Hear from the U's Director of Football
Today we have been at the Football League Exit Trials at Wellbeck College in Leicestershire for U16 players released by clubs in the midlands. On Monday, we were at Charterhouse in Surrey watching players released by southern clubs and tomorrow we are up to Thorpe Arch, Leeds United's Training Ground, to see if we can find another Liam Hughes!
There is one big difference this year compared to our last seven visits to these trials. This season we are only looking for two or three players instead of a whole intake of scholars. The reason was highlighted by Aaron Mason's excellent article in the Cambridge News last Friday.
In May 2006, the first group of Under 9's were recruited to join Cambridge United's reformed youth programme. At the time, we all knew that to repair the damage of closing a thriving Centre of Excellence by the Board of Directors in 2005 would take 10 years to fully repair. For us to have players in every age group that had come through our youth system, in other words for these lads to be eighteen years old trying to earn professional contracts, would be ten years. But we knew that we had to produce players before then. No-one would wait 10 years!
We were helped by knowing the likes of Josh Coulson, Rory McAuley & Luke Berry were already in our ranks in the older age groups. They have since established themselves at this level and each have made over 100 first team appearances. We shouldn't forget Adam Marriott, Jordan Patrick and Sam Ives, who also came from our schoolboy programme, through the scholarship scheme and then broke into the first team. But that anomaly apart, we have always approached the task with a parallel recruitment strategy.
The short term involved endless hours of recruitment to sign players released by clubs at sixteen years old, which often involved scouting at "Exit Trials" but always involved patience, persistence and the ability to sell our club ahead of others far bigger and far higher in the football pyramid. There were no agents, no money and no negotiating contracts involved but it was great practice for my job now. The principle is the same. Persuading players to come here as a scholar or a professional means selling them a vision and them buying into our philosophy. Darryl Coakley, Blaine Hudson, Jack Eades, Jonathon Thorpe and James Brighton were signed at this age and all played in the first team.
It is interesting though to note that apart from Liam Hughes, the players to have established themselves in our first team, have all been with us in their formative years. That is what we can now look forward to in the future. That is why our youth programme is so important. It doesn't just produce players, it produces players who have developed within the culture and philosophy of the club from an early age. You don't need their buy in. They actually start to create it.
As well as these quick gains, we made sure the long term aim of improving the quality within our academy and ensuring there was a conveyor belt of talent for many years was achieved by creating a development pyramid. This started on a small scale, with a few development centres but as it has grown to what we have now, which is 1000 youngsters in 16 locations across the region, an additional tier of shadow squads was formed, to bridge the gap to the academy. This has enabled us to form a scouting network without scouts, form brilliant relationships with local mini league and colts clubs, create a pool of talent that would enable youngsters to develop at their own pace and, crucially, enable us to sign the best possible group of Under 9's every season into our academy. Responsible for all this work, creating a system that has flourished and grown, was Tom Pell. He coached that first group of Under 9's and eight years later, he is integral to the success of our academy and crucial to our continued development.
Back to Aaron's insightful article and eight years on, three of those players from 2006, Jake Chambers-Shaw, Owen Boddey and Dylan Williams, are in our Under 16's and will start their scholarships this July. Two others, Dom Mason and Justin Leavers, have shown the value of our development system as a whole by progressing from a development centre, into our shadow squads, to the academy and again from this summer, will become a scholar. When you see the quality and depth of talent from U9's to Under 16's in our academy, you will realise the quality of work by our staff over the last eight years. It has been truly outstanding. My favourite question when we play the really big clubs is "how on earth (or words to that effect!) do you do it? They are incredulous. How have you started a scheme from nothing? How have you done it without any funding? How do you get your players? How do you keep your players? How do you go on tours? How do you get your games programme? How come you are so good and better than many clubs with EPPP status, which gives them funding, protection and a games programme? The answer is simple. Our staff. They have created the culture, the philosophy, our way of doing things. We revel in being unique. We relish the challenge of doing it all against the odds. We take a great pride in competing against the best clubs in this country and abroad. So do our players and it creates something that cannot be easily replicated. It will serve this club well for many years to come, regardless of the authorities ever waking up to the fact that clubs in the Football Conference can produce professional footballers.
If you don't believe me, then look no further than our opponents tonight for another example of a proper club, with a commitment to developing local young players within their locality despite a lack of funding. Wrexham also run a youth development programme without funding which produces young players for their first team squad. There are also a long list of graduates from their academy who have signed for some of the big clubs that are their neighbours in the North West and West Midlands. We have great respect for Wrexham at every level. From Andy Davies and Liverpool legend, Joey Jones, in their youth scheme, to Andy Morrell, Billy Barr and Michael Oakes with their first team, to secretary Geraint Parry, their board and even the friendly stewards when we visit the Racecourse Ground. Tonight will be tough, especially if Andy gets his boots on, but more than anything our clubs are kindred spirits in being committed to the next generation of players. Maybe the authorities will understand one day that professional clubs, some bigger than those with membership to the Football League and eligibility to EPPP, are alive and kicking in the Football Conference and are just as capable of producing players for their respective first teams, the Football League, the Premier League and national teams as ever before.
I have just watched a DVD titled "The Class of 92". It is a documentary about Neville G, Neville P, Butt, Scholes, Beckham and Giggs coming through the youth ranks at Manchester United and going on to win every possible prize, including the historic treble in 1999, seven years after winning the FA Youth Cup. More so, they created a core of players at that club for many years which culminated in unparalleled success for an unprecedented period of time. What shines through in the DVD is their feeling for the club, their loyalty to each other and their unbelievable humility despite everything they achieved. It is a great example to young players at all clubs, especially one like ours, that everything we preach is true. Nothing is achieved without hard work; character is just as important as talent and for players to be successful, unshakeable self-belief in their ability and humility are not mutually exclusive qualities.
We are trying to create our own dynasty. Josh Coulson, a scholar back in 2006 who played against the likes of Aaron Ramsay when we reached the last 32 of the FA Cup, is leading the way with over 200 first team appearances. We were delighted when he signed a new contract for another two and a half years. Liam Hughes is following suit and also recently committed his future to the club until June 2016. What a partnership they formed on Saturday. Then there is Will Norris, a young keeper who we signed from Royston, who we all believe has a big future and has just started his career. He is another young player who has trusted us with his development by signing a new contract. Then there are the likes of Bobby-Joe Taylor, Liam Hurst and others within our scholarship programme. You will have read the ambitions of our quintet of new scholars in the Cambridge News. Now actions must follow words. Those mentioned above, and those striving for a professional contract, need to step up to the plate. The bar has never been set higher at this club, there is quality above and below our scholars and development players. Time doesn't stand still. As the photo inside and outside my office says, "Who's next?"
Enjoy the game.