Watford’s senior academy managers are approaching that dreaded period in the season when they have to decide which of the second-year scholars will be handed professional contracts.
Max Makaka, Jacob Cook, Andrew Eleftheriou, Charlie Rowan, Connor Stevens, Brandon Mason and Nathan Gartside will all be awaiting the decision, delivered by academy chief Chris McGuane, and made in conjunction with Under-18’s manager David Horseman and U21’s coach Harry Kewell, on their futures at Vicarage Road.
Gartside, who has been the club’s third-choice keeper following the injury to Rene Gilmartin, is certain to win a pro contract. Scholars Ogo Obi and Michael Folivi have already been awarded professional contracts, deals that will kick in in the summer.
The official announcement on the remaining second-year scholars is expected next month. A decision will also be made on the Watford future of Matthew Hall, the defender who was offered a third-year scholarship as he was injured for much of his second year.
“It’s really tough,” said Horseman when asked about the overall process in a recent interview with Hornets Player. “There are a few things [that go into it]. We have to look at the pathway above the player and below the player. How well have they have done? Is there more improvement in them? Do they have the mentality and discipline to be a pro footballer? We consider all that.”
Another factor is the club’s obligation, as a Category Two club, to fulfil a full U21 fixture programme in the Professional Development League. While the pathway to the first team is not as open as it has been in the past – Belgium U21 international Obbi Oulare cannot even make Quique Sanchez Flores’ matchday squad – the club need at least 14 players for every U21 game, although three outfield players can be over age. Kewell’s team are scheduled to play 31 competitive domestic games this season.
Young professionals Alfie Young, Mahlondo Martin, Josh Doherty, Bernard Mensah, George Byers and Jorell Johnson have been U21 regulars this campaign. Their contracts expire in the summer but they are all under the age of 21 when the next season starts. The club hold the option to extend the contracts of Young, Byers and Martin for an additional 12 months. Kewell, together with Quique Sanchez Flores, will play a major role in the decisions on those players.
Kewell moved to England at the age of 15 and came through the Leeds youth system to carve out a prolonged career at the highest level. He’s been keen to build on the club’s holistic approach of producing rounded individuals, as well as footballers, since he became the coach of Watford’s U21s in the summer.
“If you are scoring 30 or 40 goals a season, do what you like, but if you’re at dinner why would you sit there on your phone when you can talk to someone?” said Kewell in an interview published in The Times. “Or keep your hat on. That’s just rudeness. As much as we want to teach them about football, we want to teach them to be better people – manners don’t cost anything.”
“You can tell them it’s their only opportunity otherwise it’s too late. I’ve seen the greatest things football can offer you and the darker side as well. It’s about your own character and I know I was never going to fail, whatever I did in football. When the good times happened I wanted to get better, when the bad times happened it showed the true character I had.”
Watford have a reputation for ensuring their released scholars and young professionals get fixed up with a club, land a trial elsewhere, enrol in further education or find alternative employment.
“We have an excellent education and welfare procedure,” said Horseman. “We went to Bath University to show the boys that won’t be lucky enough to get a contract that there is a good life outside of football – and a very good one. A lot of the boys won’t get contracts and maybe won’t have a career in football. But we do genuinely care. It’s a harsh industry and only one or two go on and have careers.”
Makaka, the midfielder who scored in the FA Youth Cup tie with AFC Wimbledon in December, arrived at Watford as a refugee from Congo via Tottenham Hotspur.
“They always tell you at Watford you have to have a Plan B because you never know what will happen in football,” he said once in an interview. “That is why education is so important to me.”