstances arguably meant they had to.
But whilst that is unlikely to happen again, the academy and the players it produces continue to contribute to the first team.
Academy graduates have made 79 appearances this season and that is with Tommie Hoban, who has started two of the last three games, missing three-quarters of the campaign through injury and only having four outings.
Lloyd Doyley has remained a mainstay in the Hornets squad when fit and Sean Murray has featured in all bar 12 of the Golden Boys’ 49 games this season. Jonathan Bond has had 12 run-outs despite being second-choice goalkeeper and Bernard Mensah and Luke O’Nien were handed debuts.
Watford have yet to announce which scholars were handed professional contracts but we understand another four have been given deals – Jorrell Johnson, Josh Doherty, George Byers and Alex Jakubiak.
The claim about Watford not giving their home-grown players a chance was raised during an extensive interview with youth-team coach Dave Hughes.
“We have had Tommie Hoban, Sean Murray, Jonathan Bond, Bernard Mensah and Luke O’Nien all play first team football this year. Lloyd Doyley has also come through the academy. That isn’t a bad statistic, is it,” he replied.
Watford have access to players from around the world due to the Pozzos’ extensive scouting network and their links with Italian club Udinese and Spanish side Granada, who are also owned by the family.
That means it will become even harder for academy players to secure regular first-team football. A problem at almost every club in the Premier League.
But Hughes revealed every scholar has had the chance to train with the first team this season and stated it is up to the individual to then impress the head coach and his staff.
When asked if there had been a significant change in the way the academy is run since the Pozzos took over almost two years ago, Hughes stated: “No. We have been working the way we were previously. We are trying to develop players for this football club. That is the same at every academy in the country.
“We have had Bernard Mensah and Luke O’Nien make their debuts after coming through the scholarship programme 12 months ago which is testament to the academy. We are here to help players learn and develop as individuals so they get an opportunity of first-team football and that has happened this year.
“We see the first team players training on the next pitch along and I think every player in the scholarship programme has had the chance to train with the first team this season. That is massive for the lads and it helps reinforce what we are trying to do. The intensity and quality steps up another notch and we try to get them prepared for that step up in quality; we try to get them prepared physically and psychologically, as well as technically and tactically; to allow them to flourish at the next step up.
“The opportunity is still there to train with the first team and those who have trained with the first team consistently have had their opportunity and two scholars from last season have made their first-team debuts.
“It bodes well for the first-year scholars next season. What you have to do is when the opportunity presents itself, you have to lay a marker down yourself as an individual. We told them that if you get that opportunity to train with the first team, you have to take it.”
Hughes is passionate about youth development, that is evident every time he conducts an interview.
It is an ongoing joke among the local media that Hughes does the hard work for you because he talks a lot of sense without needing to ask him several questions.
The terms application and attitude were mentioned throughout the 25-minute interview with the Watford Observer last week.
The point being that thousands of children have the ability to become professional footballers but very few achieve their dream.
He also made reference to a quote mentioned in pubs and households across the country: “I could have been a professional footballer”.
Hughes explained: “If your attitude and application is there and you have the quality then you open up opportunities because you continually seek improvement in your game.
“There will be plenty of people not playing professional football now who say ‘it should have been me’ and ‘it could have been me’ but there will be reasons for that and there are reasons why players have long and successful careers, because they know how to utilise their ability and what it takes to be a top player.
“That is never more evident than when you see young players who have a willingness to train. We have lads in the scholarship programme who we have to tell them ‘listen, you have to come off the training pitch because you need your rest because we have a game tomorrow’ or ‘stop training because you are still in your recovery period following a game’.
“I don’t think you can ever underestimate the importance of attitude and application. It overrides ability for me because professionalism isn’t just a word players have at 3pm on a Saturday; it is a lifestyle and you need to live the footballers’ lifestyle to give yourself the best opportunity to be successful.
“That is the message we hammer home and not just on the training pitch, also with things like nutrition and lifestyle choices; allowing yourself to have the best opportunities to progress your career.
“I will never get away from reinforcing how important those two words [attitude and application] are.”
Hughes praised Watford’s youth players’ character and determination and stated they should be “hugely proud of themselves”.
Scholar Harry Kyprianou
The former Cardiff City and Shrewsbury Town defender, whose career was ended prematurely due to injury, explained how the staff and players set targets together at the start of the season based around the team’s “values and beliefs”.
He said some of the football played by the Under-18s this season was magnificent whilst recognising they can’t always dominate possession in the way they want.
The staff used data specific to each position and player to monitor their progression and to help set work loads.
At first-team level, results will determine whether managers retain their jobs and arguably if players will be given contracts.
But at youth level the focus is almost solely on performances. This was indicated by the fact Hughes wasn’t aware his team had finished fourth in the Youth Alliance South East Division.
He said: “I was speaking to the guys in the office about the league structure and I had to ask them where we finished. The league table might be important for the players but for me, winning the league is not the most important factor and it shouldn’t be.
“It is crucial that everything is done with a strategy, structure and a framework working towards a real core value and philosophy. We always try to carry that out.
“Were there set-backs? Of course but then the lads had the chance to learn from it.
“Over the course of the season, I can’t say anything but positive things about the lads and their attitude and application.
“Sometimes young players don’t realise that you can have all the ability but if your attitude and application is lacking then you don’t know how to utilise your ability.
“What I would say about our group this year is that their attitude to improve on a daily basis and weekly basis has been nothing short of phenomenal.”
Watford’s second-year scholars have been informed whether they will be given a professional contract or released, even though that hasn’t been released publicly.
For those being let go, the club have compiled individual highlights DVDs for the players and are trying to help them find other clubs.
The players are currently in the ‘regeneration and recovery’ phase. They are still training and doing their school work but the club are trying to keep them off their legs where possible to ensure they are ready for pre-season.
The Under-18’s players will have two weeks off in the summer before returning for the start of their pre-season and Hughes has stressed the importance of quality rest.
He said: “If you work hard in training then you need to rest hard when the opportunity presents itself. That is a key message to the boys. The players need to understand what rest is. It is not about walking around shopping, it is resting. You need to allow your body to recover and repair so you can then return and be ready to train hard.”
The scholars will initially return for three days a week for three weeks ahead of the first team returning for pre-season.
The Under-18s will be joined during that time by the club’s first-year professionals.
Hughes explained: “They will come in with the aim that they are ready and prepared to go to lay a marker down. We want them to catch the eye from the start and make sure they are physically and mentally prepared for the season.”
Watford confirmed the names of their first-year scholars at the weekend. Panos Armenakas, Jacob Cook, Andrew Eleftheriou, Michael Folivi, Max Makaka, Brandon Mason, Charlie Rowan and Connor Stevens have all joined the scholarship programme.
Speaking before the announcement, Hughes said: “I would say that the Under-16s who step up to become the first-year scholars have a benchmark set for them by the players and the players will ensure those standards will be continually met next season as well.”