Widnes Vikings have one of the most productive youth development systems in the game. MATTHEW SHAW looks at the factors behind its success
“They’re here to be Super League players, not Academy players.” – Under 16 head coach Ryan O’Brien
THE world of sport is a cut-throat business.
The inherent desire for results, the infatuation with victory and a sheer desperation for success have created a pressure pot requiring a tangible reward around every corner.
“Imagine the reaction when I said it would be ten years before we started producing players for the first team. Steve O’Connor nearly fell off his chair.”
Looking back to a conversation with the Widnes Vikings owner, those are the words of Phil Finney, the club’s head of youth performance, who, along with his driven set of coaches, has put results to one side in order to focus on the bigger picture.
Finney was appointed in 2009 with the task of producing a conveyor belt of youngsters who would one day represent the club in Super League.
“When we came in, it’s fair to say there wasn’t a great deal in place,” he explains.
“I’d worked for the RFL before as a performance analyst and there were very few Widnes players making regional squads. It would be fair to say there was quite a lot of work to do.”
One player Finney inherited upon his arrival was Danny Craven, who remembers vividly the plight of the youth programme when he was coming through the ranks at the start of Finney’s tenure.
“We were just a bunch of rejects stuck together who weren’t wanted anywhere else,” he recalls.
“I remember us training at night on the pitch with no floodlights.”
Roll the clocks forward nine years and the Widnes Academy has been transformed from a bag of balls and a dark training field to a set-up producing players at a rate which would be the envy of almost every professional sports club in the land.
In that time, the club has brought through a staggering 22 Super League players, 18 of whom remain, with many more set to follow in their footsteps.
But what makes that figure so remarkable is the hurdles they’ve had to overcome.
Sandwiched between Super League powerhouses in St Helens, Warrington and Wigan, the Vikings have often had to feed off the scraps left by other clubs.
“When we first came in there was a lot of focus on trying to recruit the best players who were 13 or 14 into the programme, but we couldn’t,” reveals Finney.
“What we found was we were getting players that other clubs weren’t interested in, but they still had something about them or had some skill.
“Physically they might have been off or they might have had a great work ethic but not had the skills.
“We started recruiting players like that. We were looking for potential. Everyone could spot the player scoring all the tries, but we couldn’t get near them.”
One player who fitted the Vikings profile perfectly was Matty Whitley, who joined after being let go by St Helens.
“I didn’t get offered anything else when I was released by Saints other than Widnes. I’d have probably just played amateur had it not been for them,” he says.
Yet, despite being deemed short of the required standard elsewhere, Whitley emerged as one of Britain’s brightest talents, and was recently named in the England Knights performance squad alongside fellow Widnes Academy products Tom Gilmore and Danny Walker.
Only Wigan and Hull boast more players in that squad than the Vikings.
By combining an eye for potential with rigorous research into players’ backgrounds, Finney and his team have managed to have incredible success.
“We started to realise that if we put them in the right environment and taught them the right way with lifestyle and nutritional support, they were starting to surpass players
much better than them who were snapped up by others at 14,” he explains.
“We put more emphasis on the psychological characteristics rather than physical ones.
“When we recruit players at 14, it’s the most volatile period of adolescence. You can get kids running round with beards and others who look like they should be at primary school.
“Some of those bigger lads who get recruited don’t get adversity thrown upon them until they get to 16, 17 or 18.
“Then when they’re caught up physically and they get a shot put on them the first time, they haven’t got the skills or ability to deal with it. Our boys have been put on their backsides since they were twelve.”
But Widnes’ scouting goes far beyond technical or physical abilities.
Equally important is the social upbringing of players, and how their past will define their future as a professional athlete.
“We’ve done a lot of work on our own players and there’s plenty of scientific research out there that looks at birth-order effect,” adds Finney.
“If you’re the oldest, you’re probably at a disadvantage, if you’re the youngest you’ve probably chased your siblings around, had to be competitive and fight for everything you get. They tend to be more competitive and have more character. They’re better equipped to be in an environment with older people.
“Danny Walker is a great example, he has brothers and I’m sure he’s had a few hidings off them.
“We saw Danny when he was playing for Rylands. He came running out as an Under 14 with a vest on. I was thinking, he better be good. That was my first thing. If he’s good I’m going to get him just because of his audacity to wear a vest. He’s another great example that this club is a great option.
“There’s a lot of factors like where they come from too. Some areas where there may be social challenges are important to us, they see Rugby League as a route to earning money and doing something really positive with their lives.
“A lot of our players come from socially-deprived areas and they seem to have more resilience and coping mechanisms. These lads can have developed these traits we’re looking for before they’ve come to us.”
With nods of agreement from Whitley, Craven and Walker, Gilmore says: “Phil likes to work with working-class lads who work hard.
“They’ll have come from an estate, and that’s all we are really. But we’re all hardworking.”
Craven reaffirms: “They won’t always pick the most talented player.
“Other clubs might just sign the so-called man-child of the younger ages but they get found out later on.”
Gilmore says of Finney: “Phil picks out players with a willingness to learn and a want to better themselves.
“Most of us have had a knockback in the past, but having that in common has stood us in good stead. We’ve been through adversity together but we’ve set the standard.”
A key cog in the development process is Ryan O’Brien, the Under 16s chief, who was a scholar with the Vikings before returning in a coaching capacity.
“We never send a team out to lose, we want to instil a winning mentality in these lads and that comes by nature, but if we take a step back after a loss and see it’s because we have a player who is physically immature or we tried someone in a different position, we will suck it up,” he says.
“Our goal isn’t results, it’s to influence them in becoming better people and instilling some values in them. We do try to make sure the lads leave the system as better people.
“We also adapt them to the rigours of the game. It’s all designed to help transition to the demands. They’re here to be Super League players, not Academy players.
“I like to win, but it’s accepting that it’s about development.
“I’m a Widnes lad, you just want your hometown club to be doing well. You have to swallow your ego, but you understand why. I think it helps keep them grounded too.”
To further ensure the youngsters stay humble, the club ensures all of them continue their education, which they balance alongside time on the field.
“When they sign here they register for a Level 3 BTEC national in sport,” says Liam Clark, the club’s education programme manager.
“That basically gives them the equivalent of three A Levels. It makes sure they can continue their education and also keep them here full-time.
“If a player doesn’t continue, then they have a backbone of education. And it looks good on their CV. They could apply for university or it looks favourable for an apprenticeship.”
At the age of 16, the club will decide whether or not to hand their scholars an Academy contract.
“We always offer them two years because we want to afford them the time to better,” says Finney.
“That’s really important, that they know there’s a pathway trodden by so many players.”
Those who are handed deals start working with Grant Gore, a former Vikings player who returned at a young age to take up coaching full-time and keeps in contact with first-team coach Denis Betts about the progress of the players.
“In a general week we’ll have them four times, so about 12 hours a week, and also I’m teaching the first years sports leadership,” he says.
“You always want to push them that bit more. But then you can put too much in and it can cause overload issues.
“I spent some time with Denis in the pre-season, I speak to him about players and the ones doing well, but the higher ones in the 19s are training first team anyway.
“If he needs a player he will take one no problem. As much as we probably don’t spend enough time on the field, there is still that communication so he knows who is doing well.”
With Finney’s ten-year plan well ahead of schedule, the club’s young, local stars are threatening to take Widnes to greater heights.
The likes of Gilmore, Craven, Whitley and Walker merely appear to have blazed a trail for others to follow.
The Chapelhow twins, Jay and Ted, have established themselves at the Vikings while other products such as Olly Ashall-Bott and Ryan Ince have shown tremendous promise at the start of their professional careers.
The future is certainly bright at Widnes, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed by those who have seen it all unfold in front of them.
“I’m hugely excited. I think potentially we’re on the cusp of doing something really special,” says Finney.
“My opinion is that having a core of local players is so important.
“Look at Barcelona, they have a strong culture of players from the Catalonia region. Look at Wigan Warriors, they have Wigan-born players. Manchester United in their height had players from their own area.
“When Widnes were successful, they did too. They had the Hulme brothers, the Myler brothers, an awful lot of Widnes boys in that team of world club champions.
“We have a way to go until that but you can see it starting to take shape.”
The players themselves are aware of the evolution taking place.
“We have something special here that money can’t buy,” believes Gilmore.
“We want to win something in our careers. I couldn’t be any prouder if I did that and looked around to see these lads around me. I don’t think there would be a better thing. I want to win with this town, my club.”
And Craven adds: “I think the ultimate goal has to be to have a starting 17 of lads who have come through the system here.”
That might seem a way off yet, but as Widnes’ bunch of misfits continue to defy expectations, it may come sooner than you think.
This feature was first published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 444 (April 2018) pictured. If you enjoyed it, why not consider taking out a subscription to read many more great features every month covering the whole world of Rugby League, from the grassroots to the international game and all points in between?