Words by: Charles Wade-Palmer
This feature initially appeared in the Chelmsford City matchday programme, The Claret.
Finn Wilkes’ face would have been a picture if he learnt 18 months ago that he would soon become an able full-back.
The 17-year-old has spent the best part of the last decade launching attacks and penetrating defences from forward positions.
But one stand-out substitute appearance at wing-back where he was thrown on to nullify the threat of a dangerous wide man cemented himself a new position.
Clarets Academy coaches Mickey Spillane and Elliott Ward saw enough to utilise Finn in an altogether different role.
Finn told us: “When I first joined Chelmsford, I was a winger or number ten but for one game I was on the bench and the other team had a really fast winger that was causing real problems. They brought me on at right wing-back to counter him and I’ve stayed as a wing-back because they really liked me there.”
He continued: “That was very difficult to adjust to. Being chucked in on the defensive side when you’ve been attacking pretty much your whole career is really tough to get used to. But they gave me lots of advice, Mickey and Elliott and I just take that on board and try to use that in games and work on it in training too. Since being there I’ve really enjoyed it and they’ve allowed me to go forward in attack.”
Rewind to days of less defensive responsibility, Billericay native Finn fell in love with football as a youngster playing for Perry Street FC.
And as is a running theme in these Get to Know… chats, Finn’s Metropolitan Police detective dad, Mike, was his first manager.
After five years at Perry Street, Baddow called Finn’s name and rewarded his talent and effort with some cup-lifting glory. Mike’s reluctance to let Finn get comfortable saw him swiftly move to Southend Manor for his third and final challenge for three years before pulling on the City jersey.
Mike said: “When he was a youngster, in his first few years, I was his manager so I knew he was a good player then. When he played at Colchester community development centres, I made the decision that he should go and challenge himself elsewhere.”
Mike explained: “I recognised quite early on that he was better than all his peers around here and that joining an EJA was the next step, which is why I took him down to Southend Manor with people he didn’t know. They weren’t the best team, but he had to learn to battle and fight in games.”
Chelmsford City facilitating a balance between further education and football meant Finn needed little convincing to join the club’s Academy.
“I moved across knowing the Academy was tied in with a good school,” the 17-year-old said.
“At my old club, they didn’t have anything like it from the education side which I know is very important. To have both of them is quite a unique thing as they go very well together.”
Finn is one of several Academy players studying a BTEC in Business Studies and A-Level PE, which has helped form strong bonds with teammates which he says is bearing fruit on matchdays.
He said: “In school they’re a really nice bunch of lads. We always hang around with each other and I have seen a few outside of school as well but it’s when we’re playing football that we really get along very well, and the chemistry is very good on and off the pitch.”
Having such a connection with teammates is something difficult to replicate without the Academy’s relationship with Moulsham High School according to Finn, who added: “I think as we’re at school together and then going to football together is very special because not many schools offer the same thing as Moulsham do with Chelmsford.”
As a Billericay boy, Finn’s parents are tasked with getting him to and from Moulsham High School each day. Luckily for Finn however his dad sees it is a small price to pay to see him doing what he loves.
Mike said: “It’s lots of driving but it’s what you do to support them, isn’t it? You’d drive them all over the world. We have to drive him to school every day and pick him up every day and then obviously there’s training sometimes twice a week outside of the school training and then you’ve got matches too. But he is committed to Chelmsford City Football Club and so we’ll support him in it.”
Since deciding to ply his trade this side of the B1007 Finn has racked up plenty of good memories on the pitch, none more so than in the FA Youth Cup.
He said: “The Sudbury game was probably my favourite game, because it was a very tough one. They had a left-winger who was very hard to cope with but going into that game, the first round proper was a big moment in my life.
“It was the most competitive game I’d played, and we went in as underdogs because Sudbury were meant to have had a very good weekend. We went in not expecting to win but we came out on top and that was really nice.
“Since that Sudbury game we’ve had really good results in the league as well, I think that win gave everyone confidence having gone in as underdogs and coming out 3-2 at the other end it was really good to see spirits lifted.”
As a relative rookie in the right wing-back and often full-back position, Finn says he has been trying to soak up all the advice he can to improve.
“Obviously Mickey and Elliott are former professional footballers, they know everything to do with football and they’ve helped me improve my all-round game,” Finn said. “They do give a lot of constructive criticism which I do take on board and use to continue to improve myself.
“At my previous club, they weren’t really giving constructive criticism, but I do really like them telling me what I need to improve on because I’m in a new position now and they know it better than I do. So, I think looking up to them and listening to what they say is very important.”
Finn revealed instruction has centred largely around shutting down attacks, he said: “Playing at right-back you’re facing players on the wing who are normally fast, so winning battles in wide areas and stopping the game progressing into an attacking situation is something to work on. I think my defending one-on-one though is the main thing I’d like to improve. It’s about showing them outside. I’ve been told it’s very important not to let them inside to shoot and show them the other way.”
Despite playing at the back, Finn still has licence to bomb down the flank like his West Ham idol Aaron Cresswell.
“I like to get forward a lot,” Finn said. “When we’re in a game I like to be on top so I can go forward and create at the other end. Obviously, I like to keep a clean sheet as that’s the most important thing but what I love is when we’re going forward and attacking and scoring lots of goals like in the FA Youth cup when we scored 15 in four games, that was really enjoyable.”
Mike, who like Finn never saw his new position coming, could not be more impressed with his son’s progress at Chelmsford. The proud dad said: “To be totally honest he’s developed more and more under Mickey and Elliott, and I’ve got to be honest I’m really pleased with his development there.”