Northampton Lions head coach Howard Willmott has emphasised the importance of progress and development in his under-18s squad, as they prepare to kick off their new season in the Midland Junior Premier League today.
Willmott’s side will travel to Nuneaton for their first competitive match since COVID-19 restrictions suspended play, having enjoyed a positive pre-season campaign in recent weeks, including three friendly matches against teams from Market Harborough, Stamford and Corby in recent weeks.
The lengthy absence of matches allowed the Northampton Lions players to focus on their individual attributes, from technique with the ball, to building mental resilience, and Willmott believes it has paid off.
“This is the third year of under-18s, and the most complete squad as far as their attitude is concerned,” he said. “This group is switched on, keen to learn, and ambitious with their football.
“I’ve got a core of players who know what’s expected and set the standard for others who have come in. Three or four came from Sunday league and it’s opened their eyes to what proper training is, preparation for games etc. They are really good and don’t know what they are capable of, so seeing where we can push those players is exciting.
“The friendlies provided three different challenges, which is always good. The first game was just about getting everyone on the pitch again, and then we added more detail from each game. From the second to the third match, we made massive strides.
“This last week has been about refining what we are doing. If we can do that even more each week, we should be in a very reasonable place, especially performance-wise.”
Such culture evolves around more than just on-field attention, but vigorous theoretical preparation both independently and as a team, as well as completing a personal evaluation after every match.
“It’s getting into that cycle: preparation, game, review. I’ve had 100 per cent replies on the reviews for the games, so that’s really encouraging.
“Games are pretty much every weekend; [we’re] hoping to have played up to 12 by Christmas, so focusing on getting into that weekly habit will work well.
“Now we have finished the friendly period and we have a game the next three Saturdays, we can get into a really good routine while the lads are back at school or college, training twice a week.”
With this professional approach to football, Willmott’s expectations of his side are very straightforward, despite entering a new league in a world that is strikingly different to this time last year.
“The key thing is having a bunch of winners, as far as individual players are concerned,” he explained.
“If someone said you could win the league and have no players come out of it, or you could finish bottom of the league and have players who come out and really push on with their football, I’ll take the latter every day of the week. That is the essence of what we are all about.
“I want players who are going to be fit for purpose at the next level, whether that’s moving up to U21s football or the men’s game by the end of the season.
“We have put the culture in place, and they are following the process, which is the key thing.”