Willmott Enjoying Wing Role
Having broken into the first team on a regular basis this season and set up several goals for his team-mates, Robbie Willmott netted his first senior goal last month in the FA Cup win at Boston.
But the Bishops Stortford youngster, who only turned 18 in May, was equally delighted to have set up United's two other goals and to be told he was Gary Brabin's 'man of the match'.
Reflecting on the game and his own telling contributions, Robbie says, "It wasn't just the goal; I was very pleased with my whole performance during the game. The Gaffer is always getting on at me about my performances and how I can improve them, and I think I showed what I can do and I'm just glad I topped it off with a goal."
Robbie has already contributed several 'assists' this season, not least the superb run and cross for Danny Crow's goal at Forest Green in our previous game, and he feels he is showing the benefit of a run in the first team.
"At the start of the season when the gaffer told me I was going to be starting games it was a bit nerve-wracking because I was only on the bench when Jimmy Quinn was here," he admits.
"But I thought 'I've got to step up a bit and I have to pull my weight in the team and score goals and make goals', so I'm glad it's all starting to fall into place. When you've been in the side a few times you get 'with it' and you pick things up along the way, and the other players have helped me out a lot so it gets easier."
Born and raised in Bishops Stortford, where he lives with his family, Robbie was an Arsenal fan as a youngster but now his focus is firmly on Cambridge United as he aims to help the club return to the Football League.
Spotted by Head of Youth Development Jez George while playing for Buntingford under-16s against Cambridge City, Robbie joined United from school in the summer of 2006.
"Jez asked me to come in for a trial a week after seeing me in that game and he brought me to Cambridge United and gave me my big break, and he's helped me a lot," Robbie acknowledges.
"I struggled in my first year as a scholar and he helped me out, and then in my second year the gaffer (Jimmy Quinn) noticed me and I started to get my chance in the first team. Jez didn't give up on me and he still gives me pointers now, which helps me a lot."
United's scholars play as 'CRC' in the Ridgeons Premier League, which means the 16 and 17-year-olds are pitted against sides packed with experienced local footballers and former professionals, and Robbie thinks that level of competition speeds up the youngsters' development as players.
"It definitely helps a lot because the Conference is a physical league and you're up against older and more experienced players who have played at a higher level, and some of the players in the Ridgeons League have been there and done that too so it helped me a lot.
"It taught me to deal with the physical side of the game and got me thinking about the league and what I have to do," he confirms.
Unsurprisingly, the fleet-footed forward caused problems for defenders and had to quickly learn how to deal with their attentions, but he shrugs it off as part of the learning curve.
"The physical side is what some sides are all about, especially against the younger players because they know they can bully them and use that to their advantage, but the players in the youth team can all play football and some teams can't handle that. I think you just have to stick to your own game and do what you do best - you can't stoop down to their level because that's always going to be a battle."
After a season playing in the Ridgeons League and the FA Youth Cup - where the youth team progressed to the fourth round, beating Tranmere and Crewe on the way - Robbie's impressive form at the beginning of his second season earned him a first team call-up and he made his debut from the bench in our 2-1 win against Crawley last September.
"It was brilliant," he says. "I couldn't believe I got on. I'd been on the bench a few times and I'd been told a few times 'you might be going on' but hadn't, so when it happened I thought it was my big chance and I couldn't let anyone down. I think I did OK so I was pretty pleased with that."
He followed up by signing his first professional contract just before Christmas at the age of 17, and was delighted to be offered a deal barely halfway through the second year of his scholarship: "I was called in and told they wanted to sign me, and a few days later I went in with my family and spoke to Jimmy Quinn and the Chairman. Everyone just wanted the best for me and this is definitely the best place for me to be at the moment.
"It's a brilliant club to develop players," he adds. "You look at the likes of Robbie Simpson who's a Cambridge lad, and Sylvan Ebanks-Blake who went from here to Man United and is at Wolves now; they're big players now playing Championship football.
"Loads of players have come through the youth system here like me, Josh (Coulson), Jordan (Collins), Mikey (Hyem) when he was here. They're not afraid of playing the youth players and it's good to have a manager like that."
Last season ended with the memorable but ultimately disappointing occasion of the Play-off final at Wembley, and Robbie confirms that it was an exciting experience, even for the players who knew they would not be playing on the day.
"It was brilliant to be going to Wembley with the club when I had only just turned 18. I wasn't too bothered that I wasn't playing because I knew it was going to be all the experienced players, so I was just taking in the whole atmosphere and it was a good experience."
However he does feel that this squad can build on that experience and everyone has their sights set on promotion this season: "Most of the players were here last season so they know what it's all about. We've got players who have played in these leagues for many years and they know what we've got to do to get into that situation again or win the league, and that experience can only help the younger lads like me."
At the end of last season, Robbie was invited to spend a month in Seattle in the USA, along with fellow youth team graduates Josh Coulson and Jordan Collins.
Under the umbrella of Seattle-based CUFC directors Paul Barry and Adrian Hanauer, the main focus of their visit was "an innovative development programme of cognitive processing development and skill building for athletic mental performance". The cognitive-building and sports psychology methods placed specific focus on key areas of development and advancement for sports performance, such as alertness, concentration and awareness.
It was a busy month for the three lads, who also maintained their fitness by training with Seattle Sounders - in which Hanauer and Barry are both shareholders - and one they thoroughly enjoyed.
"It was an amazing experience," confirms Robbie. "It kept us training through the summer so we were in good shape for when we came back for pre-season training with the new gaffer, so that was a massive help.
"I think the cognitive training has helped a bit too, especially now I'm playing more games. They have helped a lot of big players and I think it's helped me adapt from not playing many games for the first team last season to starting quite a lot so far this season.
"But the whole month was a great experience," he adds. "It's a different type of football and training over there so we had to adapt to that, the cognitive training was good as well, and it was good to experience a lovely city and a different way of life.
"We had to take the training seriously but we had time for some fun too; we went to a baseball game and we went to see the Brazil-Canada football match in the stadium where the Sounders are going to play next season, and we got lost lots of times!"
While the lads were in Seattle, Paul Barry had to tell them the news that Jimmy Quinn had left, which Robbie admits was a big shock at the time, but he is happy with the way things have developed since then.
"We went on the Internet and watched the website for a bit, and with some of the players leaving and Willie Wordsworth having left too it looked like things were falling apart for a while, but things are back in place now and it's all good.
"Every player at the club wants to play football under the new gaffer and he just wants to get the best out of you," he says, echoing Wayne Hatswell's words in our last feature interview.
"He's always picking things out of my game and saying what I can do better and giving me pointers, and that's helped a lot. Some managers just forget about some of the players and just concentrate mainly on their starting eleven, but he's an all-round manager who helps everyone so that's really good."
After the win at Boston, Brabin told the media that Robbie was his 'man of the match' and the youngster admits, "That was brilliant to hear. It showed that I was doing something right and helping the team out, and showing him that I could play in a big game - it was a big game for me because it was my first FA Cup game so it showed him that I could play under that sort of pressure."
Having started in ten games this season, compared to one last season, Robbie is relishing the opportunity he has been given and is concentrating on making a first team place his own. He has played wide on both wings and also up front this season, and although Gary Brabin said earlier this season that he regarded him as a striker, Robbie feels he is more effective as a winger.
"At the start of the season the gaffer said he could see me a striker like Stuart Fleetwood when he was at Forest Green, getting onto balls over the top, but when we brought in more players and we had more injuries I've been playing wide and I see myself more as a winger now.
"I feel comfortable there and I'm really happy there now. I think 4-4-2 suits me best because it's a basic formation, but when he switches things around we've got players in the side who can do that and players who are always ready to come off the bench and fit in, so it's good to have those options."
In his spare time Robbie spends a lot of time resting and relaxing at home, although he likes to socialise with friends and keeps in touch with former youth team players who have left the club, but this is an ambitious young man with his eyes fixed firmly on success this season.
"I'm hoping to keep my place in the team and help by scoring and creating goals, and I'm hoping we're up there with the main contenders and looking at promotion at the end of the season," he says.
"I can't really set any goals beyond that because the goals I set at the start of this season have gone already; I didn't expect to play as much as I have so I can't really set any more goals for this season, but I want to do my best for the team."
Football supporters love to see a young player come through the ranks and break into the first team, and Robbie's emergence is no exception. A pacy, exciting forward who is not afraid to take players on and go for goal, United supporters have taken to him and he says the feeling is mutual.
"It's a great confidence booster to hear your name being chanted and it's a brilliant feeling. I know everyone has been saying they're the best fans in the league and I agree; they follow us everywhere - at Weymouth there was a big turnout, and at Forest Green on a Thursday night they were there again.
"Their dedication to the club is amazing," he adds, "and we all appreciate it."
In closing, Robbie confirms that he feels the squad has the right balance to make a title challenge and he is relishing playing a part: "We've got a good balance with everyone in the squad now and hopefully this can be our season. If we can stay up near the top then with our players we've got a chance."
*An edited version of this interview was published in the programme for the match against Rushden & Diamonds on Saturday 1st November, 2008.
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