While the Checkatrade Trophy is often a source of irritation and ridicule among many supporters up and down the land, for young players like Cobblers’ Jay Williams, it offers a priceless opportunity.
The competition served up another largely forgettable 90 minutes on Tuesday evening when a flat atmosphere at the PTS Academy Stadium was accompanied by a flat game as Northampton laboured in defeat to Wycombe Wanderers.
For one player though, it was anything but forgettable.
After featuring sporadically in pre-season, Williams was handed his full Cobblers debut by manager Dean Austin and the local lad duly made his mark with an impressive, assured performance.
His defensive partner for the night was the distinctly more experienced Leon Barnett, who’s almost twice as old, but it was the 17-year-old rookie who caught the eye.
He was strong enough to stand up to Wycombe’s physical approach and also had the the composure to demand the ball and the confidence to give out orders to senior team-mates around him.
There’s always bits in your game you can get better at and I’m very harsh on myself with little things. I’ll go back to the training ground and work on things I need to do better and I’ll never be content with my performanceCobblers defender Jay Williams
So for all the criticism, the Checkatrade Trophy has its benefits. For one thing, if it wasn’t for this competition, Williams would still be waiting to make his debut.
“It was a fantastic night for me,” he said. “Obviously I’ve been working hard and Dean must have seen that so I’m thankful for him giving me the opportunity.
“I found out I was going to be in the team on Monday and I thought I would be nervous but I felt fine all the way up to the game.
“It’s great because I come from here as well. I’ve grown up in the area and I’ve followed the team since I was young and it’s always been a club close to me.
“I live nearby and had people coming to watch. It’s good for them because I do it for my family and friends – it was a great night.”
In addition to his obvious talent, Williams came across as a level-headed, determined young player in his post-match interview, one who will not rest easy now he’s made a first-team appearance.
“I hope I get more chances but I’ve just got to keep working hard and show the manager what I can do,” continued the former Kingsthorpe College student. “It’s been great with Dean.
“He’s always positive and thankfully for me he’s seen what I can do and how good I could be. Now I’ve got to work hard to be where I want to be.”
Williams is approaching that awkward stage of his career where he’s perhaps too good to be playing purely youth football but not quite ready for regular first-team action, though the evidence on Tuesday suggests he’s not far off. Aged just 17 and with his manager always eager to promote young talent, he will only improve with time.
“There’s always bits in your game you can get better at and I’m very harsh on myself with little things,” added the teenager.
“I’ll go back to the training ground and work on things I need to do better and I’ll never be content with my performance.
“There were little bits like a few passes and that, but on the whole it was my debut and I should be pleased and happy with myself – I’m just a harsh critic! I always want to do better.”
Williams is far from the only exciting young player coming through the ranks.
Midfielder Sean Whaler and 17-year-old striker Jack Daldy joined him in Tuesday’s squad while Morgan Roberts and the McWilliams brothers – Shaun and Camron – are also all academy-produced.
The rapid progress of Town’s young crop owes much to club’s outgoing academy manager Trevor Gould.
Williams was quick to thank him after his debut, adding: “The youth team are producing a lot of good players at the moment and that’s thanks to all the coaches, especially Trevor. The future looks good.
“He’s helped me a lot on my journey through to where I am now. He gave me a lot of guidance, especially when I wasn’t doing my best or there was little behaviour things and it’s got me to making my debut and now I need to keep pushing on.”