Ben Wilkinson

The Making of a Manager

For Ben Wilkinson, football was always a family affair.

His father, twice caretaker manager of England, forged a reputation as one of his nation’s most impressive tacticians in the late 1980s and early 90s, first guiding Sheffield Wednesday back to the Old First Division before becoming the last Englishman to lift the top flight title with Leeds in 1991/92.

Having been immersed in the world of coaching from a young age, it therefore comes as no surprise that Ben - just five years old when Howard Wilkinson lifted the final league title before the onset of the Premier League at Elland Road – had always harboured a curiosity towards management.

“In my particular case there was a fascination from a very young age, probably because of my family background,” he explains.

“I’ve known (the attention of being Howard’s son) ever since I grew up – when I was at school that was the case, whenever I played Sunday league that was the case, academy that was the case so you just kind of get used to it.

“Obviously people might take the mick, but you just have to get on with it. I was incredibly lucky to grow up in the environment that I grew up in, being completely immersed in football from day dot.

“That is something most people aren’t fortunate enough to see and I’m really grateful that I had it because it sparked my passion and love for football.

“It was an amazing childhood. Obviously, certain things come with it, but I wouldn’t swap it for anything.

“From a really young age I was engrossed in (coaching). Obviously, my love as a young boy was playing football, but I always felt that after I finished playing it was something I would like to get into.”

A midfielder by trade, Wilkinson jnr. would start his professional career at Hull City, before a spell in non-league with Harrogate Town, York City, Altrincham, Chester City, Tamworth and Boston United.

He would also enjoy a loan spell across the border with Gretna during their solitary campaign in the Scottish top flight during the 2007/08 campaign but by late 2011, Ben felt his time on the pitch had come to an end.

“I think (the move into coaching) was accelerated because of the way by career developed in terms of not getting to the level I wanted to get to as quickly as I had hoped,” he admits.

“I took a long term look at it and was thinking: ‘well I might as well get started now, as opposed to waiting, if this is what the next five or ten years of playing looks like’.

“It was definitely in there from a young age and was accelerated by the rate of progress of my playing career.”

Anticipating the end of his playing days, Wilkinson had already taken up part-time coaching roles at the back end of his career and would eventually hang up his boots at the age of just 24.

And he soon landed a role as a Youth Development Phase coach at Sheffield Wednesday’s Academy, the Club where his father had initially made his name in management 30 years prior.

Working with the Owls’ next generation of talent on a part time basis, Wilkinson admits those initial steps weren’t always smooth sailing.

Indeed, the 35-year-old had to put in the hard yards to get his foot on the coaching ladder.

He reflects: “I was lucky to work with a young group at Sheffield Wednesday, but getting through the door is hard.

“I don’t think the level matters, (it’s about) dedicating yourself in those early years to do as many hours and sessions on the grass as much as you can.

“Learning and taking opportunities to go on courses, speaking to people, watching people, I think there was a lot that went on in my early years which is just about educating yourself, and then once you get your foot in the door you’re just trying to progress.

“It’s hard at first also financially - you stop playing and are part time coaching, you have to find ways to pay the bills and so on.

“I think for me it’s a bit of an obsession and we’re very fortunate to work in an industry where you’re in love with the job you do, you’re really happy to put in as many hours as it takes to better yourself.

“My journey was probably different to others but that’s how it started for me and managing the transition wasn’t too difficult because I’d already started (when I was playing).

“I know for others it can be really difficult especially when you stop playing and you lose that routine and structure.”

Wilkinson would continue to develop his craft at the Owls until July 2018, when he would swap Hillsborough for the City Football Academy.

Two years as assistant coach of our Elite Development Squad would follow before he took the reins of City’s Under-16s side ahead of the 2020/21 campaign.

And when Carlos Vicens – fresh from guiding City to the Under-18 Premier League National title - moved into Pep Guardiola’s coaching set up the following summer, Wilkinson’s prior success and experience saw him earmarked as a natural successor to continue the Spaniard’s work.

With some of Vicens’ players progressing through the age groups to form the core of Brian Barry-Murphy’s EDS squad, Ben would reunite with several youngsters whom he had coached the previous season.

It’s a transition which can often take time for a player to fully adapt to, but Wilkinson has been delighted with the progress he witnessed over his debut campaign at the helm.

“At 16, when you’re coming out of school and going into an ultra-professional environment, it’s difficult to expect all the kids to take to it like a duck to water,” he said.

“It’s a very challenging environment and the demands we place on the players are huge, but the programme lower down really does help the players with that, and it puts them in a really good place to settle into the full-time schedule.

“I’ve been lucky enough to work with a lot of these players for a couple of years and to see where they were 18 months ago to where they are now, if we talk another 18 months from this point, I’d like to think that some will be playing first team football.

“It does make you pleased to see that and to help them on their journey.”

Although Wilkinson’s first season as U18s boss would ultimately prove a huge success, a COVID-19 outbreak meant his side could only take part in one pre-season friendly.

And with Manchester United travelling to the CFA on the opening day of the campaign, City needed to be at our best to get our defence of the Under-18 Premier League title off to a winning start.

It was a test for Wilkinson and his young side, but one that we ultimately passed with flying colours.

City went in two goals to the good at the break thanks to a close-range Luca Barrington finish and impressive solo effort from Under-18s captain, Rico Lewis.

And a dominant display against our cross-city rivals was capped off when substitute Joel Ndala added a late third.

It was a dream start to the campaign, and one that Wilkinson believes set the tone for what would prove to be an historic season.

He reflected: “(The derby win) was a massive boost. I think for a lot of these players, no matter how confident they were, they’d still be a little unsure when they stepped onto that pitch for the first time at Under-18s level because they’re so young.

“On top of that we had such a disrupted pre-season due to COVID, so we were definitely undercooked going into that game.

“But the level of performance on that day given those things, I think the lads would’ve taken huge confidence from it, because they really were outstanding.

“The years of work the players have done, a lot of the stuff we do is embedded in them, which is a big help for us as a football club and a credit to the programme at a younger level.”

"It was a real squad effort, we’ve had no superstars, everyone at different points has put their hand up.”

Ben Wilkinson

Despite that strong start, it took until the new year for Wilkinson’s young squad to truly hit our stride.

Indeed, a 2-0 defeat to Stoke in December left City five points adrift of league leaders Blackburn Rovers, but just one defeat in the final 17 matches of the campaign saw us cruise to the title.

Contained within that run were incredible 8-3 and 13-0 triumphs over Leeds and Newcastle United respectively as our young charges combined a devastating attacking threat with the meanest defence in the entire division.

Wilkinson’s side averaged over three goals per game, while conceding just 26 times in as many matches, ending the season with five successive victories.

And while the boss anticipated a brief teething period as his players adapted to the rigours of their first Under-18 Premier League campaign, his response when asked to pinpoint a defining moment in our 2021/22 title success is emphatic.

“The season definitely turned around Christmas,” he declared.

“Until then we were a bit inconsistent in terms of reaching the standards that we wanted. We expected that because they’re young and I think we always do get better as the season goes on with this Under-18s team because the players get more experience and what have you.

“(But) I think since Christmas we won 15 and drew one of 17 in the league, the consistency from there on in was really impressive.

“We won 1-0 away to Liverpool in January when we didn’t play particularly well but scored late on, it was a great goal from Luca Barrington who had been a sub that day and it sort of encapsulated what we were about last year.

“It was a real squad effort, we’ve had no superstars, everyone at different points has put their hand up.”

If our hard-fought win away to Liverpool was a demonstration of how to ‘win ugly’, the demolition of title rivals Blackburn Rovers one month later exemplified the levels that City were capable of.

Second half goals from Dire Mebude, Carlos Borges, Mo Susoho and Will Dickson set the seal on a dominant victory at the CFA, which saw us move three points clear at the summit.

It was a performance which Wilkinson remembers fondly to this day: “Given their start to the season, I think Blackburn actually came here still ahead of us in the table, but we beat them 4-0.

“It was the manner of the performance, we had a strong side out that day and were excellent. Blackburn will have come off feeling pretty demoralised because our level was so high.

“I think those two results were really significant in terms of psychologically for us and also for the opposition.

“There was a period where Blackburn a few points clear of us. It never worried us particularly but those games, when you go to places like Liverpool who are always going to be up there and win late on, you get them a lot with teams who win the league.

“They were complete contrasting performances (against Liverpool and Blackburn), one where we probably weren’t at our best but kept a clean sheet and managed to grind out a win and one where I thought we were excellent and what that performance did to the opposition as well.”

A 6-0 win over Sunderland on the final day of the season would ensure City finished ten points clear at the top of the U18 Premier League North.

But one final hurdle remained: a showdown with southern champions Southampton at St. Mary’s Stadium.

And while Kamari Doyle would hand the hosts an early advantage, Wilkinson’s side would once again show a maturity which belied our tender years to mount a spirited comeback before the break.

Tai Sodje slid home the equaliser after the half-hour, beating Saints stopper Eddie Beach to Mebude’s cutback.

And Mebude would turn from provider to scorer soon after, latching on to Borges’ inch perfect ball over the Southampton defence before firing back across goal and into the bottom corner of the net.

Wilkinson’s side would hold on to retain our crown, ensuring we became the first team in history to win three consecutive Under-18 National titles in the process.

It is an outstanding achievement which cued wild celebrations on the St. Mary’s pitch, as players and staff revelled in our latest success.

However, Wilkinson remains driven by a constant desire for improvement ahead of the new campaign, and believes he is perfectly placed to continue honing his craft.

Indeed, that fascination with coaching remains as strong today as it was during those early years when he would watch his father manage at the highest level.

“At City, the environment and everything that comes with it in terms of your other members of staff who are of a very high level – we are always working with each other and bouncing ideas off each other,” he adds.

“We’ve got some real top players here, but there’s also a lot that comes with that away from the pitch as well is a fantastic experience to go through as a coach.

“We’re so lucky that we get to work with the level of players that we do. It’s been a great year, we’ve really enjoyed it from a personal point of view in terms of development and settling into this role, long may it continue!”