Cheltenham Town: Legend Willetts brought Kotwica to Robins
KEVIN Willetts' playing days at Cheltenham Town may have ended 20 years ago, but his legacy lives on at the Abbey Business Stadium.
Working for the Robins' new centre of excellence during the club's Football League infancy, it was Willetts who had a big say in bringing Zack Kotwica to the club nearly a decade ago.
The Gloucester-born winger is now in the second year of his scholarship, having progressed all the way through the ranks at Cheltenham.
He has impressed first-team boss Mark Yates enough to earn a squad number and he looks set to remain with the senior squad during the season.
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Kotwica, whose father Jason played for the Robins' reserve team in the 1990s, is the latest in a long line of prospects who Willetts nurtured before they had even left primary school.
"It's very satisfying seeing these boys coming through now because we first worked with them ten years ago," Willetts said.
"The first group we worked with at Under-nines had players like James Fawke, Ethan Moore and Jack Wood in it.
"Jamie Edge was in the next group and Joe Hanks was in the one below that, the same year as Adam Mace, who everyone expected to come through.
"Adam ended up at Bishop's Cleeve, probably because of his size.
"I remember Jack Wood scoring five goals in one match during a six-a-side tournament, beating teams single-handedly."
Kotwica caught the eye of Willetts and John Hamilton, with the latter taking him under his wing to give him the best possible chance of making the grade at Cheltenham.
"Jack Wood was probably the best player we saw until Zack came along," Willetts said.
"We spotted him playing at Matson in a tournament and I remember John came running over and said, 'You need to see this kid, he's unbelievable'.
"Zack was doing things then that ten or 11-year-olds weren't doing and it was clear he had something special."
Kotwica was interesting higher-level clubs, but transportation was in issue.
Willetts said: "Zack would never be at Cheltenham if it wasn't for John driving him around.
"He didn't have any transport, but John used to pick him up from White City in Gloucester and he virtually adopted him."
Hamilton's younger son Spencer was in the same age group as Kotwica and he will skipper Cheltenham's Under-18 side this season.
His older brother Courtney, also once on Cheltenham's books, is now at Tuffley Rovers, where his dad coaches under boss Doug Foxwell.
Willetts said: "That was a particularly good age group and it's always interesting to see how the boys do as they come through the system.
"I sent Zack a message after Saturday's game against Gloucester because I heard he went on and did well.
"It's great with him being a local lad and when I've seen him given 20 minutes here and there in the first team he hasn't looked out of place.
"He is a level-headed enough lad and he has the best people around him to learn from, so I am sure he can make it."
Kotwica spent time on work experience with Bishop's Cleeve last season along with Robins team-mate Bobbie Dale.
The pair impressed at Kayte Lane and Willetts believes an early taste of the rough and tumble of adult football can play a major role in their chances of thriving at Cheltenham.
"Zack went to Bishop's Cleeve last year and he would have learned as more during that time and all the other games against other youth teams," Willetts said.
"Nothing else can prepare you for playing against a fully grown man for the first time, who knows how to conduct himself on the football pitch.
"It's better if they go out and get experience around about that level.
"Cheltenham are not sending them out to be best player, it's so they are beaten up and take whacks, which helps with their physical development.
"Zack is always welcome at Cirencester if he does need any games!"
Willetts, who works as a plasterer, has been number two to another Robins favourite Brian Hughes at the Corinium Stadium since leaving Cheltenham's youth set-up.
He was originally brought to Cheltenham from Sharpness by John Murphy in 1985 and went on to make 367 starts and 14 substitute appearances.
After 18 months at Gloucester City, he joined Weston-super-Mare, where he rediscovered his love for the game.
Graham Allner invited him to Kidderminster, where he spent the next five years.
They were 19 points clear at the top of the Conference during the 1996/97 campaign, but Macclesfield pipped them to the title.
Willetts was part of a midfield trio alongside Yates and Paul Webb, who was captain of the England non-League side.
He played some of the best football of his career at Aggborough, where he relished a chance to play regularly in midfield.
"At Cheltenham I'd come in from Sharpness, who were three or four leagues lower and I couldn't get into the team at first," he said.
"John Murphy then used me at left-back, chucking me in against Enfield, who were Conference and Trophy holders at the time I think, so it wasn't easy, but I did all right and ended up playing most of my games for Cheltenham there.
"Dave Lewis liked me in midfield and when he was caretaker manager he played me there, but other than that it was left-back."
Willetts wore the armband many times during his time at Cheltenham and featured in big FA Cup ties against Wolves and Birmingham City.