Relegation for Widnes has resulted in cost-cutting and put their academy products at the forefront of their squad building for 2019.
Of the 25 players they have signed for next season, 17 have come through the club’s acclaimed academy system, which pre-dates the seven seasons they have spent in Super League.
While fans are frustrated at the lack of new faces in the squad, the reality of the situation for clubs like Widnes is that they need to produce their own players – it’s worth noting too that Super League’s most successful teams have all been built around their own; namely Leeds, St Helens and Wigan.
It is to Widnes’ credit too that an increasing number of their products are landing top flight gigs elsewhere – Danny Walker (Warrington) and Matt Whitley (Catalans) both earning moves following relegation, while Adam Lawton (Salford) has also made a return to rugby league.
Leeds have both Richie Myler and Anthony Mullally that have come through the Widnes ranks, while Hull KR’s Chris Atkin was cut by Widnes when he became too old for the Under 19s academy.
Questions remain as to whether the Vikings can compete with their established rivals like St Helens and Warrington – Saints’ stars Danny Richardson and Mark Percival are both Widnes lads – but clearly the work that has been done by the club’s new Performance Director Phil Finney and his team over the past decade has been worthwhile, and has put the club in the position where they can field a team of “their own”.
It is time now for Widnes to start to realise the fruits of their labour, and Finney’s new role means he can now graduate the work he’s done with the academy players and turn them in to first team stars – and no one knows more about these players than him.
He said: “When I started all those years ago, we just wanted to create a system that gives young players a platform to play at the highest level.
“Over time you start to see opportunities and we can transition those players a little better than we have done in the past.
“So it’s getting an opportunity to influence the culture and the environment that those young players are going into and help make them successful established players.
“I think it’s better the devil you know sometimes. We’ve got a lot of young players that have been associated with Widnes since 11 years of age, and players need to develop and fulfil their true potential which I don’t think you’ll ever realise until your mid to late 20s.
“I think they need time, they need to be afforded that opportunity to keep working as hard as they can and be part of an environment where they feel valued and people know them inside out, and I think that’s what we do.
“They’re all going to get the opportunity and it’s theirs for the taking.”
Though compensated for their departures, losing Walker and Whitley was a bit of a blow to Widnes but the club couldn’t stand in their way of taking up Super League opportunities.
Finney added: “I think that’s one of the disadvantages. We’ve got a really good team trying to identify players that are going to become Super League players.
“Both Matt and Danny probably weren’t on the radar of other clubs, so we gave them the opportunity to come here to develop and then as a result of relegation, they felt like they’ve wanted to move on for their careers which for us is disappointing as a club and staff.
“But both of them have made a big contribution and it’s not only the academy set up, it’s helped put on the map as players who have progressed through our system to play for England Knights at a senior age and we wish them all the best for the future.”
Finney will work closely with new Vikings head coach Kieron Purtill, who himself has experience of developing younger players through his work with England Knights and as assistant at St Helens and Huddersfield.
The former Leigh coach said the academy and the players it has produced was one of the attractions of the job, together with the facilities at the Halton Stadium.
He said: “If you look at the depth it allows you to have, you’re almost carrying 40+ players within a squad which makes things a lot easier.
“The academy boys will be given a fair chance to show what they can do and that puts pressure on the guys in the first team squad.
“It allows us to mix and match and come together as a 19s and a first team. There’s lots of positives to come from this club.”
Of the 17 academy products in the squad, Danny Craven, Tom Gilmore and the Chapelhow twins have all established themselves in the first team previously.
Three players on three year deals are probably the ones that the club see as the next shining lights of their system.
Prop Owen Farnworth has impressed on the handful of first team appearances he has been afforded, while both stand-off or loose forward Brad Walker and back-rower Liam Walsh have represented England.
The average age of the Widnes squad next season is likely to be very young – but it appears to be a gamble that the Vikings are willing to take.
Because if they can’t back their own academy development, then it raises worrying questions about the future development of the player pool.
For clubs like Widnes, producing their own can not only furnish their first team squad, but also act as a way for them to generate much needed revenue to aid sustainability and competitiveness.