A week on from his professional Wolves debut at Hillsborough in the Carabao Cup, Academy midfielder Elliot Watt shares a letter written to his 14-year-old self on the dedication required as a young footballer:
Dear 14-year-old Elliot,
Just 10 more minutes.
Your mates are out and going down the chippy.
You’re in the park, on your own. Again.
But just keep running. Keep learning.
You were always a chubby lad growing up. It’s why Blackburn Rovers released you at 12. But even though you’re now at Preston, your Scotland coach Scot Gemmill will give you the kick up the backside you need.
“Your age-group for Scotland is unbelievable,” he will tell you. “You’re more than good enough to play. But you need to lose some weight and become better physically.”
You’ve always believed in your technical ability on the ball. Now the penny drops that physically you have to get to work. On the pitch you’re capable, but what you do off it needs to be as important.
So you will start doing extra running; 45 minutes to an hour in the park by yourself.
You will start looking at what you eat and how important rest and hydration are.
You will think you need loads of rice and pasta. That’s what footballers eat isn’t it? But dad will tell you too much of that is just going to make you fat. You need to balance your carbs at the right time, you need more protein, stuff like that.
You realise even just walking round town with your mates isn’t giving you the rest you need to play your best. At Scotland camps you will have to drink, drink, drink and do hydration tests everyday.
Your whole professionalism will change.
Jerome will help you too. He’s the reason you want to be a footballer. Even though there are 16 years between you, what happened to your big brother has shaped your attitude.
He was unbelievable; an England player at every age group from Under 15 to Under 20. He’s probably still the best you’ve ever played with. It’s why you will never feel daunted in a football environment. It’s all you’ve ever known.
You remember going to watch him train at Blackburn, kicking a ball about on the astro to pass time when he was in physio. You were only about five. But being around players like Chris Samba, Tugay, Morten Gamst Pedersen and Brett Emerton so young means professional football has never been intimidating to you.
You and Jerome are different players; he was an athlete. But he had injuries and was out for a year when he did his ACL at 20. Whenever he got a knockback, he never really got over it.
Seeing him out of the game so young made you realise you have to be mentally strong. You can’t take anything for granted. Football doesn’t always work out, however good you are.
Keep listening to Jerome. He comes to as many of your games as he can and will always be on the phone asking how you’re doing. He experienced so much and knows what he’s talking about.
Keep running. Keep learning.
At 15, Preston will offer you a scholarship.
When that happens Elliot, I want you to do one thing.
Don’t sign it.
Although there will be interest, no one will offer you anything concrete.
But believe in yourself.
Wolves will come in for you.
Sign for them.
Don’t worry. You will take it all in your stride. Jerome had to move away when he went to Blackburn and he gives you advice. Going away with Scotland a couple of times a year helps you too, and you will only be an hour from home on the train.
You might not recognise it now but you’re mature for your age. That helps too.
Some of the lads you play football with on the estate are 10 years older than you, and although you’ve got a few mates your age at school, most are two or three years older. If you act childish around them they won’t want to hang around with you.
That’s making you mature and develop quicker.
And you’ve always loved talking! I put that down to growing up with four brothers. You know what it’s like at home; we’re always talking and being loud. What a struggle for mum! You’re like that at school too.
But that confidence and ability to talk will help massively in your football.
Your first year at Wolves will be the first time you’ve been coached so in-depth.
Football will always be on your mind.
But in your second year you develop even more as a player and as a person.
You will go from being ‘me me me’ to thinking about how you can help others. You will enjoy the responsibility of talking other players through games. You learn it helps your own game too. This ultimately will benefit the team.
You won’t always find that responsibility easy.
There will be one pre-season game in particular at Shrewsbury when you will get so frustrated and just shout at everybody.
I bet you’re expecting me to tell you to stay calm and not lose your rag in that game. Well I’m not. Let yourself get frustrated and lose it.
The coach sees it happen. But instead of having a go at you for losing discipline, he will talk to you about how to handle your frustration better. He sees it’s going to be part of the player you think you can be. It will be the first time anyone tells you this. The penny dropped for you early. But it drops at different times for different players.
Having an autistic little brother makes a difference too.
At times you found growing up with Archie frustrating, because he wouldn’t play or do things our brothers would. But he’s brilliant and makes you realise everyone’s different and you need to approach people differently.
When you’re on the pitch you will recognise you need to approach and communicate with each player in different ways to get the best out of them, like you do with Archie. It’s a skill you will need to keep working on, but you will get there.
You already see yourself as a leader. You’re asking why you’re not Scotland captain.
But your perception of leadership is going to change.
Right now you think being a good captain means being a good talker. It’s so much more than that. It’s leading by example. If you’re talking but not doing something yourself, why should other players do it?
In your first year at Wolves you will be lucky enough to be involved with the first team, both under Paul Lambert and Nuno Espirito Santo. Use the experience to watch and learn.
Take on board what players like Jack Price, Danny Batth and Conor Coady say to you when you make a mistake in training. React positively. They have been at the club so long they know what it takes.
When you’re in the dressing room before the friendly at Peterborough, listen to the way they talk and get players up for it before the game. How they make little comments to individuals relevant to their game, rather than just shouting.
Take that into your game to help give other players confidence before a match.
Do it off the pitch too.
You won’t be homesick. But some of the lads from abroad or far away might be. How can you be there for them? Moving away from home at 16 can be hard. Other players might have different views from yours. You need to respect that.
Your friends have always come to you for advice or just to talk. It’s probably because you talk loads! You like that they confide in you. It makes you feel good, like you’re being a good mate. And you will have teammates confide in you, Elliot.
Whether you’ve known someone your whole life or less than a year, treat them the same. Experience will help you recognise what to say and do to try to guide them in the right way if they are homesick.
Keep running. Keep learning.
I’m telling you now that to become a regular in the U23s this year you will definitely need to keep on top the physical side; diet, hydration, being as mobile as you can.
The higher the level, the quicker, fitter and stronger players are.
So have the confidence to ask your coaches to do more with you. Whenever you can, do more sprinting and work in the gym with the sports scientist to get faster, stronger and more mobile. If you do it, more of the other lads might too.
One day you will hear Ryan Giggs say the only reason he played for as long as he did was because he was busy; he did yoga, he did extras. If you aren’t busy you’re not giving yourself the best chance. Busy is good.
Developing as a leader can give you an edge. If your coaches see you’re more influential to the team than another player you’ve got more chance of playing.
Learning quickly will do that too. All the top players are quick learners.
When you’re being told how to do something, make sure you understand it. Just by playing football every day you’re going to develop technically. Your game understanding is down to you.
Ray (O’Sullivan), the lad you live with in digs, will say you’re so different at home to the way you are at the club. At digs you relax, are yourself more and the lad in you comes out. But at the club it’s your time to concentrate and be on it.
Think like this.
Obviously there will be times you will eat the wrong foods, everybody does. But if you’re not hydrating, getting the right foods in, resting and saying ‘no’ to going out, you’re not going to be the best player you can be.
You will have to balance fun against what football needs. Go out when you have six weeks off. Don’t do it when it’s going to affect your game.
At the end of your YT, you want to be able to say you’ve given it everything you could to be offered a pro contract.
So right now Elliot, just keep running.
Keep running. Keep learning.