David Longwell sat down with Salop to discuss the under-18s’ season so far and the pathway to the first team Shrewsbury Town provide.
A pathway to the first team is what every academy should strive for, says Shrewsbury Town’s Academy Director David Longwell. This is his first season in the role, a step up from his previous position as Academy Manager, and with success stories like Charlie Caton, Louis Lloyd, Callum Wilson, and especially Tom Bloxham, who have all featured for the first team this season, Longwell is proud of the pathway Shrewsbury Town have provided their players this season.
“The most important thing in any academy is that players can progress,” he began. “I think that’s the main reason I came to Shrewsbury: because we had a plan in place to bring players through. You’ve got to give players opportunities to improve and progress and I think we’ve managed to do that with Tom Bloxham, who’s a fantastic story and is now playing regularly for the first team. It’s what the academy is about, to try and give those opportunities.” Bloxham has become a regular face in Steve Cotterill’s side and has played 19 games so far this season, the most of any academy graduate. The forward came to Shrewsbury as a left-winger, but the academy developed his abilities so he could play as a striker and a right-winger – the two positions he’s played for the first team.
But he’s not the only player who’s made his way through the ranks at Salop, Longwell went on: “I think we’ve got a good crop of players [in the academy]. You’ve got Charlie [Caton] who’s in the first team and is a very good player, he’s really improved. I look at him in training and how he’s developed because young boys develop at different times both physically and mentally and he’s really progressed over the last few months.
“If you look at this year alone, you’ve got the Papa John’s Trophy game where Louis Lloyd scored, Callum Wilson played, it’s a great sign when you’ve got players moving through like that. Obviously, you’ve got Ben Kaninda, Kade Craig, and Jaden Bevan also around the first team so there’s a good crop of players there. The biggest thing about Shrewsbury is that there’s a pathway. The challenge is to put Shrewsbury on the map and make players want to come here because we have a strong academy which I don’t think we have had in the past.”
A big part of providing this pathway is the staff who work with the under-18s. Following the additional first-team duties Longwell acquired in December of last year, the academy needed to be restructured over the course of 2021. “We had a little bit of a restructure after the managers came in a year ago,” he went on. “I moved to the first team, and we got a new under-18s coach called Kyle Kirby which we’re delighted about because he’s come in and done a really good job with the boys. We restructured part of the academy with Charlie Musselwhite and Rob Williams overseeing the day-to-day running of the academy; Charlie as Academy Manager and Rob dealing with the coaching and all the stuff we did before."
As well as restructuring the coaching side of the academy, Longwell also described how they changed the recruitment tactics to ensure they provided the best base possible for the first team. “Gary Warton - who’s head of recruitment - worked really hard to try and improve the quality of players we had so we could provide the best base for the first team. When you look at a lot of our second years, we’ve got a very good, strong group and when you look across the team, a lot of the players we recruited and brought over as part of the academy we feel are good players. There’s a really good balance and a good base and any team that’s got the right attitude, mentality, and work-rate he's got a really good chance. I think the boys were like that at the start of the season when they were really organised, they were at it, and they won a lot of their games.”
Shrewsbury’s under-18s play in the EFL Youth Alliance League Group B, a competition for EFL academies, and each of the four groups are regionalised, with Shrewsbury in the North-western group. “The under-18s started really well this season,” said Longwell, “they won their first five league games.” The campaign began with consecutive 3-0 wins against Fleetwood and Morecambe before further victories over Accrington Stanley, Tranmere Rovers, and Rochdale. On this run, Shrewsbury netted 13 goals and conceded just two.
Since that outstanding streak, Shrewsbury have picked up one win from five games but, Longwell went on, it’s not necessarily a bad thing for the squad: “recently they haven’t been doing so well, but that’s because a few players moved up to the first team. Obviously, when we move them up to the first team, it takes them out of the 18s’ side so even though the results haven’t been as good, that’s not really the end goal for us. The end goal is trying to get more players through over the coming seasons.”
Alongside the league, Shrewsbury’s under-18s play in the EFL Youth Alliance League Cup. They finished second in Group 2 with five points from three games, defeating Burton Albion – the group winners – and drawing with Port Vale and Walsall. In the Emirates FA Youth Cup, they came up against Scunthorpe United at Montgomery Waters Meadow. Unfortunately for Kyle Kirby’s side, they conceded the only goal of the game early on and bowed out of the competition in the first round. “There was a point this year where the cup competitions were the main incentive, we always want them to go as far as they can,” Longwell explained. “They were unlucky against Scunthorpe, conceded a goal through a mistake, and just couldn’t score.”
This mixed run of results leaves Shrewsbury Town’s under-18s in seventh place, just inside the top half of the table. They find themselves 13 points behind league leaders Carlisle United but with four games in hand. However, Longwell prefers how Shrewsbury are running things: providing a pathway and teaching their players to play attractive football. When discussing the league table, he said: “there’s a lot of clubs in the division who want to just play long-ball football and they just want to win the game and praise being top of the division; it’s nonsense. We’ll always try and play football the right way and there will always be a variation about it, we’ll try to play out from the back or there will be times we look to go long if the opposition does. But it won’t just be us punting the ball forward to try and win games because I don’t believe that’s the right way to develop players. The main goal is to develop the players but within that, they’ve got to have a winning mentality, that’s part of the development, they’ve got to want to win.”