One of the many positives about the modern academy system is the more holistic approach needed when it comes to looking after a group of young men who are pursuing the dream of making it through to first team football.
Newly installed under-18 manager Mark Birch spoke this week about how much things have changed since he was a youngster making his way in the game with Stoke City.
“There’s a lot more player care along the way now than from when I was a boy,” he confirmed. “As coaches you have to change along the way and be aware of society, and what’s going on around it.
“If you look at the coaching programme now, there’s a lot of education involved which I think is a good thing. The YTs are with us for two years, we have to make sure if they go on to be professionals that’s great, we’ve done our job, but if they leave us they have to be ready for the next step in their lives.
“They walk away with an education programme, a few coaching qualifications, and hopefully walk away a better person than what they are when they come through the door. I think with me having worked with the other age groups in the academy along the way it will help.
“You know the parents and the real commitment they show in terms of getting their lads to training four times a week. I do think it’s important that I keep in touch with what’s going on in the academy.”
Another important relationship this season will be with Simon Friel, who takes over as academy manager from the beginning of next month.
“I think it’s important that we work closely because we want to make sure we get the best players through,” he confirmed. “We’ve got players in our thoughts already for the next intake of under-16s, and I’ll still be working quite closely with that age group alongside Simon.
“He will set the programme out for that, but it’s all about making the transitions as smooth as possible. We’ll try and make sure the under-16s and under-18s mirror each other so when the lads do step up they’ve got the best chance of succeeding.
“If you look at the academy system now, the admin work and the audit process is really intense and Simon is really well organised with that side of things. You’ve got to be up to date all the time, it isn’t just a case of the auditors giving you a week’s notice so you can get everything sorted.
“It has to be work in progress so when you do get audited all you do is the same as you do every day anyway. You can’t pull the wool over their eyes, they’ve seen it all before, so Simon’s role will be really important.”
And recruitment across all age levels will, as ever, be a high priority.
“I think at a younger age now, with the EPPP and system in place, anything within our catchment area, we are the only club,” he explained. “We have to be active to make sure we’ve got all the best players in the region as young as possible. The older they do go through, the catchment area does open up, so the big clubs can come sniffing and grabbing them.
“But within the first couple of years we’ve got to really attach those players to the club and try and keep them as long as possible, let them know if they stay as long as possible here, help them develop as people and footballers, there’s a pathway for young players at this club.
“If other clubs in the region set up academies what we’ve got to do then is rise to another team, it’s going to be competitive for the best players, but we’ve got to make sure we’re the best we can possibly be.
“If we’ve got the best system it will mean the better players want to come to us, and we’ll be the first choice of the parents and kids. We can’t just live off us being Carlisle United, that process has to be in place.
“I think it’s a good thing that we’ve now got competition in the area for the players. It means we have to up our game and be the very best we can be.
“That is the case because we’ve seen for a few years now that a high number of our first-years have been from our academy. It’s something we work hard on and at the end of the day, if I want to be successful as an under-18 coach, I’ve got to rely on the coaches producing these players.
“It’s always good for the academy when we take our own lads up to the next level because it gives them that belief that they can do it as well. But we can’t be complacent about that, we have to make sure it continues.”
Next on the agenda, following what feels like a short summer break, is the return of the lads to training, scheduled for the end of this coming week.
“There won’t be much difference for the lads, to be honest,” he insisted. “I think it’s really good that Eric will still be around because he’s got so much experience which will really help myself, Simon and all the academy coaches.
“Everybody needs that sort of person who they can lean on for help, or even just to talk through an idea with. The lads know all three of us, and they know what we expect.
“The second years all did well last year. Everybody will have heard about Sam [Fishburn] because he was the one scoring the goals and Gabe [Breeze] has been in and around the bench, but the other keeper Scott [Simons] has been in and around it and the majority of them have trained with the first team.
“That gives them a taste of what is expected of them and it’s up to them to pass that knowledge onto the first years. Whatever happened last season, all of them know they have to kick on again.
“None of them can sit on the success they had last year, it’s our job as coaches to say well done, you’ve done ok, people around the club know your name, but how do you now go to the next level?
“We can help them along the way but it’s got to come from within as well. One thing we can’t change is their desire, their personality. We can make them hungrier by dangling the carrot in front of them, but it’s up to them to grab it now.
“We’ll give them everything they possibly need from the coaches. But it’s got to come from within as well. We want them to develop, but kids have to learn how to win when they get to under-18 level.
“If you look at the academy system, the one downside is that there’s nothing to play for. These kids go from under-9 to uncer-16 without playing in a league, they don’t see a league table and they aren’t playing for points.
“It’s all about development, then all of a sudden they come into under-18 football and they’re 1-0 up in the first match of the season with three points on the line, and they have to learn how to handle that very quickly.
“There were times at the start of last season where our lads didn’t really adjust to that. When they did, they started looking at the league table and how the other teams have got on, which is when we started kicking on a bit because it brings out that competitive side.
“In the academy system, they aren’t put in the pressurised situations where they have to think about how they feel if they go 1-0 down after five minutes in an important match.”
“Having said that, if we lose players to the first team environment then I’ll happily take that,” he concluded. “We’ll happily lose players if it’s for the first team.
“If the manager and Gav [Skelton] come to us at 9am and ask for players for first team training, they can have as many as they want because it’s about developing those lads, it isn’t about us winning the league or whatever.
“We want to do well and educate them, but the end goal is to produce players for the first team.”
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