Episode five of Ask Wolves series two features Jon Hunter-Barrett, Academy manager for football, as he gives a look into the inner workings and vision of the club’s Academy, promoting young players, progressing pathways and the integration of the women’s and girls’ teams into the Academy.
Johnny Phillips: Jon, can you give us a brief overview of what your role is at Wolves?
Jonathan Hunter-Barrett: In essence, myself and Laura [Nicholls] basically split the head of Academy role, so my responsibilities are mainly the football and performance side of the Academy. I have two major things that I try to look for: identity – in the way that we play, in the way that we try to behave, and then also players and making sure that our boys are supported with the development throughout the programme.
JP: And the development of the Academy has really captured the imagination of supporters, so I’ve got a few questions to fire at you. What is the ultimate vision of the Academy, because the Youth Cup run in particular really did capture the imagination?
JHB: Absolutely. I think it’s easy for us to utilise things like the Youth Cup, or the under-15s in the Floodlit Cup, or the under-23s in the PL Cup or getting into the play-offs semi-final, but ultimately, our aim is to produce players for our first-team, produce players for loans or for sales.
JP: So, on that basis, what’s the right balance between the home-grown players or bringing in foreign and overseas players?
JHB: It’s always difficult to say really on that one. I think from my perspective, we always want to develop home-grown players and we want to see home-grown players playing for our first-team.
JP: Is it realistic to expect home-grown players to make it in the first-team at Wolves?
JHB: I think so, yeah. If they’re supported and they’re challenged and they’re developed in the right way, then there’s no reason why not. I mean, we’ve seen it already with the likes of Morgan Gibbs-White, the likes of Luke Cundle obviously making his debut this year, and Chem Campbell, and those are the things, ultimately, that we’re really proud of.
JP: We saw Luke Cundle get a first-team debut this season in the Premier League, how proud does it make you and your staff when that sort of development goes all the way to the top?
JHB: I mean we are all tremendously proud of Luke, Luke’s journey, and obviously seeing him play in the Premier League. Watching him coming through the doors at 13, his journey hasn’t always been linear, he’s had to be really patient, he’s had to take the feedback and learn and, ultimately, wait for his chance to make his debut. We’re delighted really with the support that he’s actually had from the first-team manager this year and also Nuno as well prior to that, with the training and the development to now make his debut for the first-team.
JP: How does the club attract the top youngsters from the area, particularly when there’s so much competition with other Premier League clubs, not just around here but across the country? How do you ensure you’re getting the best local youngsters?
JHB: Well, first of all, one of the most important things really within Academy football is your recruitment and your local recruitment division. We do invest a lot of time and resources in our local recruitment, from the pre-Academy age groups of sixes, sevens and eights, to ensure that, ultimately, we are able to identify who the best local players actually are and then getting them through the doors and, ultimately, making sure it’s enjoyable, it’s fun, it’s the place to be for the boys and their families.
JP: And when you say you ‘invest in local recruitment’, is that in terms of numbers of staff you have working for you or people doing it for you. Can you explain that a bit more?
JHB: Yeah, so in terms of investment in our local recruitment, we have a local recruitment department, so we have a number of people really that are out there working with grassroots clubs, working with schools, just trying to identify where the best local players actually are and then inviting them into Compton to come and train and be part of our pre-Academy programme.
JP: Excellent. How does the exposure of the youth to the first-team differ at Wolves compare to rivals?
JHB: I would say one thing is we pride ourselves on pathway and it’s not necessarily about age, it’s actually about ability and it’s about performance, and if we feel that there’s a player in our programme that’s performing particularly well, there’s absolutely no reason why they can’t go and play for the age group above or the age group above that. My evidence of that this season is we’ve had a number of under-15s playing in the under-18s, we’ve had a number of the under-18s playing under-23s football and then, ultimately, because Bruno carries such a small squad at first-team level it enables us to marry the two together and have some of our Academy players actually training with the first-team on a daily basis.
JP: Wolves have signed under-23 players from fellow Premier League clubs as well this season, how much can Wolves benefit from the work of other clubs?
JHB: Massively. We can always benefit and we can always learn. We’re never ever that type of Academy or football club that thinks that we know everything and that we’ve got everything always internal, sometimes you do need to go external to improve the standards of your groups and, ultimately, provide a better product at the end.
JP: When you sign players from a club like Manchester City, as you have done this season, how do you sell this club to the player who’s leaving Manchester City?
JHB: Ultimately, it’s pathway and opportunity. So, again, if I’m 16 or 17 and I’m leaving Man City or perhaps a Chelsea, coming into Wolves, you have opportunities to train with our first-team, you have opportunities to play in our under-23s and get challenged really. You’re not held back on your development because of your age.
JP: Can that give Wolves an edge on other clubs like Manchester City, who have greater resources, and other clubs at the top end of the Premier League, when you can talk to players like that and offer that pathway?
JHB: 100 per cent, because ultimately, when you get to the business end of an Academy programme and you’re a player that has aspirations to play first-team football, we can offer that sort of experience really and that challenge, to get them that step closer. Ultimately, one of our guarantees as well is that we don’t ever promise that anybody is going to be a professional footballer. All we can promise is that we’re going to give you the best possible opportunity to actually achieve that.
JP: And in terms of on the pitch, is playing the same tactics, the same strategy as the first-team important? Does the system go all the way down?
JHB: Yes, the system does actually go literally all the way down throughout the programme. Obviously with the junior side of the Academy, it’s smaller-sided, so 7-a-side and 9-a-side football, but generally, once they get into sort of under-15s and 16s, we do try to play the club system. Again, it supports the transition, so as I explained earlier, if we’ve got under-15s who are playing in the under-18s, and under-18s playing in the under-23s, they have to understand how they play in order to make that transition a little bit smoother for them.
JP: One question we’ve had which might be quite a pragmatic question, given what happens and what we see happens with certain players moving on, does the Wolves Academy offer a pathway to professional football elsewhere rather than at Wolves?
JHB: I would say as well as, opposed to just elsewhere. Like I said, there’s no guarantees for anyone when they come into our building, as early as nine, that you’re going to be a professional footballer at Wolves. But what we can guarantee is that you’re going to have an excellent experience, an excellent opportunity to actually learn, play with elite players and get developed by elite coaches in an environment and have experiences that you wouldn’t have had elsewhere.
JP: Would the Wolves coaches see that as a success story – even if they don’t make it at Wolves, they’re happy to develop a player to move on elsewhere?
JHB: Yeah I would say so, because ultimately we want to see any of our boys in the programme leave and go somewhere else and get some success, so I’d definitely say seeing them play professional football is the ultimate aim.
JP: This season we’ve seen the women’s team and their juniors integrated into the Academy set-up. How’s that going for you?
JHB: Yeah, we’re really proud of the work that we’ve actually seen across the season. The Wolves women senior team have obviously done ridiculously well, so again, it’s something that we’re really proud of and I think the junior side of it, the integration of the coaches sitting in the same office as the Academy coaches, has been really good to share ideas and, ultimately, show the direction we’re trying to move in as a football club.
JP: Has that desire to take the women’s game forward been a relatively new strategy here?
JHB: I would say so. I mean, Wolves Women has been part of the football club now for a number of years and I suppose the project actually started before it came across to the Academy, but I suppose now, looking forward, it is a key strategy of the football club really to actually grow the women’s game.
JP: And overall, what are your hopes for the next 12 months here at the Academy?
JHB: The next 12 months I would like to see us continue to grow. We’re still transitioning out of Covid, so that’s also been a massive challenge for us over the last two to three years and I’d like to see us continue our tradition really of giving young players an opportunity to get challenged, to get developed and then, ultimately, play for our first-team.
All 11 instalments of Ask Wolves series two are now live in video, written and audio format and can be found by clicking on the links below: