When Ben Wilmot made his Stevenage debut at the age of just 17 after spending the entirety of his youth career in the club’s academy, earning 90 minutes for a Premier League side may only have been in his faintest of dreams.
Yet, just a year later, his aspirations have been realised.
And those who have overseen his rise to the top tier of English football will claim that, despite his tender age, such an achievement has been a long time coming for the highly-rated defender.
Following the transfer of Wilmot to Watford, the Stevenage board said: “We are full of confidence that he will thrive in Premier League surroundings.” The early evidence would suggest that he is indeed a player worthy of playing in the top flight.
Gracia: “He plays with personality”
The 18-year-old made his competitive debut for the Hornets in the 2-0 win at Reading, yet his calm persona and footballing intelligence gave no indication of his inexperience at such a high level as he remained on the pitch for the full 90.
Wilmot was initially deployed in a central midfield role with fellow debutant Domingos Quina, before dropping as part of a back three as the game progressed. Many players would struggle at performing two different roles in the same game, however, Wilmot coped with the transition with the composure and professionalism that is becoming a recognisable characteristic of the young English prodigy.
And it’s this professionalism and adaptability that has impressed head coach Javi Gracia above all else.
“We changed and Ben played as a centre-back with Adrian Mariappa and Sebastian Prödl and he adapted quickly,” the Spaniard said after the victory over the Royals.
“He played very well without any mistakes and played with personality.”
It’s no surprise that Wilmot was able to adjust his game with such ease. He is traditionally a centre-back yet Gracia clearly envisages that his ability with the ball at his feet could be beneficial in the midfield. Wilmot played regularly as a holding midfielder in pre-season and was scarcely fazed by the new role.
“Ben can play as a centre-back but we needed more players in midfield,” Gracia continued. “And he has played there more times since joining. He has always played well and it is a virtue to be able to adapt and play in different positions.
“I think changing position speaks about his personality and what he is able to do. What is important is your personality and what it is that you are able to do when you play. I think he played very well.”
Wilmot: “I just want to play”
Wilmot was delighted to have earned first-team minutes so soon into his career with the Hornets. He added: “It was a good feeling finally getting a game but you’ve got to work hard in training and make sure you get your opportunity.
“The further we progress in this competition, hopefully, the more minutes I’ll get and the harder a task it is for the manager to pick the team.”
The defender appears to be solely focused on earning game time with Watford, be that in central defence or his more recent position in holding midfield. “I’m comfortable playing either position, as long as I get a game I’m not really fussed where I’m playing," Wilmot continued.
“Being with the first-team helps a lot with that. They sort of guide you through the game, which is what you need as a youngster. You know you’ve got experienced players either side of you and that’s really handy.”
A potential key player for the Hornets?
While both roles may well be comfortably within the realms of Wilmot’s skillset, it’s not commonplace for a player of his age to step up the leagues and ease into a new position against stronger opposition than he is accustomed to.
Watford fans have jokingly drawn comparisons to Barcelona maestro Sergio Busquets, and although the two may be some way apart in current ability, there really are uncanny similarities in the way they operate on the pitch.
Both are tall, physical, intelligent players with an eye for a pass. Both provide strong links between the defence and midfield and their passing range even allows for a direct transition into the attacking third. Both are capable of operating in the back line or the centre of the pitch.
Homegrown, youthful, professional and passionate, Wilmot has the potential to go far in the game and even surpass the mid-table status held at Watford.
Though the 18-year-old is committed to establishing himself with the Hornets having snubbed offers from various top six sides in the summer.
“I get to train with the first-team in the Premier League, which not many kids my age get to do.” he said.
“That was a real factor which brought me here instead of a top six side, where it would have been Under-23s football all season. Watford have good ambitions, which is something that caught my eye before I came here.
“There’s a really good atmosphere around the training ground and the camp at the moment. We just need to keep pushing and winning as many games as we can, and that should stand us in good stead later in the season.”