Walsall: 'No risk' Rico Henry a joy to work with, says Saddlers manager Dean Smith

By Ged ScottBBC Sport
Rico Henry and Dean Smith
Dean Smith gave Rico Henry his competitive debut against Tranmere in the JPT last December

Walsall left-back Rico Henry was just a few days past his 16th birthday when picked for the Saddlers' first team for the first time in July 2013, for a pre-season friendly against Leeds United.

Two years on, he has signed an extended three-year deal and is tipped for the very top by his manager Dean Smith.

Added to that, he is the latest Midland talent to be voted Football League Young Player of the Month.

"I can honestly say there was never any risk in my mind with Rico," said Smith.

"He was 16 when I threw him in against Leeds in a pre-season friendly. And he's a quick learner. You give him a bit of information and he takes it on board.

A rough guide to Rico Henry...
Born: Birmingham, 8 July 1997 Boyhood Birmingham City fan
Joined Walsall aged 11Signed first contract on 17th birthday
Made Saddlers debut v Tranmere, 9 Dec 2014Made league debut v Barnsley, 13 Dec 2014
First goal v Brighton, League Cup, 25 Aug 2015First league goal v Scunthorpe, 29 Sept 2015

"He fully deserves the award as he's been excellent. If I were to liken him to anyone it would be a young Ashley Cole. And it's up to him how far he can now go in the game.

"I've recommended him a couple of times to the England Under-19s because, if there's a better left-sided player in the country at 18 years of age, I'd like to see them.

"That's probably me being a little bit biased because I know the kid and what he has to offer. He's got a great desire and a will to win. His attitude and application to everything he does is spot on."

Smith added: "If he keeps developing and keeps his feet firmly on the ground - his parents will make sure of that - then he'll go the right way. He's a pleasure to coach and to have around the place, not just as a footballer but as a person. He's got a great personality, which will hold him in good stead.

"He's got a good engine and pace, he can get up and down the pitch and he's got two goals already this season which is very good for a left-back."

Rico's eye for goal

Mention of Henry's obvious knowledge of where to find the opponents' goal is the single-most thing that brings a gleam to the Birmingham-born youngster's eye.

Currently, since earning a regular place in Dean Smith's line-up, they are going in at the rate of one a month. He hit a late winner to dump Championship leaders Brighton out of the Capital One Cup, then got the only goal of the game at Scunthorpe in League One a month later.

Cream of the Midlands' young crop
Rico Henry is the third Midlander to receive the Young Player of the Month award in the past year. Birmingham City winger Demarai Gray received the award in December, while Wolves full-back Dominic Iorfa was January's winner.

"The goal against Brighton is definitely my highlight," he said. "Until getting this award," he quickly added. "I feel very honoured to win it.

"My targets are to score goals and do well here. And I want to get to the Championship with Walsall. We've shown that we've got the ability to stay near the top and hopefully we can get promoted.

"The gaffer believes in me. He's good to work with. He chucks me in difficult games but I deal with the pressure. I want to keep progressing."

One note of caution for young Henry

For a young footballer on the up like Henry, one of the biggest plus points in his future development is being brought through in the safe hands of Smith, Richard O'Kelly, John Ward and the rest of the stable background provided by Walsall's backroom team.

Saddlers manager Smith, in fact, touched on this with a cautionary word on the last young Saddlers player to win this award - striker George Bowerman - not so very long ago in September 2012.

Bowerman won the award for a marvellous month in which he netted five times in six matches. But he failed to find the back of another League One net all season - and he was released, since when he has been at Woking and Accrington Stanley before his current club Altrincham.

The BBC view on Rico Henry

"It was clear from his debut at the age of 17 that Rico Henry was some prospect. His poise, calmness and excellent distribution belied his tender years and he's gone from strength to strength since.

"Dean Smith, quite rightly, speaks very highly of him and, if he keeps developing, listening and learning, then Rico is destined to go to the very top - Premier League, Champions League, England, the lot.

"He's that good, in my view."

Rob Gurney (BBC WM 95.6)

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