Parent of Widnes starlet pays testament to the club’s youth development system

Earlier this week, Paul Delaney sent us this touching article about his son’s development following his involvement in Widnes’ Schoolboys Development squad. It was so good, that we felt the need to share it with you all to highlight the work being done by Super League clubs to improve youth development. Enjoy!

Now approaching its fifth year, Widnes Schoolboys Development squad is a unique Rugby League project for Y6/7 boys in the Widnes area. The project now has an ‘open invitation’, whereby any boy in the Widnes borough can sign up. The boys are challenged to be role models and ambassadors for their families, community clubs and Widnes Vikings RLFC. But what’s it like to be involved, both as a player and a parent?

It’s September 2015. I’m at a packed parents meeting at Widnes’ stadium, at the end of an eventful Super League season. Dave Rolt, former chief scout at Widnes Vikings and now head of commercial development, jumps on to the stage.

“This cup is one of my treasures,” Dave, chairman of Widnes Vikings schoolboys’ development squad, explains to the boys. Emotionally, his voice cracks and falters as he continues. “I was so proud to be playing for Widnes schoolboys in those days,” he says, still clutching his precious piece of silverware. “I never made it to Super League but there’s no reason why some of YOU boys, sitting right in front of me, can’t one day turn into Super League players!”

My son, George sits in that group of boys, hanging off Dave’s every word. He’s in Y7 and looking forward to his second year in the squad. Two years earlier, George’s brother, Harry, once listened to Dave’s same emotional speech. He’s still in the Widnes ‘system’, the winner, along with several of his old development squad friends, of a Widnes Vikings rugby scholarship.

George knows what’s coming – he’s in his second year. He’ll not only receive professional training from a team of dedicated, volunteer coaches but will also receive a free polo shirt and a black ‘hoody’, displaying the crests and badges of Widnes schoolboys development squad. And so his journey begins…

Roger Harrison MBE (on left)  and Dave Rolt, the chairman of Dev squad, stand alongside youngster George Delaney
Roger Harrison MBE (on left)
and Dave Rolt, the chairman of Dev squad, stand alongside youngster George Delaney

On a Saturday morning, George attends his first training session. Weeks later, he’s made a whole host of new ‘rugby’ friends for life. Soon, the boys are split into two squads, the Chairman’s XIII and the President’s XIII.

A Tri-Series competition is organized, consisting of three games of rugby league. I watch the first two games and I’m impressed with the ferocity of play and the well-drilled, competitive spirit of the boys. Parents and grandparents proudly watch from the sidelines, wondering which boy or boys will ever ‘make the grade’ as Super League players. I’m thrilled as George is chosen as the Presidents’ ‘Player of Merit’ on one occasion, his second such award in total.

Involvement in the Development squad isn’t just about Saturday morning training. Y7 boys are also invited to ball boy at all home team Super League matches. They’re rewarded with a pie, pocket money and a chance to see their Widnes heroes play.

Days out are organized, such as a trip to the pantomime and Manley mere in Cheshire, bonding the boys together. A ‘Pro day’ at Widnes’ stadium gives the boys a rare glimpse into life as a real professional player. One of the squad’s sponsors, Ste Jones from KT8 Photography is around all day, recording the whole day’s events, including a professional photograph of every player. Slowly, George grows emotionally and physically, not only as a rugby player but also in other areas such as dedication, self-esteem and confidence.

“The aim is to develop the whole person,” the President, Roger Harrison MBE says. “But eventually our project will enable more local lads to achieve the exacting standards that are required to play for Widnes Vikings at Super League level.”

Weeks fly by and soon it’s 27th February 2016 and the day of the ‘Tri-Series’ final looms. George is quiet and focused. I know he’s nervous but also incredibly excited about playing in the ‘The Clash of the Chemics’ final on the i-Pitch at the stadium. “Imagine how excited you’d be if you were ever playing in a Grand final,” I say to him as he packs his bag for training a week before the big event.

The day of the ‘Tri-Series’ final arrives. Harry has been here before so I know what’s coming and I’m filled with excitement, even as an adult. I know I’ll experience not only a wonderful game of boys’ rugby but a memorable presentation event afterwards. However, a tinge of sadness surrounds me as I realize George’s involvement in this unique project is coming to an end.

A wonderful match ensues and I’m pleased as George scores an impressive try. The final whistle blows and George’s team, the President’s squad, are the victors. However, the series result is equal – one win each and one draw.

We make our way into the Bridge Suite at the stadium and soon, the all the boys appear, dressed in their smart polo shirts. Roger and Dave take to the stage once more, delivering rousing speeches, accompanied by a delicious lunch. Generous sponsors are recognized and one of those, KT8 photographer Ste Jones, hovers in between tables, clicking away to record these magical memories for posterity.

Widnes Super League player, Tom Gilmore appears, a local boy and a product of Widnes academy who’s now ‘living the dream’. as Dave Rolt says. Every boy receives a prize – Widnes’ own hallowed ‘colours’ – an embroidered blazer badge to take home and treasure. Soon, it’s time for the main event of the evening; the presentation of the ‘Horace Shaw’ memorial trophy, named after a famous Widnes player of the 50’s.

Three nominations are read out: ‘Nathan Bannerman, Aidan Doolan and George Delaney’ – Strong, talented, and worthy candidates for this coveted award. Previous winners include Daniel McGahan, Widnes scholar Lewis Dodd and ‘Saints’ scholar Brandon O’Neill. Tears push into my eyes as George is announced as the winner, taking to the stage in his own, quiet and unassuming way.

George Delaney meets Widnes star Tom Gilmore
George Delaney meets Widnes star Tom Gilmore

George’s two-year involvement in Widnes Vikings’ development squad project is over but I feel this extraordinary experience will push him towards new heights. He’s grown in confidence, improved all aspects of his game and above all, cemented memories inside his young head that will truly last forever.