Why Bristol Rovers’ international starlet is taking the lead from multi-million pound Nottingham Forest defender
A £16m move to Nottingham Forest and 23 caps later, a Bristol Rovers defender is taking inspiration from an ex-Liverpool starlet.
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Luca Hoole and Neco Williams have had very different career paths, but both have had success in their own right.
Go back to November 2019. The venue is Rodney Parade, a stone’s throw from where Hoole grew up after going to school in nearby Torfaen.
He was 17 years old at the time and had already played for the Under-20s in a friendly, but this was the nitty gritty side of international football.
Hoole found himself replacing Williams, who was on the books at Liverpool at the time for his competitive debut.
Williams a few weeks prior had made his Liverpool debut, playing in a 5-5 thriller with Arsenal in the Carabao Cup, whereas for Hoole, he was in the academy setup at Bristol Rovers.
Three years down the line, both are now playing regularly in a relegation battle, though one is in the Premier League with Nottingham Forest and the other is in League One.
Williams has become a fully pledged international, having been capped 23-times, whilst Hoole has one Under-21 cap to his name.
A year younger, however, time is on his side and the Gas defender says that the former Reds defender has given himself and other players the motivation to go and make it big in the game.
“Seeing how well he has done has obviously has definitely made everyone, all the young lads aspire,” Hoole admitted.
“It’s what dreams are made of to go and play in the Prem and play for your country. It’s definitely something that I would like to accomplish.”
Hoole’s ascension to the first team came last year when he appeared in the pre-season training camp for Joey Barton’s first full season.
He made sporadic appearances here and there, but in the turn of the year and in need of a right-back, the former Newcastle United manager looked to him.
Since then, he hasn’t looked back and has become one of the first names on the team sheet, playing regular games.
His regular exposure to senior-level football makes him one of the most experienced players in what is a new-look Wales Under-21 squad, despite making less than 50 senior appearances in his career.
Rovers missed Hoole as they continued to battle through a defensive crisis, but in the long-term, this could be something that benefits them.
A week spent with players of his own age and younger, has made him one of the leaders of the group, with players keen to draw on his experiences. His experience of playing regularly in the Football League has been shared with others who may now consider loan moves to aid their development.
Rovers have already shown what they can do with younger players like Elliot Anderson, Connor Taylor, and Hoole’s compatriot and club teammate James Connolly.
“Definitely, I feel that coming here is really a test of my leadership skills as one of the older lads,” he said.
“Coming from a first-team environment where at Rovers there are some very experienced players. It’s good to really test my leadership skills, helping other lads into the game and maybe give them a different point of view.
“When I’m older then, learning these leadership skills now will benefit me in the future.”
Hoole’s already impressed Barton, who played at the top level for clubs like Manchester City and French giants Olympique Marseille.
The last week or so however has also acted as an audition for him to impress the new Wales U21’s boss Matthew Jones.
Jones was on the books of Leeds United and Leicester City, but his career ended early as a result of an injury. A midfielder by trade, he had also appeared as a right-back, the same role as Hoole, which is a major benefit. Jones named a fairly youthful side when he was appointed and despite only one cap, Hoole is the sixth highest capped player.
A new qualifying campaign is on the horizon next year and performing well against Austria in Vienna could be the first step to cementing himself as a regular international player.
“It’s always an honour to get called up to your country and play for your country,” he said.
“Last time I was new, I was with the old age group so I was with the older lads whereas this time now I am one of the older ones. It’s a bit different from last time but I am enjoying every minute of it.
He added: “A great gaffer. He likes to play football like everyone likes to do and he has some new fresh ideas. He wants us all to settle in well, so it’s so far so good I would say.”
Where Jones sees Hoole’s long-term future remains to be seen and his side in Austria could give us a hint in where he believes his best position is.
Hoole for a majority of Rovers’ promotion-winning campaign played as a right-back in a flat back four defence.
After a shortage of central defenders in pre-season however, he was tried as a centre-half in the same system with mixed success.
Hoole, now considered a centre-back by Barton, looks likely to play in the right of a back three like he did in the 6-3 defence to Lincoln City.
Versatility is an important attribute to have, but sometimes players are forced to choose their best position and stick to it.
For the Newport-born defender, he’s hoping that playing at centre-back at this stage of his career will help his experience in the future.
“I enjoy playing both positions,” he said.
“Every coach I have played under have said in the future I am going to be a centre-half or the right side of a three.
“It’s just getting that experience and gaining the trust to play centre-half, hopefully, I have done that, I’ll continue to do that and get the experience there.
“It’s going to be completely different to right-back. At centre-half, it’s less time on the ball and if you make a mistake, it’s normally led to a goal or a goalscoring chance. I’m trying to learn as best as I can but I do enjoy it though. I do think when I will be older, I will be a centre-half.”