Former-United right back Mark Birch spoke of his delight at his recent appointment as the club's Professional Development Phase coach which will see him work as number two to the academy manager, with his focus mainly on the under-18 age group.
Stoke-born Birch, 42, played over 100 games for the Blues between 2000 and 2003 and also spent five years with Gretna as part of what was a 20-year playing career.
He took over as the academy Foundation Phase Coach here at Brunton Park in July 2015 having made Carlisle his adopted home when he joined the club almost 20 years ago.
“I’m really looking forward to starting the new job,” he said. “I’ve been working with the foundation phase for the past few years and we’ve done some good things, but I think every now and again you need freshened up yourself, so it’s a role I’m looking forward to.
“I’ve been in the academy for eight years now. I was the lead foundation phase coach so in terms of a career point of view I think this is where you want to be, and it’s another step up.
"In the eight years I’ve been in the academy I think there's been a lot of progression in football in the local area. There’s a lot of football going on for kids of all ages and I think, as the years have gone on, it's getting better and better."
On how he'll be making the transition, he told us: “I’ve been rounding everything up with the foundation phase in the last couple of weeks and I can’t wait to get started now.
"We’ve had the U8s at Newcastle and the U10s at Man City in the last few weeks so all of that has just finished, and we’re now preparing for pre-season.
“It's a totally different task to what I’ve been doing in recent years. I’ve been involved in the younger age groups specifically during the last four years, but I’ve always tried to keep myself involved in the 11-a-side game as much as I can, whether that's been with the U15s, U16s, or on the odd occasion the U18s.
"It isn’t going to be totally new to me, but it is going to be a big difference. I’ve been dealing with lads at the start of their journey, but I’ll be involved with players who are looking to finish and complete their journey within academy football now."
“I do feel ready for the step up," he added. "I think everybody wants to improve, whether they’re a coach or a player. Everybody wants to progress. If you stand still in football it’s quite a dangerous thing to do. Even when you’re doing a job you love, you’ve always got to look to progress.”
Having worked at the grass roots level of the club's academy for the last five seasons, he confirmed that the pool of talent is getting much bigger, with some very good young players to choose from.
“When you come to pick the kids to bring into the academy now, the pool of players to choose from is very healthy,” he explained. “Bigger clubs coming into the area and trying to take the best talent is still an issue, but it’s healthy competition.
"It makes us have to be better at what we do. We can’t sit back and think we’ve got a divine right to sign them. We have to make our product as good as what the big clubs have to offer.
“We can’t throw loads of kit at them or the best facilities at them, but we can give them the best coaching and make them feel a part of this club. Over the past couple of years we've won a lot of battles with the bigger clubs to make sure we’re keeping the young players as part of Carlisle United.
“I think a lot of kids who come into academies or scholarships have all got natural ability, which is why they’re involved in the first place. If they aren’t willing to work hard, they’ll fall at the last hurdle. Whatever you do, whether that’s in football or at school, if you work hard you’ll get rewarded. If you work hard but you don’t reach where you want to be, at least you won’t have any regrets.”
And on his new role which will see him step up to the U18 team on a full-time basis, he said: “My new role will involve training the U18s on a daily basis and preparing them to be professional footballers.
"It’s our job to teach them the skills they need as well as teach them the discipline and attitude that can get them to the next level.
“It will be my job to push them as hard as we can and help them get to that next level. Players have got to do it themselves, as much as coaches can help, the players have to be hungry and set their own goals.
“I think everybody needs a bit of pressure to stay hungry and this role will be no different. At this club, the pathway from academy to first team football is relatively short. At bigger clubs, you can get through the U18s but only move up to U23s, and at some clubs you’re then trying to get into the first team ahead of world-class players.
"Here, if you discipline yourself well enough and prepare yourself properly, and of course have the ability, then the pathway is relatively short.
“A lot of the current kids in the academy can relate to the likes of Liam [McCarron] and Jarrad [Branthwaite] because it wasn’t long ago they were training with them up at Caldew. That makes kids see that they could have an opportunity, when they see lads who were training on the same pitches as them on the bench or playing for the first team. You want players to see that and think ‘I could be next’.
“The plan at the moment is for our U18 group to come back for pre-season a few days before the first team, which is good, because there are a lot of new kids in the group. It will give them time to settle into the environment and get to know what they’ve got to do on a daily basis.
"When the first team come back there will be extra responsibilities that they’ll have to take on, and they’ve got to know how to conduct themselves in this environment. They’re on the ladder below the first team, so they’ve got to know what they’re doing and make sure they’re respectful around the place.”
“They were all given a fitness plan by the S&C coach to complete over the summer so they should come back ready,” he told us. “I know a few of the kids who will be in the U18s already from working with them in previous age groups, and I know they’re quite disciplined, so hopefully they’ve done the work in the close season so they’re ready to give themselves the best opportunity they can.
“I think you’ve got to get a mix of putting the focus on development and results at U18 level. It is about individual development and they’ve got to look to better themselves, but throughout football you’re an individual who has to embed yourself into a team environment.
"We’ve got to work on the weaknesses of every individual, but at the same time they’ve got to understand that results do matter. If they’re in the youth team and are thrown into the first team, they’ve got to be prepared for that and make sure they know the roles and responsibilities within a team.”
“I do know a lot about the group,” he continued. “My son is in the group so I’ve watched the majority of them come all the way through the academy together.
"Most of them have come through the academy from U10 level so they’re a bunch of lads I do know well. I’ve seen them work hard in the past, and they’re going to have to continue that because nothing is a given in football. If you work hard and you’ve got natural ability, you’ve got every chance. If you think that natural ability can take you end goal, then at this level of football it isn’t going to work.
“Like I say, I’ll be working with Charlie, but at the end of the day it’s his career. I had my career, and whatever he wants to achieve in his career is down to him. As his father I’ll obviously be proud of him, but it’s up to him what he wants to do.
"I can guide him, like I would with any other player, but I’ll never tell him what he has to do. They’ve got to want to do it themselves, and that’s the way I look at it with Charlie and all of the lads I work with.
“When I found out I'd got the job I deliberately didn’t mention it to Charlie for a couple of days. Before it come out in the press, we told him and he just shook his head!
"He knows he’ll get some stick, but he’s his own person and he doesn’t rely on me to make him to work hard. He knows football and he knows what he’s got to do, and he’ll get the same guidance as everybody else.”
Speaking more about how a lad from the Potteries has ended up making Cumbria his home, he told us: “I moved up here in 2001 on a two-year contract and I thought I would be back in Stoke before I knew it, to be honest.
“18 years later I’m sitting here taking up a role that is a great opportunity for myself. It’s great to still be here after such a long time. It’s such a good place to live, which is why I think a lot of ex-players end up staying here or moving back.
“When you have kids, they get settled in school and you put down roots. It’s a slower way of living, you aren’t stuck in traffic and it’s just a nice place to live. You can spend days out in the Lake District, and when you’ve got kids it’s a great way for them to grow up. When we go back to Stoke for a weekend we spend ages sat in traffic on the M6, and we just love it up here."
“I’ve been coaching for over ten years now and I think when you start, you have a goal that you want to achieve," he concluded. "One of the major goals was to be a youth team coach, which I’ve reached.
"I’ve done a long apprenticeship coaching in grassroots football, then the academy from U9s to U16s. I’ve loved every minute, I’ve taken the lads to cat 1 clubs and you look at those and pick up things we can do here. I won’t come here and rest on my laurels and think I’ve done it, it’s going to be hard work again, I’ll be responsible for 18 lads’ football careers.
“If these kids come in and say they want to be a professional football player, you’ve got to be the role model for them and guide them through the next year or two. That’s the same with all age groups, whether it’s taking them in as U9s and getting them to sign their papers on the pitch or taking them to Holland.
"We want all of the lads to leave the academy, whenever that is, and to have really enjoyed their experience. If they go on and play in the first team, everyone will be proud as punch that they’ve made it through."
Meanwhile we are delighted to confirm that Robbie Edgar will step up to take the Academy Foundation Phase Coach position vacated by Birch, with immediate effect.
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Thanks to Newsquest Cumbria for the use of the image of Mark Birch.