In the third and final part of our extensive Q&A with Widnes CEO James Rule, the club’s Academy and future vision of the Vikings come up for discussion.
MS: The Academy. People say the club is too reliant on the young players coming through. What’s your response to that?
JR: Every supporter I’ve ever spoken to in various guises says that it’s crucial to have locally developed players who understand what it means to play for their home club.
Everyone in Widnes refers to the great 1989 team. Perhaps the two names that are mentioned most are the Hulme brothers, who were locally produced and are still revered on the terraces. You need that sense of local identity.
Beyond that, a strong academy system allows you to build a culture. You can bring people in, but there are real advantages to having a core group who live and breathe – and have grown up – in your club. We’ve developed a tough, hard-working group of players that have been with us since the age of 14, and they are now coming to the fore.
In terms of over-reliance, yes, we had to use some of our young players more than we wanted last year. It’s a fact of life that you need to draw on your wider squad, if the senior players are injured – you can’t turn around and say ‘the young lads aren’t ready’. They faced a baptism fire and they stood up to it. The improvement in the players over the year was enormous and you can only get that through experience.
I believe that they will be the mainstay and a backbone of the club for a number of years. They want to commit to the club. Yes, we’ve had to use them more often than we’ve wanted to at times, but I think it’s a source of pride rather than a source of criticism. I would dare say a number of clubs in Super League last year would have struggled more than us, having to go down to their 40th player on their roster.
MS: Ultimately, with a club that has financial challenges, is an Academy system more cost-effective?
JR: Yes, in some ways. When you bring in overseas players, you naturally have the additional costs of flights, accommodation. When you develop your own players, there aren’t transfer fees.
That being said, you have to recognise the significant cost in terms of man-hours and finance that comes with investing in players along their journey from being a 14-year-old to a Super League debutante. Our strategy has been centred on finding and developing the players who can take us to the next level in the future, so is one that has required patience and commitment – and still does.
We don’t low-ball the players coming through the academy, but you don’t have those costs of bringing a player from another country or signing fees. The players coming through know that if they break through, I’ll be knocking on their door to reward them before they knock on mine. We have a track record of extending the contracts of a lot of players early, to recognise their progress.
MS: What is the long-term what is the vision for this club?
JR: Ultimately, we want to see success on the field. Our whole strategy has been focussed on developing and investing in that nucleus of lads who have come through our system, who have the ability to take us forward and live and breathe this club. It’s been exciting recently to hear interviews from some of our young players, like Matt Whitley and Brad Walker, where they say that they believe that if the current crop of young players can stay together and fulfil their potential, we can collect silverware.
The exciting thing when you talk long-term is that we haven’t hit our potential yet. We’ve developed a fabulous academy, but it could be better with more resource. What we do in the community is to be applauded but there’s still huge potential. What we’ve started with Beat The Scrum has brought significant investment into the club and could make a real impact on the NHS. With the new heads of terms with Halton Council, there are opportunities we’ve never had in the stadium to drive commercial partnerships. Obviously, there’s real scope, if we can develop our attendances and additional revenue streams, to invest further in the playing group.
If I flip that coin, I see the long-term as challenging to truly compete if we can’t retain that nucleus of support. You need a hardcore of support. Our membership has averaged around 3,000 people since 2012, we need to nudge that up to around 5,000. Our attendances have ebbed and flowed, averaging around 5500, but we really need to get up to around 7000. During the licencing years, they said you need 10,000 average gates to be a sustainable club; however, we recognise that it’s not realistic for us, with the limitations our population base, which is why we need to work so hard on our additional revenue streams.
We have to make people proud and I understand the first thing to do is to win matches, but I hope people can be proud to see their club developing so many homegrown players and the overall progression that has been made since the return to Super League.
MS: In the short-term, what do you think can be done better?
JR: We’ve spoken a lot about injuries. Naturally, as such a critical issue to us, we have taken steps to mitigate and control these challenges, to the best of our abilities. We overhauled our performance operation, bringing in two new conditioners and more closely aligning our medical and conditioning operations. Unfortunately, the injuries we’ve seen this year are the uncontrollable breaks, concussions and serious ligament injuries that come with high-impact sport.
I think we could have a higher number of off-field staff. People criticise fan engagement, but we have a media team of two people over all platforms, and they’re working incredibly hard to keep people connected with our club. We’ve got a small team in all areas our back office, who are utterly dedicated to pushing this team forward.
We want to better connect with local people and there are some great examples of efforts to do that, like how we give hundreds of young people the chance to play at the stadium before every home game and the efforts we’ve made to offer special experiences to people facing difficult challenges in their lives, but there’s more that we can do. We’re trying to be as accessible as we can, and the players are out every day, working with schools, community clubs and local people.
I think we could improve with more resource, as more resource generates more opportunities. But overall, I’m very proud of the progress we’ve made against the constraints we work within.
If we had a blank cheque, I would love to do more with our matchday experience. At the stroke of a pen, I’d love fireworks before every game, a live band, giveaways, master blasters. The tough reality is it takes finance. Do we want to spend £3-4,000 a game on that or sign a player? You can’t let your heart rule your head. We’re looking at ways that we can enhance our matchday experience, and still focus on the other priorities we have.
We’re genuinely grateful for the contributions of our supporters, because their investment helps make progress possible. Their investment in watching games, buying membership, shirts or lottery memberships, all makes an invaluable contribution to our growth. If we can continue to work hard to grow off the field and build upon the foundations that our supporters give us, there’s plenty of exciting things that we can achieve together.