What a fantastic night it was on Tuesday to set up today’s second round FA Cup tie against illustrious opponents from League One live on BT Sports. Whilst the finance for the club is hugely welcome and for those of us on the Board an overwhelming sense of relief was the emotion at the final whistle, quite rightly the feeling amongst the staff, players and fans would have been joy, excitement and pride. The way the players have gone about their work since 1 July, the diligence of our football operation before that date in putting this group of players together, the way our staff have worked so thoroughly and professionally in creating the right working environment and the support you have given us throughout means that we deserve another crack at Football League opposition. Whilst we all want to progress still further, we know the magnitude of the task. This competition will always evoke memories of great deeds from the past though and I vividly recollect the other club from the Steel City being put to the sword more than 20 years ago. I stood that afternoon in the NRE watching John Beck’s team defy the odds with a stunning 4-0 win. So this afternoon is really about the club gaining profile, a fantastic opportunity for our players to showcase their ability to a national audience, wetting our appetite for the real prize of the season by facing Football League opposition for two consecutive home games for the first time since relegation in 2005 and potential memories for you, our loyal fans. I have so many from the “glory years” in the early nineties. Our job now is to create some more for our next generation of supporters and the players have already started to create some of them this season.
One of the proudest groups of people at the club on Tuesday night was our youth department. Luke Berry’s brace of goals, a calm, composed finish for the first and a trademark “artful dodger” run for the second culminating in a typically brave and adept header belying his stature had us purring and recalling his journey from an 11 year old to a seasoned first team player. Players like Luke Berry don’t grow on trees. They are the culmination of a huge amount of work by a great number of people, some no longer at the club. It would be the right moment to highlight Nolan Keeley’s contribution to Luke’s development and stress that whilst everyone will have been beguiled by his talents since his first start in February 2011, Luke’s formative years with us started in May 2006 with the resurrection of our youth scheme. I liked Terry Baker’s analysis of him last week at Salisbury. He said that whilst Darren Ferguson was always referring to Peterborough United’s formation and their “Midfield Diamond”, our “Midfield Diamond” is Luke Berry! It was my easiest decision as manager by a million miles to give Luke Berry his first start against the now defunct “Diamonds” from Rushden and the fact that one of our home grown, local players has already represented the club with such distinction on over 100 occasions aged just 21 years old and played to such a level in both games against Bury should be a source of great pride to everyone, not just our football staff.
I still believe that even in the transient world of football, which is becoming more cosmopolitan every season even below the top level, there is something special about producing your own players. It gives the club an identity. It gives the club a potential never ending stream of talented young players. It gives the club a heart-beat and soul.
When things were bleak in the winter of 2011, some incredibly hard working, honest and passionate graduates from our scholarship scheme rescued this club from oblivion. The club has benefitted and continues to benefit financially from players such as John Ruddy and Michael Morrison that have moved higher up the football pyramid. I saw John Ruddy play at Anfield on Wednesday and despite conceding five goals, four incredible strikes against one of the best players in the world, the fact that he started his career at Cambridge United and is now playing at the highest level is an inspiration to the next generation. A real legacy manifested by our Youth Development Room named in his honour. Interestingly, for all their millions spent in the transfer market, Liverpool’s best player in the last decade and arguably of all time, and the real heart beat of that club, is Steven Gerrard, a product of their academy. The player cut most slack by the crowd against Norwich was Jon Flanagan, another scouser and youth product. Supporters recognise their ambitions and passion for the club in local youngsters that can in effect live their dream.
At our club, as well as Luke Berry, ex Comberton Crusaders and Bassingbourn Village College, we have Josh Coulson, ex Cherry Hinton Lions and Netherhall School. Liam Hughes may be from further afield (although he’s now been adopted by Chatteris!) and may have joined us at a later stage in his career (aged 15 years old from Scunthorpe United), he is another product of our scholarship scheme. I don’t want to embarrass him but I do think of the tale of the “ugly duckling” when I think of his development in the first team. We all know that in the Hans Christian Andersen story, the ugly duckling matures into a beautiful swan. I am certainly not saying that Liam is beautiful (!) but you will understand the analogy. For someone who has not always been acclaimed by everyone, it is great credit to him and fantastic to see how he has progressed to become such an integral part of our team.
James Akintunde was the 18th graduate of our scholarship scheme to make their first team debut since the youth programme was re-born in our FA Cup Trophy tie at Salisbury last Saturday. He was joined on the bench by another second year scholar, Ryan Horne, both of whom have impressed with consistently good performances for CRC this season. There are others with the potential to make the next step but whether that happens will be down to their desire to make it happen as much as their ability. Can they answer the question “are you giving everything to become a professional?” in the affirmative like Luke Berry has since the day he joined the club in May 2006 or will they follow a greater percentage of promising youngsters with the talent but not the mentality who have fallen by the wayside and now ply their trade at a lower level, in most cases below the level they should be playing. One thing is for certain. The landscape in which these players are trying to come through has changed unrecognisably from those initial years prior to February 2011. We have developed still further since October 2012 with the appointment of a Head Coach unrivalled as far as I am concerned in terms of knowledge, coaching ability and expertise at winning football matches whilst developing individuals.
The tempo and quality of training, the mentality and ability of the first team players, the professionalism and demands of the whole football operation and how it is completely integrated from top to bottom make the environment perfect for the development of young players. It also means the bar has never been higher. Another thing is certain. We will never have the situation again where someone like Luke Berry has been ready to play in the first team for months prior to his eventual debut. Richard and I know everyone coming through the system, not just our scholars but from our Under 9’s upwards. Development encompasses every player at the football club and every member of staff. There is one philosophy, one structure, one ethos, one strategy and one vision. We are finally one club. And as someone who has stood on the terraces, I feel privileged to be in the position to cast, direct and implement this vision.
Finally, it is important that you fully understand the magnitude of our academy operation and just how far we punch above our weight. There are more Luke Berry’s in our U9’s to U16’s. By that I mean more talent, more potential scholars and more potential first team players than ever. It is the culmination of almost eight years hard work, battling against the odds, confounding the football world and now earning the respect of the elite clubs in this country and abroad. In the last month we have played, competed with, excelled against and in some cases outshone Crystal Palace, Norwich City, Southampton and Coventry City in all age groups from U9’s to U14’s. Last weekend our U16’s played in a festival against Nottingham Forest, Hull City and Sheffield Wednesday. The previous Sunday they played West Bromwich Albion. This weekend, every squad will have played against Tottenham Hotspur at their magnificent new training ground. When you consider the way we are treated by the football authorities, the status of our club and our total lack of facilities, it really is remarkable. And it has been built from nothing. We know that our only way of gaining EPPP status for our academy is by the club being promoted to the Football League despite the fact that our games programme shows the respect we have amongst the highest category of clubs within this classification, all of whom play us at every opportunity. We also know the only way of addressing the second issue is a successful planning application for the Sporting Village. They are our two major battles ahead in 2014.
Whilst it is incredulous that the FA can set up a commission investigating the development of young English players with everyone totally ambivalent to our situation, it would be even more incredulous if the local authorities do not support the opportunity for unbelievable facilities to be developed for the future citizens in our city through a Sporting Village, at no cost to the tax payer. They could help us tackle a raft of issues within our local community from crime prevention to health & wellbeing to education and create a massive increase in participation across a wide breadth of sport with all the potential associated positive character building qualities for thousands of youngsters as well as excellence pathways for the most gifted and talented one percent. We must make it happen or we will have failed the next generation.
Our next generation of players are coming through. The damage of that decision in 2005 has almost been rectified. We have five scholars starting in July that have been with us from the start. More will follow. We will continue to look forward, strive for better and look at every way in which we can improve.
Our fanbase is unbelievable considering the paucity of success over the last decade. We are doing everything we can to rectify that and give you all the success you deserve.
Enjoy today. Let’s do our best to make it an afternoon to remember and again, please do not underestimate the role that you can play. You are crucial. Keep making a noise!