Sam’s Section: Rebuilds, a 60+ goal player and looking towards the future, Kevin Russell talks on Swan’s youth program


Ahead of this week’s segment I sat down with Slimbridge u18s’ Head of Football Development, Kevin Russell, who reflected on another positive campaign.

Heading into the 2023-24 campaign off the back of a double winning season there was change around the youth side as players progressed and coaches moved on.

Tom Hitchings stepped down as the Swans coach ahead of the new season which also saw the likes of Jack Smith and Theo Clayson move up to the first team.

“Going back to last season, a league and cup double for the 18s was incredible and Tom Hitchings did a fantastic job leading the programme as a coach.

“Jack and Theo week in week out last year were delivering performances which earnt them there opportunities and they took them.

“We’re really lucky to have Adam [Coyle] and Tom [Deakin] who are really good people and coaches both with backgrounds in youth development programs.

“In terms of my role as head of football development, seeing Theo and Jack progress from the 18s and become significant players for the first team, that’s what our programme is all about,” Russell said.

Smith went on to bag a staggering 19 goals in his first full season with first team whilst Theo chipped in with seven and Russell feels the uncanny atmosphere’s helped them thrive.

“The changing room environment that Theo and Jack went into was no different than what it’s like for the 18s.

“There’s a really consistent message that runs through the club.

“The players that move up can go in and feel comfortable and kind of know what the expectations are,” he said.

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So, it was time for the next crop of youthful products to grace the Thornhill Park turf and really make a name for themselves.

But who was going to lead these players on their development path? Up stepped Tom Reed who took the helm which Russell viewed as the clubs reshuffle.

“We went into a rebuild, as every club does, and the early part of the season was challenging as we tried to find our identity and style of play. The performances we achieved after Christmas were exceptional.

“But I always feel with an under 18s program it’s not how you start the season, it’s more about how you finish it,” he said.

Smith and Clayson’s departure left gapping holes in the Swans attacking threat but that was quickly filled by some outrageous talents.

In came Will Tainton, who went on to score a small sum of 37 goals for the 18s, Kieran Bennett again scoring a lowly 23 goals and Devon Morgan who was a consistent threat from left back.

“From my background and experience, I love nothing more than players who can do something different.

“You look at Will scoring 67 goals in two seasons and has just as many assists. That speaks for itself showing he’s a player that can do something different and clearly has an end product to his game.

“I can’t speak any more highly of him in terms of the quality he’s brought to this group, and it’s been an absolute pleasure to see him grow and develop.

“This season people have got a flavour of Will Tainton, Devon Morgan and Kieran Bennett around the 18s and the first team,” Russell said.

The Swans fell short in their bid for back-to-back titles but can end the season with silverware as they are in the GFA Youth Shield Final on Thursday night.

But with the season at its climax the time to build for the new campaign is now for the Swans who host their open trials for next year’s under 18s squad.

Ahead of these trials, Russell had a few words for players coming in about what the program is about, what to expect from it and what he wants in the next crop of talent.

“The way I and the club like to run this is that it’s a two-year cycle with a mixture of first year and second years always involved.

‘Our Mantra is very much every player that comes through our programme will leave not just a better player but also a better person.

“We have players like Cameron Low who are off to America on a scholarship on the back of work he’s done with us and at Hartpury.”

“Everybody knows what Slimbridge is about. We have a fantastic playing surface, a fantastic committee, and a fantastic environment for players to be in.

“Whoever comes in will be given opportunities and given every possibility. We want players to come in and play with smiles on their faces but also work hard and play with some pride while wearing our shirt,” he said.

Sam will be providing live updates from Hallen U18s vs Slimbridge U18s in the GFA U18s Shield on Thursday evening. Follow @SevernSport and Sam Yapp on Twitter (X) @SJY_Journo

Cover photo taken by and copyright to Brian Rossiter. Check out his Flickr account for all of his pictures by clicking here

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