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7 August 2014

Jez Says - 5th August

I thought that I would devote my this column to highlight the value of youth development to our football club.  We have the opportunity to host a Premier League club tonight due to the relationship that have been developed between our respective academies, with our staff and players earning respect for our level of performance in regular fixtures.  This was cemented still further when Elliot Thorpe joined Tottenham last season.  He is a very talented young player and everyone involved should feel proud of the role Cambridge United played in his development.  We will watch his progress with great interest and I am sure that he will always remember his formative years at Cambridge United.

Talking of which, another young player that has developed through our academy also left the club last week.  Luke Berry joined Cambridge United when we re-formed the youth system in May 2006 and progressed through our schoolboy programme to become a scholar in July 2008, earn a professional contract at the beginning of 2010, make his full debut against Rushden in February 2011 and then go onto play over 100 games in the first team.  Whilst everyone will remember his goals last season, I will recall a picture of his celebration after scoring on Boxing Day that year against Braintree.  The cheeky grin said everything about his attitude; he just loves playing football.  Whilst everyone will remember his contribution to our success last season, I will recall a picture of him playing against Hayes & Yeading in a rugby scrum cap following a cut he sustained trying to score with a typically brave header against Forest Green the previous week.  And that was two weeks after an ankle injury was supposed to have kept him out for the season!  He took bravery to another level.  It is a remarkable fact, but as a 19 year old playing his first games in professional football, Luke was crucial in our survival in the Football Conference.  We wouldn't have stayed up without him.  It is also a reminder of how far the club has come since the winter of 2010/11.  One moment summed it up.  In his first start, Luke received the ball in the inside left position just inside our half.  He received the ball, opened up with an excellent first touch, looked up and almost executed a perfect long diagonal pass for a runner on the right hand flank.  The ball ran out of play, a yard too far in front of the intended recipient.  The main stand rose, the crowd applauded and a everyone in the stadium saw a glimpse of hope for the future; a precocious talent and one that we had developed.

Whatever everyone thinks about the events of last week, let's not forget what Luke has done for CUFC.  He's given his all in every minute on the pitch, he's given blood for the cause and he's contributed hugely to our survival and then success.  He has been part of the whole journey.  He gave us hope in those final three months of the 2010/11 season and galvanised the team to scramble enough points to survive.  He sacrificed himself for the team in 2011/12 to effectively give us a 12th player by running himself into the ground, playing as a third midfield player and second striker at the same time.  And then he's developed into a player that every CUFC has enjoyed watching and every member of staff in our academy is rightly proud of and holds in such high esteem.  

Football is football.  It is a transient industry.  Players move on.  We wish Luke all the best for the remainder of his career, thank him for his efforts at CUFC and his legacy to the academy will be a player that we can hold up as an example to every one of our youngsters.

Someone who's departure was more under the radar, is Rory McAuley.  He is another youth product, another fantastic advert for our academy and someone who showed unbelievable character, bravery, honesty and commitment during his career with CUFC.  I will never forget his winning goal at Luton.  And like Luke, he gave blood on many occasions.  That header was scored with him donning a headband due to a cut he sustained three days earlier putting his head where it hurts against Darlington.  Whilst we celebrate the success of last season, we should not forget the players who fought for the club when we were in trouble and gave everything for the cause.  Rory will be a brilliant signing for Dartford, he would be a brilliant addition to any club and his legacy to the academy will be that he changed the structure of how professional contracts are awarded for all those who followed him.  We offered him a "3rd year scholarship" to continue playing for CRC because we so disagreed with the first team manager's decision to release him.  Three months later, after a change in first team management, Rory made his debut at Ebbsfleet and earned himself a professional contract.  From his example, development contracts were born.  The likes of Liam Hughes, Bobby-Joe Taylor, Liam Hurst, James Akintunde, Ryan Horne and Matt Lowe have all benefited as a result.

Two other CUFC youth products have also moved onto full time professional clubs this summer.  Blaine Hudson has joined Wrexham and Adam Marriott has signed for Stevenage.  I really hope that Adam has found the key to unlock his talent because he's a great lad and someone that I feared could fail to fulfil his potential.  

When you look at this list, it is great credit to all involved in our youth scheme.  Next season there will be Luke Berry playing in League One, Josh Coulson, Liam Hughes and Adam Marriott playing in League Two, while Rory McAuley and Blaine Hudson will be playing in the Conference.  If you then look back on players at the club before relegation in 2005, you can add John Ruddy and Michael Morrison to that list, both of whom will be playing in the Championship.  Then the likes of Jack Collison, George Thorne, Liam O'Neill and Samir Carruthers, who left the club prior to appearing in the first team and have all made appearances in the Premier League.  

It is a conveyor belt that we are determined to continue.  The benefit to the club is huge.  It is the method in which we can create our own assets.  We have received compensation for players who have left us before their scholarship, significant transfer fees once players have established themselves in the first team and even money for players who may have left us for nothing but have then moved on again, such as Adam Marriott. 

But it's not just about money.  Our 18 graduates of the scholarship scheme to play in the first team since the youth scheme re-formed in May 2006 have totalled over 500 appearances.  These players also create continuity and stability.  Josh has been here eight years, the same length of time as Luke and Rory; Liam has been here six years, the same length of time as Blaine.  Jake Chambers-Shaw and Dylan Williams, first year scholars, have been here since they were eight years old.  Matt Foy, already offered a scholarship despite being a year younger, has been here since he was seven!  Lee Watkins, now in our Under 15's, started even younger, aged six!  And most importantly they define the club; they believe in our values, philosophy and create our DNA. 

Rest assured, there are plenty more talented players in the academy aiming to emulate the achievements of those listed above.  And EPPP will only make us better...  

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