It was another successful season for Wigan Athletic’s Academy in 2021/22.
Callum Lang was a key contributor in the Club’s Sky Bet League One title success, while the likes of Thelo Aasgaard, Luke Robinson and Divin Baningime were instrumental in their run to the Papa Johns Trophy Semi-Final.
Elsewhere, graduate Joe Gelhardt has made waves in the Premier League with a string of impressive performances for Leeds United, while Alfie Devine (now Tottenham Hotspur) starred on the international stage this summer, helping England claim the UEFA European Under-19 Championship.
And it’s not just on the pitch where the Latics are developing thriving youngsters.
After completing his apprenticeship in 2020, Joe McWilliam swapped the DW Stadium for the glittering city of Dubai, where he works as a Real Estate Agent, dealing with multi-million dollar properties for LUXFolio Real Estate LLC.
“My job is to broker deals between both buyers and sellers in the property market in Dubai,” he explains. “Essentially, I bring a buyer to a seller and close the deal.
“My specific title is within off-plan investments, so I deal with properties that are yet to be built. I basically supply investors with the projects and investments that they need.
“I may not be on TV or performing in front of thousands of people, but I’ve used my experience in the Academy and I talk about it all the time. It shows that you can become a footballer, but you can also take the skills elsewhere.
“I’m a case in point that anyone in an Academy can go and do whatever they want. I’ve always wanted to travel and do different things, so being granted the opportunity to do that was a no brainer and it’s a decision that, thankfully, I don’t regret.”
Despite being in the Academy system since the age of seven, the Liverpudlian’s willingness to pursue his entrepreneurial interest during his spare time has eased his transition away from football.
“I’m sure there are other lads in Academies that have ambitions outside of football,” says McWilliam. “It doesn’t have to be business – Thelo has always been into his music and a lot of his family are involved in that industry.
“I think everyone has other traits and interests and it’s perfectly fine to pursue those alongside football. I think it’s really important because you might come away from a loss and it can be incredibly overwhelming emotionally if you don’t have anything else to focus on.
“We did a workshop with LFE (League Football Education) about players doing different things. Tyrone Mings’ interior design business is one that stood out to me. I just thought that if they can do it while being on a Premier League schedule and dealing with all the pressures that come with that, then there’s no excuse for me not to do the same.
“The road to becoming a professional is hard and not everyone can achieve it, so it’s always positive to have an alternative. Wigan were incredibly supportive to me and over time, it became apparent that I was just better suited to a route away from football.”
At the age of 13, McWilliam’s first venture was painting shoes, while he also tried his hand at gardening before building and selling a clothing brand called Wolf.
Then, during his time as a scholar, he created five online clothing companies with a combined following of over 200,000 on Instagram, with ‘The Uneek Hub’ and ‘The Bootcycle’ becoming especially popular.
Still only 20 years old, McWilliam profited from the sale of those ventures and is now living a life of luxury in the lucrative Middle Eastern market.
“It was kind of a make-or-break opportunity to move away from the UK,” he admits. “My businesses started to decline a bit and people were telling me to go to university, but I’ve been able to explore the world while learning on the job over here.
“There’s so much opportunity in Dubai. It’s tax free for personal income, so there’s no reason why I can’t be financially comfortable fairly quickly. By 25, I want to have 10 properties across the region, and I’d like to be in a position where I can pick a destination and be able to just go there, rather than having to save up for an extended amount of time.
“I’ve realised it’s not just about financial goals, though, because making sure I stay happy and motivated is crucial. Socially, I’ve had many new experiences, I’ve met so many people from different cultures and I’m trying to pick up some different languages.”
The ambitious Scouser isn’t the only EFL Academy graduate embarking on a new life in Dubai, with ex-Tranmere Rovers youngster Joe Blackham working for the same company in the leasing team.
McWilliam, who won Sales Broker of the Month shortly after making the move abroad, hails the impact of the experiences and transferable skills that he gained during his football journey.
“For me, the apprenticeship set me up to be in a very good position today,” he adds. “Without it, I probably wouldn’t be out here right now because it developed me in many ways that have enabled me to handle uncomfortable situations and be confident enough to take risks and believe in myself.
“It’s all well and good being able to kick a ball around on a pitch, but if you don’t know how to communicate with people or you don’t have the ability to adapt to different environments, then life is going to become difficult for you.
“The main thing when thinking about what’s next after leaving football is to make sure it’s your decision and do what you think is best for you; don’t feel forced down a certain path.
“If someone gave me the chance to play professionally, I’d probably take it, but I was realistic about my options and I paved my own way to excel in other areas in life.”