We spoke to Shrewsbury Town Academy's head of coaching, Liam Eaton, about the under-18s start to the 2022/23 season.
Shrewsbury Town's under-18s have enjoyed a good start to the 2022/23 season. They currently sit fourth in the EFL Youth Alliance League Group B just four points behind the league leaders with a game in hand.
They exited the FA Youth Cup in the second round when they faced Rochdale under-18s but are still going strong in the other two cup competitions they compete in: the Professional Development League Cup and the Youth Alliance Cup.
Most importantly, the academy has seen Josh Bailey and Declan Hutchings enjoy spells on the first-team bench as well as 12 youngsters making their professional debuts in the Papa Johns Trophy. This is all in addition to three scholars signing their first professional deals with the club too.
Liam Eaton is head of academy coaching and he sat down with Salop to discuss the success both on the pitch and off it.
On his reflections of the first few months of the season:
“It’s been up and down – I think it's been mixed at best. We certainly started the campaign extremely well. Good pre-season tour, lads getting fresh. I think they've bonded really well. Really that's down to some of the work we did do about this time last year. Of course, you've got to hit some bumps on the road and we’ve done that for sure.
“But I think in reflection on where we are, I'm really pleased. The group has bonded extremely well. There have been some excellent performances and, even in the performances that have not been where they need to be, individually and collectively, it's also given us a real opportunity for further growth.
“I think what you do at this point is you get to learn a lot about the players. This includes what they need from a footballing point of view but more than that, it might be what they need from a psychological point of view too. This helps to direct them to where all the players want to be. So yeah, in general I'm happy we're still competing. We're in a good position in the vast majority of competitions that we're in, so we can't complain too much, I guess.”
On the team's cup performances so far this year:
“It’s been good actually. The games come thick and fast, sometimes to the point you have to try and remember if we are in the league or in the cup today. I think that what we must do is prepare the players for games regardless. Of course, we look at the opposition, and then we align the way we want to play with our individuals. We attack each game as it is, whether it's a cup game or league game or whatever really, I guess doesn't, or shouldn't, make a big difference.
“The FA Youth Cup is of course a different one because it's a bit special. We get to play at the stadium, and yeah, we were devastated to exit. I'm not making excuses at all, but you know, there are many things that go into that you know from a selection point of view, we lost our centre forward on a three-game ban just before that and it hurt. What hurt more is the performance in the first half – it wasn't what we expect. The second half was much better, but again, great learning curves for the kids.
“In other competitions, we are doing well. For those of you who don't know, we're playing three cup competitions, we’re out of the FA Youth Cup and then we’re in two more. We are in the Professional Development League Cup and we play Birmingham City on the 4th of February – that's at their place – so I'm really pleased to have gone through that with a mix of CAT2 and CAT3 clubs.
“In the other cup we're top of our league, so the first phase is the league phase, and we're top of our league so we’re doing extremely well in that. We’re so bitterly disappointed to go out early in the FA Youth Cup, but in my opinion, we can really compete in the other two and we have a realistic chance of getting to finals and winning. We’re glad that we've still got eggs in those baskets.”
On the aims and goals for the second half of the season:
“So, I think we need to continue with the cup competitions. We've got that game against Blues in February. We must win that game and kick on to get to the semi-final. We've got a real chance in my opinion of certainly getting to a final.
“In the other cup, we’ve played well and are top of our league so I think we could do well in that. I would love to finish this season by winning something. I think that would be incredible. Odds are against us doing that, but I think it's within reason. It's certainly with the lads’ capabilities – to do something and maintain that position. We need to make sure that we don't become complacent and make sure that everybody within the club is focused on achieving something to continue to push players to get that opportunity in the first team.”
On players training and stepping up to represent the first team:
“It's everything. It is everything. This morning I've had to go and pick Dec (Hutchings) up because there’s a train strike. He's training with the first team and being with the first team means everything to them and us. That's what we're here for. I have to go pick him up and get him in, and I've been obviously on the grass with the gaffer and he's got his opportunity to play. Those things are everything to us and that's what it's all about. I've said it before in previous interviews, it's great that the gaffer gives us the opportunity to get players in, but also, he wouldn't do that if we didn't have players that were capable of doing it. It's brilliant having David Longwell in here because that gives the lads a genuine pathway.
“One thing I must say about our club for people that wouldn't know it, the transition to the age groups, and I mean from under-7s all the way up to the first team, is that it’s all linked one way or another. I could give you a million and one examples such as when the first team players came down and did some coaching at the sports village. It’s all about building that link between the youth groups and the first team and I think we’re doing a really good job with that.”