Manager Mark Pike has named his Wales U18 Academy squad for the upcoming fixtures against the Republic of Ireland at Newtown (21February) and Bala Town (23February) as his young side look to retain the John Coughlan Memorial Cup.
Now a regular part of the international calendar, Pike has enlisted the help of former Wales defender Steve Evans, who made seven appearances for Wales between 2006 and 2008, to add experience to his backroom staff and raise the profile of a team growing in stature with each passing year.
With players selected from clubs within the FAW Academy structure, development is very much the name of the game, but success last year in Ireland was testament to how the team has evolved. “How we selected players when I first took on the role was extremely difficult,” Pike explained to FAW.cymru. “We didn't know anyone and there was no system in place for selection. It was run as a pilot prior to my arrival and I was brought in to create a structure. The toughest challenge now is selecting the squad because there are so many talented players eligible.”
Preparations for the two games began a few months ago with training camps, and friendly fixtures against The New Saints and Newport County helped Pike and his staff selects their final 18 players. “The training camps have gone really well,” he added. “The players that have come in have been absolutely magnificent. They've really taken to it. We've looked at over 150 players and now we're down to the last 18. Hopefully they will do well over the two games. Steve Evans' experience has been phenomenal and he's bringing that knowledge into training sessions. We previously had Jay Catton who did really well, but due to his commitments at Gap Connah's Quay we had to make a change. The players really look up to him. I'm learning off him, he's bouncing off me, and we really compliment each other.”
These are still early days for the team, but they have an integral part to play in the international structure, and are provided with the best possible support as a result. “When the players come in for the first time, it's a jaw-dropping moment for them,” explained Pike. “Everything they want is here. I've had conversations with Osian Roberts (FAW Technical Director) about the best way to do things, and the response has always been that we do things the Welsh way.
“Our philosophy is the same as the senior team, and that starts the moment the players come into the hotel to the time they leave. It's ingrained in them and you can see that they thoroughly enjoy it. Osian is a busy man, but I use the opportunities when I can to have a conversation with him. I've been invited to staff meetings with him, Chris Coleman and others and I'm treated equally. It's a jaw-dropping moment for me. I've also been to international committee meetings to explain where we are, what we're doing, how we're doing it and what we are doing moving forward.”
And it is an ambition to take this particular project to the next level is something that Pike is desperate to bring to fruition in the near future. “The big challenge now is how we move it forward,” he added. “Ideally, we want more training camps and more fixtures.
“At the moment we just play the Republic of Ireland twice in a week following a couple of preparation games and a couple of training camps, which is more than we've had previously. We want to push these kids on and bring them together earlier in the season to play more competitive games. That way we won't miss anyone. If we don't improve it, it will become stagnant, and I don't want it to become stagnant.”
Although the team is still relatively in its infancy, there have already been a number of success stories, and Pike believes that the unique opportunity that this level of international football provides can be the vital second chance that so many young players need.
“I had regular dialogue with Geraint Williams (former Wales intermediate team manager), and was able to put a couple of players into his window. Without this squad, we would have probably missed out on a lot of talented boys as they are not with Football League clubs. Quite a few have already gone on to become professional footballers from this squad. Without this team they might not have had those opportunities.”
Ryan Hedges was an example highlighted by Pike when reflecting on the players that have used this international platform to kick-start their careers, with others currently playing on scholarship programmes in the United States. Hedges was playing for Flint Town United when he impressed as captain of the Wales U18's at schoolboy level in a 4-1 win over England, scoring twice, and went on to spend three years at Swansea City before signing for Championship side Barnsley in the recent transfer window. Hedges took to social media this week to support the players following in his footsteps as they prepare to meet up with Mark Pike and his staff for the upcoming internationals.
Pike also reflected on how the introduction on the Welsh Premier Development League in the south and the north has raised standards significantly across his pool of players, and that there are almost a dozen players in his current squad that have spent a number of years coming through the academy system at their respective clubs.
“Bringing the trophy home from Ireland last year was a huge success for us,” explained Pike. “But for me personally, it's about the lads enjoying themselves in an environment that enables them to play international football. To have four or five lads to actually go on and become professional footballers, to identify those players and give them the opportunity, that's incredible. But I also want to see these youngsters playing in the Dafabet Welsh Premier League.
“I think there are too many Welsh Premier League sides not looking at their academy system. There are still too many players being lost and ending up in the very lower levels of the pyramid. Some go out of the game all together. We want to see them reach the professional heights, but we know that's difficult, but to see them playing in our own national league is still a massive achievement and there are a number of players who are doing it. They have used this system to better themselves.”
The team provides an international opportunity in a professional environment for players that are coming through the ranks at semi-professional clubs, but the importance of wearing the dragon on their shirt remains the same. “I try to relay to the players that they are representing Wales, and there's no bigger honour,” said Pike. “I'm a proud Welshman, Steve Evans is a proud Welshman, and we want proud players to represent the country.
“The kids and their families put so much into it, it would be great to see plenty of support for them. The coaches in the academy system throughout the country are all doing a great job, in their own time, and I know the dedication and hours it takes to do it. I would love to see the next generation of academy players to come and support us to see what is there for them if they continue to work hard. This process serves a lot of things, and the more we can promote these games, the more we will increase aspirations and show what opportunities are available.”
WALES U18 ACADEMY SQUAD: Iwan Roberts (Carmarthen Town); Oliver Farebrother (Aberystwyth Town); Tyler Aylward (Port Talbot Town); Jordan Pike (Port Talbot Town); Owen Williams (Merthyr Town); Daniel Roberts (Rhyl); Daniel Slawson (The New Saints); Zebb Edwards (Airbus UK Broughton); Jack Rimmer (Aberystwyth Town); Michael George (Barry Town United); Aron Hughes-Jones (The New Saints); Daniel Williams (Pontardawe Town); Sam Haddon (Gap Connahs Quay); Andrew Vale (The New Saints); Harri Horwood (Aberystwyth Town); Jack Todd (Afan Lido); Cameron Keetch (Cambrian & Clydach Vale); Sam Ashworth (The New Saints).