Michael Shenton believes the contract extensions recently signed by Will Gardiner, Nick Staveley and Zach Jebson is proof that Hull FC’s current youth programme is in a good place.
The club’s Head of Emerging Talent is currently halfway through his second season with the Black & Whites, having enjoyed a playing career that spanned almost 20 years with Castleford Tigers and St Helens.
Shenton coached Staveley and Jebson in the Academy in 2022, giving them all of the necessary support to make the step up to train with the first-team squad on a regular basis.
Meanwhile, Gardiner joined Hull FC’s system as late as last year, when he was scouted for the Reserves team having impressed for local National Conference League outfit West Hull.
Speaking to hullfc.com for a feature-length interview, Shenton shared his thoughts on how the club is bearing the fruits of moving forward with their youth programme.
“I think it’s great news that we’ve been able to keep hold of these lads. The model of the club moving forward in terms of improving its youth programme is now showing that it works. We want to put the pathways in place to help the youth of Hull and those that come through the club’s youth system work their way up to play for the first-team,” Shenton said.
“The lads in our system all know what it means to identify as a Hull FC representative and understand the feeling of the passionate fans here at this club. That stands them in good stead when they make the step up to the first-team.
“We have a lot of great kids in the area that we can get down to work with, and also draw in some youngsters from out of town and blood them into being a Hull FC representative. I think we can be a real force moving forward by using this model.
“Will’s pathway is totally unique to anything I’ve ever seen before. We consider Rugby League to be a late maturation sport – sometimes it can be really hard to get a read on the players at a young age. It doesn’t matter how talented they are. You sometimes just have to wait until they have developed in this physical sport. And Will is a great example of that.
“He was missed in all of the systems and nobody picked Will up. He developed on his own and he developed even more as a person. Even though he loved playing Rugby League, he went and got a full-time job and still played a little bit but only on the side.
“It wasn’t until he started playing regularly at West Hull’s first team that we were aware of Will. We had a look at him and it just kicked off from there. Within eight or nine months, he went from playing from West Hull to Super League.
“It is an incredibly story, really, and it should be inspiration to any young player to stick with it. What’s more are his attributes as a person. He’s really grounded, really hard working. He gave up his day job to become a professional Rugby League player and that sacrifice has paid off for him.”
Both Gardiner and Staveley have been involved in first-team action so far this season, with the latter making his Hull FC debut in Sunday’s Challenge Cup win over Shenton’s former club Castleford.
Meanwhile, Hull Head Coach Tony Smith is confident that Black & White fans will get to see Jebson make his first-team berth at some stage in the not too distant future, such has been his individual development and desire to learn.
And on top of the trio who signed contract extensions yesterday, there are a whole host of young talents plying their trade in the club’s Reserves and Academy teams, hoping to follow in the footsteps of Gardiner, Staveley and Jebson.
And Shenton believes that those young individuals have the perfect resources at their feet to help them achieve their goals, with state-of-the-art facilities and specialist coaching support.
“I think we have a great programme in place but I think what has really helped has been our move to the University of Hull, where we have some really great facilities to hand,” he said.
“We’re now connecting even more with the first-team being based there.
“So the programme we have in place is great. We’re seeing some great stuff from our young players.
“There’s a lot of work going into developing the players holistically, both on and off the field. We’re doing a lot of hard work going into developing the players’ skill in attack and defence, in particular. They’re the fundamentals of the game, and once they’ve got that, we can start implementing some much greater detail, which can often be the difference between winning and losing.
“Even developing the mental attitudes of the young lads is something we’re big on. Here at Hull, we have a big emphasis on having good people around the place, whether that’s staff or players. I think if you have good quality players and good quality people, that can add up to so much.
“The whole programme is constantly under review so we can try and make it better wherever we possibly can. I’m not saying it’s perfect now, but we’re in a good place. But like I said, we’re always reviewing and looking for ways to improve.”
It has been a busy start to the 2023 campaign for Shenton, who coaches both the Academy and Reserves teams, whilst also keeping a watchful eye over the Scholarship team to find out who is ready to make the step up to the Under 18s.
The Academy have won five out of six matches so far this season, recently defeating reigning Champions Leeds Rhinos away.
In the Reserves Championship, only Leeds have managed to defeat Hull this year.
Check out the full results list here:
For a Castleford icon who had only just hung up his playing boots at the end of the 2021 season, joining Hull FC as Head of Emerging Talent in September 2021 was certainly a step out of his comfort zone.
But the 36-year-old has revealed how pleasing it is that the Hull fans have shown their unwavering support towards his work with the youth players at the club.
“It’s great, to be honest. I think the club is massive and I have always thought that way. Particularly for everything they’ve stood for and the passionate fans based here in Hull. People who put their hard-earned money into the club are people I have the utmost respect for – they deserve everyone’s time and hard work behind the scenes,” he explained.
“Inevitably, the fans want what’s best for the club. As a rugby fan myself, we all want good, young rugby players coming through and that was what interested me about the role here in the first place.
“We can all sit around complaining that we haven’t got the right sized talent pool that we need and we don’t have enough young players coming through, but it’s about doing something about that, for me.
“I know how strongly people in Hull feel about bringing our own homegrown players through that know what it means to represent this club. I think it’s really important to get that identity across for our youth players. To create that connection between the club, the players and the fans is really important and I’m glad the supporters are appreciating some of the work that’s been done with our youth programme at the moment.”