Despite only making one start for the senior team, Sam Winnall believes without his upbringing at the Wolves Academy he would not be playing in the Football League today.
Now plying his trade at Sheffield Wednesday, Winnall was plucked from grassroots football in Wolverhampton and made his way through the Academy set-up. But injuries meant the popular goal scorer only played one game for his hometown club.
First of all Sam, can you start by telling us how you first became part of Wolves Academy?
I was 11-years-old when I first joined Wolves and it was like a whole other world to me at the time. I was used to playing out on the streets with my friends, so to have this sprung on you as a child is such a massive change. I went from playing for Tettenhall Wood, who I was with from five-years-old, to being at the biggest club in the area. Being a local lad I knew a lot about the club and it was a dream to be signed by the Academy. It was a big challenge, but something I loved and I’m really proud to have been part of it.
What are your earliest memories of being a member of the Academy?
Probably my first game. We played Derby and I think we won 5-0. It was such a good day for me personally as I scored, which I think really took the pressure off straight away and also helped me get started off on the right foot. With it being my first game in a Wolves shirt I wanted to make a good impression. Scoring on your debut makes it so much easier on a young player.
Did you find it tough to make the transition from playing football with your friends to being part of the set up at Wolves?
The move was life changing. I was aware of having the pressure on me, but we all knew it would be a challenge as there was always someone waiting to take your place if you didn't perform. We knew we had to improve because there was such an influx of great young players. Being part of the Academy was something I really loved and I thought the staff were always looking to get the best out of me. Anyone who gets a place there knows how hard they are going to have to work. Many good players have gone on to have great careers, and although the players I was with may not be at Wolves currently, they are doing well at other league clubs. That is because what you learn at Wolves puts you in a great position to succeed.
You signed your professional contract with Wolves in 2009 at the age of 18. How did you feel making the step up out of the Academy and into the senior side?
It was probably tougher than I expected it to be, but I really enjoyed it. My first year was a difficult one because I tore my cruciate and was out for the first eight months of the season – which was devastating. But the club were great with me and helped get me back playing. When I came through, Wolves had just got promoted into the Premier League, but all the guys in the squad were great with myself and the other younger lads. I loved being part of such a good, strong squad.
You made your long-awaited debut at the start of the 2010-11 season against Southend in the League Cup. How did it feel to finally make your first senior start at Molineux?
Absolutely amazing. It was one of the proudest moments of my life and a fantastic feeling for myself and my family. I had all my friends and family in the stands for the game, and although I didn't score I was given man of the match and the whole occasion was brilliant. I learnt so much from the experience and is something I will never forget.
That game was your only match as a senior Wolves player, would you have liked to have made more appearances for the first team?
Obviously it was disappointing, but I always knew it would be tough to break into the side. That is probably the one thing I look back on and wish would've been a bit different. At the time it was hard because Wolves were in the Premier League and obviously all the emphasis was on staying up. It is never easy as a young player to get a game when clubs have so much pressure on them to avoid relegation.
Finally, what specifically do you think Wolves Academy did to help you become a successful professional?
The Academy had a massive impact on me, but not only did it teach me about football, it also taught me about life and helped prepare me for the future. The grounding you get is so important and the staff and players push you to be the best you can be. I have to thank all the staff who were at the Academy when I was there as they have helped me become the player I am today.
This article first appeared in the Wolves versus Southampton matchday programme, which is available around Molineux on matchdays for just £3.50, and also featured content with Ryan Bennett, Leo Bonatini and Laurie Dalrymple. Back issues are available in the Molineux Megastore and online now.