This week officially marked Youth Development Week – a campaign devised by the EFL to showcase the importance of the league and it’s clubs in nurturing talent both on and off the pitch.
The campaign is also being used to highlight the players selected for England’s World Cup squad who have featured in the EFL, come through academies at that level or made their debuts in EFL competitions.
Swindon Town have played a key role in the development of many big name players currently strutting their stuff at the highest level, whether they’ve come directly through our ranks or experienced valuable loan spells at SN1.
The likes of James Milner and Matt Ritchie are among some of the most familiar names, as well as our very own Ellis Iandolo.
Once more, current First-Team Head Coach, Scott Lindsey, has shown faith in some of our academy prospects by including them in the Carabao Cup and EFL Trophy this term.
We’ve seen teen aces Abu Kanu, George Cowmeadow, Harry Parsons and Harvey Fox handed some playing time on the big stage among others, and what better time to catch up with a couple to talk about their experiences here in the Swindon youth ranks, as well as their aspirations for the future.
We grabbed some time with current Town hotshots Anton Dworzak and Tom Wynn-Davis, who themselves have been called up by Lindsey in cup competitions this season, to delve a little deeper into life in the academy.
We’ve also spent some time with our Head of Player Care, Ben Hawkins, to find out more about the importance of his role at the club in developing our youngsters as good human beings as well as footballers.
Tom began his journey with our Foundation setup where he stayed until he was 13.
He quickly made the transition to the Under-14s in our academy before he was offered a scholarship.
The 17-year-old made his first-team debut for Swindon in our opening EFL Trophy group game at home to Crystal Palace Under-21s back in late August, coming on as a second half substitute in place of fellow academy starlet Abu Kanu. Here is what he had to say.
Tom, talk us through that debut against Crystal Palace earlier this season…
“Ah it was absolutely crazy. I’ve been a season ticket holder at the County Ground since 2010, so it was a massive moment for both me and my family.
“I really appreciate the gaffer giving me the chance to come on and get some first-team experience.
“It was mad playing at the stadium in front of all those fans. I had to pinch myself at times.
“I felt it was a real honour to pull on the shirt and will always be grateful to the club for developing me as a young player.”
We have some great coaches here at the club. How have they helped you in your development over the years?
“They’re superb here. Every day they are looking at new ways to make us better and put in the extra work to help all of the academy players, and this is both on and off the pitch.
“Our manager Lee Peacock is great. His knowledge is incredible and he’s great at explaining different aspects of the game in depth.
“As soon as we get off the pitch he asks us questions, getting us to reflect on our individual and team performances.
“His determination for us to do more on the pitch is second to none, especially around analysis, which really helps me improve my game through watching myself back.
“Ben Hawkins has been really big for me too. He's not actually a coach but in player care, and he has really helped when I have struggled mentally both on and off the pitch. I really appreciate him here.”
Talk to us about your hopes and aspirations for the seasons ahead?
“I’m looking to go out on loan if I can and gain some experience playing men’s football.
“I’m keen to learn new aspects of the game to understand it better, with a view of starting to breakthrough next year, hopefully.
“I’m committed to doing well and improving all the time, and Swindon Town is crucial to that.”
Which first-teamer at the club is someone you look up to?
“This has to be Jacob Wakeling and Luke Jephcott, who are both strikers like me.
“They run their socks off every game and work so hard for the team, using their energy to create chances for themselves and others, so I’m keen to focus my game around those qualities.
“They are both young too and have had to come through the youth ranks, with Jacob stepping up and going back down to non-league before his next break, so I want to show the same dedication he has in my career.”
Like his compatriot Tom, Anton is also just 17-years of age, but has been with the club from a young age.
He joined Swindon when he was just 10, and four years later found himself playing for the Academy side in Holland as they went on tour, claiming the tournament trophy over there.
He went on to make his under-18 debut when he was just 15, and was offered a scholarship to extend his stay at SN1 shortly after.
Although he featured in a couple of pre-season friendlies for Scott Lindsey’s Robins in the summer, he made his full debut in the Carabao Cup defeat to Walsall back in early August, replacing Jonny Williams just after the hour mark. Here’s what he had to say…
As well as being in the youth team, you have made a few first-team appearances. Talk us through those experiences?
“I was very, very nervous to be honest, but for a youth player who has come up through the ranks here it was a dream come true and a huge honour.
“That's what you're working towards your whole career. I really, really enjoyed it and it was a great experience for me.
“I learnt so much in the half an hour I was on the field, plus the nerves seemed to just disappear straight away once I got going.
“It was so good to be alongside other experienced players who have been playing for years and that can only help me develop and grow as a player.”
How would you say the club has helped you with your development so far?
“I have had lots of coaches over the years, and they’ve all played an integral part in helping me grow and get better.
“Many have spent time taking me to one side and talking to me one-on-one, which has helped me reflect on my game.
“Macca, who sadly passed away, had a really big impact on me.
“I remember getting sent off in one game after losing my head but he set me straight immediately.
“I still remember that conversation and since then, it's really had an impact on how I've controlled myself during matches.”
What's it been like playing alongside other Academy players in the first team?
“It's such a good thing to see your mates on the same pitch in the first-team setting as you’ve been playing alongside them for many years, and because they are the people you want to make it.
“We’ve got a really strong bond in the under-18s and everyone gets on well. Everyone is keen to see each other succeed and you’re all in it together, so when the time comes, it’s extra special.”
Which current crop of first-team players do you look up to or shape your game around?
“Louis Reed is a player I look at a lot. He plays in a similar position to me and is so composed with great technical ability.
“But also, I look up to Mathieu Baudry. The way he conducts himself and plays is great. He is a good person too and is a great role model.”
What are your aspirations here at Swindon and beyond?
“I want to be a regular starter in the team, that's my overarching aim here at this great club.
“I’ve made my first appearance under Scott in the cup competitions, and next up is getting a chance to play in League Two, which would be incredible, but I’m staying grounded.
“Then, if the club can get promotion to League One, I’ll just keep going from there.”
You’re currently on a youth loan at local side Highworth Town, and made a statement in your first fixture for them scoring a goal – talk to us about this move?
“I was a little bit nervous as it was a completely different environment and type of football that I’m used to.
“But I just did well and adjusted to their style and obviously got myself a goal which was an amazing feeling.
“Whenever you play you want to make your mark and send out a statement, and this move is going to be really good for my development.
“I want to continue giving it my all and hopefully this will be another successful stepping stone in my career, and I’m grateful for the chance.”
Life off the field…
Behind the scenes, our dedicated staff continue to work tirelessly to make the club tick.
One of our most important roles across our youth setup all the way to the first-team is ensuring our players have the help and support they need.
Ben Hawkins is Head of Player Care, and as part of the EFL’s Youth Development Week, we caught up with him to find out a little more around his job description and it’s importance.
Ben, talk us through your role here at the club, a bit about your career and how long you’ve been here?
"My role this season is Head of Player Care and it is hard to put in to words exactly what I do, but it’s essentially looking after players day-to-day with their off-pitch concerns to hopefully help with their on-pitch performance.
Alongside the support role, I also oversee the personal development and life skills programme for all players from the Under-9s, right through to our young first-team players.
“I have been with Swindon since the summer of 2021 and worked across player care, education and safeguarding, as well as wider operations at the club.
“Prior to joining Town, I studied psychology and have spent the majority of my working life as a senior leader in education and wellbeing."
Your role is a really important one at the football club, give us an overview of a typical day?
"A typical day? what’s that!?
“I don’t have a typical day and that’s what is great about the role, but to give you an insight from the last two days, I have been out to support the Under-18’s training as well as in the classroom for their education, attended a meeting to discuss our current crop of loan players, held one-to-ones with players and managed to squeeze in a visit to St George’s Park to understand the pathway to the national team and how to support players who are selected for England.
“This is not a one-off as staff development is big at Swindon and they are regularly supported with enhancing their skillsets.
“So as you can tell, no two days are ever the same and I’ve only scratched the surface there. I haven’t even mentioned parents and host families which is a large part of my role!"
Working with young players is just as key as those in the first-team, how does your role contribute to helping them in their careers and as people?
"My role spans across the whole journey from working with the Under-9s right through to the first-team. I actually met with two first-teamers prior to this interview.
“My work differs as a player transitions through the system, but proactive support and personal development with the younger age groups is a priority, as I believe - and this is backed by research - that there is a real benefit in developing the person off the field to help their chances of having a fulfilling career and just as importantly, preparing them for life’s challenges after football, whenever that may be.
“We offer an extensive personal development programme to all our academy players which includes, but is not limited to, emotional and mental wellbeing, social and psychological skills, as well as financial and cultural education, particularly during their apprenticeship years as we have more contact time with them.”
How do you see your role developing moving forward?
“More of me really. Growing the player care department to offer even more support and personal development.
“For me personally, it’s about constantly learning and developing in order to best prepare our young people. We are also looking to add more social and cultural experiences for the players as time away from football is equally as vital.”
We have a good youth setup here at the club heading in the right direction, what other work are you and the academy staff doing or have in the pipeline to continue improving youth football at the club?
“Obviously I am bias, but I cannot even begin to explain just how exciting the Academy setup is currently.
“We are very fortunate to have a great team of staff and young players that want to learn and develop. Although, we’ve mainly spoken about my work with players, a lot of my role is working with staff to help create a culture that is really positive and person centred.
“I’m delighted to share that we are enhancing our partnership with GoAgain and will be adding a Sports Psychologist to our programme.”
We have some exciting prospects coming through the ranks, many of which have featured in the first-team already and are heading out on loan – how encouraging is this?
“Really exciting, and it’s great to have the support of Scott and his team in creating this pathway to the first-team.
“We hope to see more of our young players experiencing men’s football before the campaign is over.
“New this season, we have created a ‘loans committee’ and we meet weekly to discuss the players out on loan and those who would benefit from a loan move.”
Finally, how important are awareness campaigns such as Youth Development Week to promote the great work clubs do behind the scenes and on the pitch?
“It’s important to recognise EFL youth development in this country as there is so much great work going on across the country and our club.
“With Gareth Southgate announcing his England World Cup squad this week, I bet many of those players will have played in the EFL, been developed by an EFL academy, or made their debut in an EFL competition, and that is just highlighting the on field success that youth development has had.
“There are young people thriving all over the country in other industries thanks to the skills they’ve developed in the academy setup.”