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Manchester City will not only have a new cohort of academy scholars to try to defend their Under-18 Premier League title this season, but a new head coach as well.
Carlos Vicens has moved up to form part of Pep Guardiola’s backroom staff after a successful one-year stint in charge of the club’s third team that also saw them win the FA Youth Cup for the first time in a decade, meaning Ben Wilkinson takes over the prized reins.
This is Wilkinson’s fourth season at the club; he spent two years as Paul Harsley’s assistant in the Under-23s before becoming the lead coach for the Under-16s last season, so there is a natural progression to step up with the majority of the players he recently coached.
It is now around a decade that the 34-year-old has spent as a coach, which is some going for someone who also enjoyed a professional playing career.
“From a very, very young age I always wanted to coach one day but I wanted to have a more successful playing career than what I did have,” he told MEN Sport.
“By the time I was 23/24 and I’d started to drop down the leagues — I was playing in the Conference by that time — and I looked at it with quite a mature approach for back then and thought I could keep doing this and maybe get back to League One or League Two or I could start coaching now and try to get ahead, for want of a better word, because in ten years time my personal situation might be different.
“I knew that I always wanted to coach so I thought to try it and very quickly really enjoyed it. I was fortunate that I got given my first job at Sheffield Wednesday from people who showed belief in me from an early age and before I know it those 10 years have just flown by.”
Wilkinson’s playing background may be of some use, but at the same time the game has changed a lot even in the generation since he was coming through academies in Sheffield.
While there are some exceptions, the general trend these days in coaching and management is that the collegiate approach beats confrontation.
“When I was a youth team player it was quite autocratic,” he said. “I do think you get the best out of people in general when they buy into the process and feel a part of it and a belonging to what’s going on and not getting told to do something all the time.
“Including them, trying to educate but help, guide and for them to feel a part of the process is the most important thing, for them to feel they’ve not just got a coach whose is going to come in and shout at them all day about what they’re doing wrong.
“The more I see now, the harder it is for that type to succeed.”
It has been a bumpy start to the season with preparations disrupted when all academy players and staff were kept away from the training ground for 10 days after a Covid outbreak. How much that has set plans back will not be clear until the opening few games, yet life at a top club means setbacks cannot be used as excuses.
City’s youngsters do not need reminding about the incredibly high levels both physically and mentally that are required to break through into the best squad in world football, and winning trophies has to be seen as the most eye-catching way to do it.
The stark reality of what is required is especially felt when the players move up to Under-18s and take on football full-time playing for points, occupying the building at the training ground opposite the senior stars they hope to join.
That also offers opportunity though, with Pep Guardiola showing with James McAtee, Luke Mbete, Romeo Lavia and others that performances in the Under-18s really can propel prospects very quickly into the first-team picture.
“I think ultimately if you ask me or the players would you rather be at a club that is winning leagues for the last few years or a club who doesn’t we all want to be at clubs who challenge to win things.
“That comes with the territory of representing Manchester City these days. “We’re really fortunate to have that opportunity and we’re fortunate we’ve got top players. I think that is a positive and makes my job easier because it creates that determination to eclipse the last group.
“The [U16s] group we had last year that were still at school so have made the transition into full-time football and two of the boys went and trained with the first team a few weeks ago. They’re 16, so six weeks ago they were at school.
“That’s great for the players because it becomes more tangible whereas last year they may not have believed us when we told them that they could be training with the first team in three months but it’s true.
“Once you’re in the building and you see those experiences happen it becomes more tangible. When you see the manager is willing to give some minutes and things like that, the players can’t ignore that.
“They are very young but they are also very talented boys and the manager has belief in young players so that’s great for everyone because it means the opportunity is there and it keeps motivation high and is a real good pathway for players.”