THISafternoon I am writing about someone who has made a massive contribution to the success of our club over the last 18 months. As always, a lot of hard work precedes the fruit of the labours and there is usually a time lag between one and the other. The turnaround of the club's fortunes on the pitch therefore didn't just start in July 2013, but can be traced back to February 2011. There has been ups and downs along the way, and progress wasn't always a smooth upward curve, but one of the key appointments came in our darkest hours from that moment.
When we formed a community trust in 2011, we advertised for a number of roles. One applicant was Ben Strang. I remembered his name immediately because I tried to sign him as a scholar when he was released from Charlton aged 16 years old. I won't tell you the club he chose, but back then they were in the championship so there were no hard feelings! We interviewed him based on that more than anything and was immediately impressed by his maturity and the way he conducted himself despite his young age. So we offered him a job. Not the job he applied for but something else. We didn't know how he could really contribute but we were certain that he would contribute. Get them on the bus and then find the right seat for them. If you don't get them on the bus when you get the chance, then you miss out on talent that may need developing and may need repositioning but is talent nonetheless. We've always had the philosophy of developing staff as well as players and this story shows the value of being people centred in recruitment.
Ben combined a role as an academy coach with developing our school holiday football courses. He was an okay coach and the less said about the other part of his role the better! However, at the beginning of February 2011, a few months after he'd started working for us, Ben knocked on my old office door. That day, Thursday 3 February, I had agreed to take temporary charge of the first team, following the departure of Martin Ling and John Schofield. I was sitting there, after 5pm, contemplating the enormity of the task and my complete lack of knowledge of the league when the offer of help arrived from an unlikely source. Ben explained that he worked for Scout7 on Saturday afternoons, had seen a lot of games in the Football Conference and thought that he could give me some knowledge of teams and players if I needed it. I did. So he asked for a job. I told him that I didn't know if I would be manager for a month, a week or a day but that it was my intention to find a manager as quickly as possible and that interviewing prospective candidates was my immediate priority. After an honest discussion, we came up with a deal. For those who know CUFC, they will immediately recognise the first part; he would work in this role for nothing until the end of the season. If we stayed up, and I was satisfied with his work, then I would appoint him as Chief Scout, regardless of who we appointed as manager. Even then my idea for the first team set-up, having seen how things had been organised in my five years at the club, was that support staff should be appointed by the club, not the manager. We agreed and set off on a journey that would have many ups and downs, a few setbacks, loads of frustrations, but eventually, the ultimate prize.
To put things into context, in my time at the club up to that moment, there was never a "proper" scout. And in the three preceding years, there had been no scout at all. We recruited players on recommendations from agents. We didn't watch games. We didn't plan. We didn't have a profile for players in each position. We didn't have a wage structure. We didn't have any intellectual property as a club about recruitment; all the contacts went with a manager or his assistant when they were sacked or resigned. Crazy. Ben changed everything.
Our first signing was crucial; Ricky Wellard on loan. I remember that he raised the average age of our midfield for his debut at Grimsby to almost twenty, joining teenagers Hughes, Berry, Patrick and McAuley.
They were difficult days. We quickly learnt that if you have no money, and are struggling on the pitch, then it doesn't matter who you identify; it's almost impossible to sign good players. On the loan window deadline week, we started with 20 targets and ended up with our 20th option at 4.55pm on the final day. I remember that signing. His greatest attributes were that he was quick and cheap. We knew that he couldn't play but with five minutes to go to the deadline, he was marginally better than no-one. His greatest contribution proved to be giving me the scores from games involving our rivals near and in the relegation zone as after one 20 minute appearance had left such an impression on me that he wasn't named in the sixteen again! We both agreed that we never wanted the club to be in such a position again.
When Richard joined us in October 2012, it was the key appointment to enhance and lead our football operation. However, the staff around him had already been assembled and the fact that Richard rated them all so highly was testament to the quality of our appointments and the calibre of these individuals. It was vindication of the work we had started that we needed. Only Greg Reid had worked under previous regimes. Matt Walker (Sports Science), Mark Bonner (Academy), Martin Davies (Goalkeeper Coach) and Ben had all started their Cambridge United careers in the youth scheme and then their roles developed to encompass the first team. It is how we created "one club" football wise and a philosophy transcending individual age groups and enabling a pathway to be established from the youngest development centre player to the first team. It also ensured a professionalism and common ethos throughout the entire football operation.
In January 2013, we made the decision to start our recruitment process for the following season by clearing the decks, allowing players that were contracted beyond the end of the season to move on. Richard, Ben and I watched an incredible amount of games between then and the end of that season so that we could identify a group of players to sign that summer. It was crucial that we moved fast and secured these signings as soon as possible. We targeted ten. We signed nine. And they formed the basis of the squad that won twice at Wembley to win the FA Trophy and our passport back to the Football League. There were some people who didn't get on the pitch at Wembley, didn't get in any photos and didn't get any credit but played a massive part in the success. Ben was one. Without him, it couldn't have been achieved.
The reason that I've told this story is that Ben is leaving us to join a championship club. We have fought off a couple of other approaches in the past but this is a job and an opportunity that he can't turn down and we respect that. He is an ambitious young man, who has all the attributes to go to the very top in his chosen field. Scouting is his passion and we were able to give him an opportunity to make his passion into his full-time job. Ben shows all the character traits that we look for in our players. He is hard working, committed, honest, humble, trustworthy. He is also very talented. We sincerely wish him every success in the future and he will always be welcome at the RCAS, as long as it's not to poach any of our players!
This story highlights two things. Firstly, that pathways for staff exist at the club for staff as well as players and that by recruiting the right people, you can then find them the right role. Also, exactly with players, if the right experience exists in key leadership roles, then young, inexperienced staff with potential can develop, grow and become key members of the organisation. Secondly, the journey since February 2011 means that CUFC is now a highly regarded club and this role is a highly sought after position, which has been reflected by the number and quality of applicants.
The game is all about players. In fact every job at the club, directly or indirectly, should be about supporting the players. It the players that dictate how far the club can go. A club will only ever go as far as the players can take them. So recruitment is crucial and Ben's contribution to our promotion back into the Football League should never be overlooked and will always be remembered by the staff who worked with him.
We wish him all the best for the future. But the traditional proclamation "The King is dead, long live the King" also applies. We will adapt, evolve and move forward again.
Having spoken about players of the future in this article, we today welcome our fans of the future to the South Stand, some of whom may be attending a game at the RCAS for the first time. Let's create an atmosphere they will remember.
Enjoy the game.