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Billy Paynter is speaking from experience when he tells his young players what it takes to make it at Port Vale.
Paynter is beginning his first full season as under-18s manager, 20 years after the then-youth team striker made his first-team debut for the club as a 16-year-old.
The Liverpudlian went on to have a fine career, playing more than 500 games in total at Vale, Hull, Southend, Bradford, Swindon, Leeds, Brighton, Doncaster, Sheffield United, Carlisle and Hartlepool before returning to take charge of the under-18s last season.
“I have really enjoyed coming back to where it all started,” he said. “There are some familiar faces, some new relationships to build and pulling up on the car park on that first day brought some good memories.”
Last season was something of a whirlwind for Paynter who was called up to assist caretaker manager Danny Pugh following John Askey’s departure in January, then stayed with the first-team coaching staff when Darrell Clarke was appointed the following month.
The plan was always for Paynter to return to the under-18s this season, but he does so having learned plenty.
He said: “It is never nice when a manager goes, but the business we are in is results-dependent and, with John Askey going, Danny Pugh asked me to help him out. I was privileged to do that and really enjoyed it.
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“Then Darrell Clarke also said he wanted to keep me in and around the first team, not only to help out but watch and learn his style, and how he wants to do things, to then filter that down to the youth team.
“I thanked him for the opportunity to be in and around the first team, to watch and learn. As a coach you never stop learning and, with Andy Crosby coming in as well, I took loads of stuff from him.”
Vale’s owners are determined to develop more of their own players so Paynter has a hugely important role. The title is Professional Development Phase Lead Coach, but he’s effectively under-18s manager and looking to pass on his experience.
He said: “It’s a new start, pre-season and a new group and I am really looking forward to the new crop coming through.
“The aim is to get some boys in and around the first team, potentially signing pro contracts.
“In my day we had myself, Chris Birchall, Levi Reid, and Simon Eldershaw from my age group pushing into the first team.”
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Vale have had some successes from their youth side since then, including Nathan Smith and James Gibbons in the current senior side.
But, as Paynter explains, making the leap from the youth team takes more than ability.
He said: “When they come in, these boys don’t realise how tough the industry is. I think it takes them a while to really grasp it. They think, ‘I’m going to be a footballer’, but there is a lot of hard work on and off the pitch that the boys have to accept they have to do.
“Pre-season will be tough for them, something they have not dealt with before. They have always been training maybe two or three nights a week, this time they are going to be coming in training five days a week, games on a weekend, with a lot to juggle with the college and educational work as well.
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“So, it is going to be a hard two years for them but also enjoyable and life experiences. Some boys will be living away from home so they have to deal with the ups and downs and missing home.
“I have spoken to the manager and he has said at times the youth team will be in and around the first team. That experience of youth team boys doing shape and training games against the first team is fantastic. I don’t think many clubs do that.”
Clarke has already been getting involved, speaking to the youth players who were released at the end of last season.
Paynter added: “The manager was spot on. When he spoke to the second years, he was brilliant with them.
“He was honest and that is what the boys need. When you are told something you don’t want to hear, but it is honest, then you have to grasp it.”
Not all last year’s youth side were released, defender Michael Lennon and winger Ammar Dyer have been invited back for pre-season to train with the first team.
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Paynter explained: “The manager hadn’t really seen much of them because he had an important job of winning games for the first team, so his main focus was the first-team squad.
“But credit to him, he said he wanted to give these boys a six-week trial. So, it is back into their hands.
“They have shown glimpses in training games so that is why the manager was impressed.
“He wants to have a look at them so fingers crossed. From the youth team point of view, we want these boys to push through so, hopefully, they can earn themselves a contract.
“Not many boys get this opportunity so it is in their own hands. We have given them an off-season programme so when they come back they are fit, ready and raring to go.”
This year’s under-18s team will also have some new faces including pro-football academy left-back John Clarke, who has played for Stockport Town, and centre-halves Josh Nunes and Ben Sangare.
Paynter added: “We have had over 100 trialists come in and looked at players numerous times, so, our recruitment was really thorough.
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”John Clarke is a second year and we see him as a left-back and he can play left-side centre half. He loves getting forward and is aggressive.
”He reminds me of a Jake Bidwell who used to be at Everton and went to Brentford and has played for Swansea. He is very tenacious and aggressive but off the pitch, he is a very good lad.
“We have signed the two boys from London who are centre halves. They have potential. These boys will make mistakes because we are going to demand so much from them. In a way, I want them to make mistakes because they will learn from them. You would rather they make mistakes now in this scholarship period then when you go in and around the first team.”
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Players who have progressed from within the club’s academy include striker Nelson Agho who made his first-team debut in 2018, aged just 15. He could be back in action by September or October having been given EFL permission for an extra year’s extension to his youth contract having missed last season with a cruciate knee injury.
Meanwhile, fellow striker Eden Bailey was named on the bench for the first team last season having impressed in the first of his two-year youth scholarship deal.
Paynter added: “It will be a big year for him. He had a lot of success last year, scoring goals and being around the first team. His attitude is spot on. He is tenacious, hungry and he wants to be in and around the first team. He has that desire to be there.
“There are times when we are going to have to pull him back a bit. He set that bar last year, the second year will be even tougher for him but I think he will cope. He has the right attitude to deal with that.”
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