New under-18 boss Mark Birch welcomes his group back to work at the end of the next week with a behind-the-scenes restructure of the academy now complete ahead of the new campaign.
The adopted Cumbrian first came to Carlisle just over 21 years ago, and picked up the captain’s armband during his three-year spell which saw him make close to 150 appearances in all competitions for the Blues.
Having coached at all levels of the club’s academy system, he now makes the almost seamless transition to managing the 16 to 18-year-old hopefuls, with Eric Kinder at his side in a part-time coaching role.
“At the end of last season we made some changes,” he explained. “Eric wanted to step down from his current role but we were really interested in keeping him as part of the club.
“A club like us can’t do without the knowledge and experience Eric’s got, especially with younger people stepping into other roles, he’s somebody we can lean on. I’ve stepped up to be professional development phase coach, which is managing the under-18s, and Simon Friel will be taking on the academy manager role.”
“It’s something I’ve always seen myself doing,” he told us. “Coaching is my forte, I’m not someone who likes sitting in offices doing paperwork, I like to be out on the grass working with players.
“I think I’ve worked with every single age group from under-7 upwards, so I think now as the under-18 coach I’ve got a good idea of what is going on in those younger age groups.
“At the end of the day, we want the best players at this level and if I can identify little things we can change in the younger age groups that will help the lads who are in that programme. I think that will be a good thing for everybody.
“I don’t think my role will change massively and you have to give Eric credit for that because he’s really helped me with the transition. There’s been times in the last two years where he’s stepped back and let me make a decision, some of them have failed, but it’s been about me learning.
“I’m sure sometimes Eric has thought differently, but he’s let me do it then we’ve talked about why it maybe wasn’t the best thing afterwards. It would have been easy for Eric to just tell me what he would do, but he’s allowed me to grow.
“Over the last two years myself and Eric have worked really closely on the training ground and on match days. To be honest, I don’t really see much change in that, we’ve got a similar way we like to play and train. It isn’t about me coming in and changing everything, it’s what’s best for the club and the players.”
As to what he’s taking on, he told us: “It will be everything regarding the under-18 group. It’s about managing their individual progress, their progress as a team as well, and trying to get them as close and ready for first team football as we can.
“We try to make the transition from youth team to first team football as smooth as it possibly can be. We’ve been quite successful in the past couple of years in getting players through to professional contracts.
“What we’ve probably got to be better with is getting them game ready for first team. The more ready they are the quicker they can progress, from being young professionals to fully established first team players.”
“To achieve that it’s about understanding what it takes to be a professional footballer,” he continued. “It’s about knowing the demands, the expectations put on them, the psychological side, the pressures that come with the role.
“And physically, technically and tactically, you’ve got to have a good understanding of what the expectations are. It is tough, and a certain amount has to go onto the player as well.
“At the minute I don’t think anybody can question the amount of players we’ve got through, but it’s my job to get as many through as possible. Everybody wants to see as many Cumbrian players or players coming through the youth system playing for the first team. That’s what a club like this has been built on in the past.
“I think we’ve always been active. If you look at the Josh Galloway and Jarrad Branthwaite situation, and others like Taylor Charters and Josh Dixon, they are players who’ve been in the system from very young ages.
“They’ve got a good affinity with the club. They knew the expectations of the club, so when they came in on a full-time basis they knew everything about it, they knew the staff, and the transition was smooth.
“There were no new faces, they could bed into first team football and they had those familiar faces around the club that they could always come and talk to, or we could go to them. They had trust in the people in and around the club.”
And that reputation for bringing players through is one the new under-18s manager is keen to protect and develop further.
“We have some high profile names at the moment with Branthwaite and Henderson, and they’re the ones who obviously get the club a bit of publicity,” he said. “But you can’t stop there, you can’t keep using their names forever.
“It’s got to be a conveyor belt of these young lads. We’re not going to sell a player for the money they went for every time, but can we get them into the first team, and can we then create players that are going to play 200 or 300 games for Carlisle United in the future? That’s got to be the plan as well, to keep local players around what we’re doing.
“With us, if you want to be a professional footballer, a club like this and this size is a good route to go through. We’re seeing more players starting at a lower level, going out, getting first team football as early as possible and building a career.
“Some people want to go into the big clubs too soon and then you just become a number. Clubs like this, if you dedicate yourself to it, you’ve got to have that natural ability as well, you’re going to have a good chance of playing professional football.
“It’s not always that smooth but this is a good size club to come and give it a good shot, learn your trade and if you can do well, you can kick on and get your rewards.
“I think the important thing here is to carry on the tradition of producing players, that’s something that the fans like seeing and it’s something we’ve got to continue to do. The fans like nothing more than a Cumbrian lad playing in the first team.”
“Overall I’m really looking forward to it,” he concluded. “It feels a bit strange because the transition has been there for a long time. I’ve been heavily involved in what has been going on so there won’t be much difference.
“I think as a whole what we’ve done in the last couple of years has worked, so I won’t be coming in and trying to rewrite the book on under-18 football because I don’t think we’re far away.”
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