It is not often that one of the biggest clubs in Europe tracks our players but this is the case with Elliott Thorpe, one of our U13 Academy players. He is an exceptional talent and an equally impressive young man, who has recently spent one week training with Sporting Lisbon. He is a great credit to himself, his parents and our youth scheme. ET sums up what our philosophy is all about at these formative years. He shows maturity beyond his years, focus, the desire to improve and a talent that has been developed by our coaches. Our job is to ensure he fulfills his potential and goes on to play at the highest possible level. No-one can predict where that will be at such a young age.
Our last academy fixture at the weekend just gone was away to Chelsea. Next weekend I will stay in the north-west after we play Wrexham to watch our academy players pit their wits against their counterparts at Manchester City. Two Champions League clubs! In between these fixtures, our U15’s & U16’s will play QPR & Ipswich Town. We have already played against Tottenham and Nottingham Forest at every age group, while our U10’s spent a weekend in Germany participating in a top tournament against some of Europe’s elite. It does bear repeating that Cambridge United, of the Football Conference, can compete against the top clubs in this country and abroad. It makes it even more remarkable when you then add the fact that we do it all ourselves, with no funding, protection for the registration of our players or games programme provided by the authorities. It is something we need to shout from the rooftops and I hope that you all feel rightly proud of our unique youth scheme.
From my notes in an earlier programme this season, we were contacted by two Cambridge United fans, one that I went to school with many years ago and another from a local club who has a team in one of Tom Pell’s festivals, who are trying to get their company to sponsor the youth scheme. Any support that we can procure makes a massive difference. We try to constantly evolve. Whilst we could concentrate on survival, we are always intent on improving, developing and ensuring that we adhere to the criteria set by EPPP regardless of whether or not we are recognised as such by the authorities.
The long-term future is exciting. We have a number of outstanding players in our academy. We have already given three local Under 16 players a scholarship and Matt Foy, an U15 who lives in Chatteris and has been with us since the scheme started in 2006, was introduced to our supporters before the game on Saturday having been offered a scholarship to start in July 2015. Another product of our youth scheme, Luke Berry, received the Football Conference Player of the Month award at the same game and should prove an example to what can be achieved when hard work matches talent. The academy is only the tip of our youth iceberg, below which we have hundreds of players in shadow squads, development centres and various community football activities. They are proud to wear our badge and many of them attended the game against Forest Green. We are equally proud of them.
Regardless of the level, our philosophy remains consistent. We do everything we can to make the players the best they can be and ensure that we advocate high standards so that we create good young citizens as well as good young footballers. Sport can be so powerful in stressing the importance of qualities such as discipline, respect and honesty as well as showing players the right way to conduct themselves. We are believe in old fashioned values and are equally proud of the behaviour, attitude and maturity that our young players display off the pitch as we are of the talent they display on the pitch.
Our football pyramid is borne out of financial necessity but is successful because it is a good model. We ensure that we identify talent within our system, provide opportunities for progression and have an integrated approach, so even as it has grown, the youth system has maintained a common ethos and philosophy.
The commitment of our coaches is demonstrated by the respect we have earned from other clubs, both the big hitters like Chelsea and Manchester City, down to local level and the likes of Milton Colts and Waterbeach. We have come a long way. The situation that we inherited in 2006 was a youth scheme that had not just closed down but the hybrid replacement had damaged the reputation of the club still further. We had lost the trust of all local clubs and relationships were poor. Forward seven years and there has been a fundamental change. Players are happily recommended to us knowing that we do things properly, we reciprocate that respect by acting in the right manner with these clubs and the result is that hundreds of local youngsters benefit from CUFC. A number of initiatives also give opportunities to players not within our youth scheme such as festivals for young age groups, tournaments for all ages, match days in school holidays, futsal, goalkeeping courses, the match-day experience, “be a pro” week, position specific training courses, birthday parties and something for the adults, our coaches academy. That’s just to name a few! It does show the broad nature of our work and how much the youth scheme has expanded.
The same background and unique solutions is true of our sport & recreation activities that we deliver in schools during term time and at various venues during school holidays. The previous FITC scheme had closed and again the club’s reputation was damaged with all of the schools that had been let down, which is even harder to repair as another provider takes the work. Our philosophy has been based on the same values that underpin our youth scheme and the innovative “thinking outside the box” approach to achieve our aims has created a partnership with Sports Xtra. That has allowed us to deliver non football courses such as fencing, gymnastics, dodgeball, archery, tag rugby and kwik cricket to name just a few. It has also opened up the opportunity to run activities such as Spy, Detective & Adventure, which appeals to children of all ages and sporting ability. From zero and the name of the club as an organisation that schools would trust in tatters, we now work exclusively in 40 primary schools running over 60 courses each week. We are adding staff by the week to cope with demand.
The outcome is that in addition to 1400 players within our youth development scheme, over 1000 school children benefit from coaching delivered by our Youth & Community Trust every week. We also have ten full-time staff, a plethora of part-time coaches and, in a new initiative, a team of apprentice coaches. They are like our own scholars in so far as they are young, ambitious, inexperienced but desperate to have a career in football. Our job is to help them develop into coaches that can progress into a full-time position with us.
They have plenty of role models. We all started by coaching in schools. I first saw a nine year old Josh Coulson taking an after school club at Colville many years ago! Bonz, Ginge and Pelly have all come through the same route. Matt Walker’s first role with us was coaching a shadow squad, James Cutting coached in a development centre and now runs the entire system involving over 1000 players. His attitude and approach shows what we are all about. He is a perfectionist. He must have that Vince Lombardi quote somewhere! But he has developed the system, constantly made improvements, rationalised our coaches, implemented a structured coaching syllabus, extended the age range and added the small details that make such a difference. For example, every player receives a link to a YouTube clip of their skill of the week and training topic demonstrated by a first team player before every training session.
We are different to other clubs in that because our Youth & Community Trust is important to us, we talk to all prospective signings about it. We talk to them about the ethos and philosophy of the club. They buy into it. That is why they are willing participants when we ask them to get involved in projects. For example, anyone who had seen Tom Elliott, Delano Sam-Yorke, Ryan Donaldson & Harrison Dunk take on our U13’s at the Big Weekend would know what I mean. The kids loved it. And so did our players!
To that end, two of the players are getting practically involved in two activities in October Half Term. Our record breaking goalkeeper, Chris Maxwell, is teaming up with our goalkeeping coach, Martin Davies, to run a course for budding young GK’s at Hinchinbrooke School. Liam Hughes, famously a winner in Soccer AM’s Skill Skool when he faced a scholar at Torquay United to start one of our fundraising walks will be dusting down some of those tricks for our own version at Witchford Village College. It is great when the players get involved. In the summer, many of them visited our camps and throughout the next academic year we will support a number of initiatives and campaigns within schools.
We also welcome a new addition to our youth & community trust staff, Gary Marheineke. He will be coaching at every level of our youth scheme as well as developing disability programmes within schools, which he will deliver. Gary plays for the Great Britain amputee team and will be a great inspiration to many children as to how you can overcome a disability to participate in sport.
There is always a time lag between the hard work that goes on behind the scenes before the results are evident. That is what is happening at our club. We are now properly fulfilling the role befitting our status within the local community and that will only grow. We are now producing our own scholars through our academy and that will continue and grow in numbers such is the quality of our young players. And what we all want the club to achieve will happen. No-one can say when, but it will happen because everything is in place to make it happen.
Our opponents tonight deserve great respect, not just for their start this season but for their record from January onwards. They have shown title winning form over 30 games, not just ten. Kevin Wilkin is one of the few managers in this league we ever see at matches and he deserves huge credit for what he has created at Nuneaton and achieved since taking the reins. He’s a top bloke and proving to be a top manager.
Enjoy the game.