Jez Says - 1st March
Recently I have spoken about the progress of our academy over the last eight years which now makes us less reliant on signing players released at 16 years old from the Football League Exit trials. Next season will see five players graduate into our scholarship scheme from our 9's to 16's programme. Day release from school for our Under 13's, 14's, 15's & 16's will increase our contact time for these players and ensure that we continue to produce our own scholars from a pool of youngsters that is constantly improving in terms of quality and quantity.
One of the members of staff to have contributed to this progress has been Marc Tracy, more commonly and affectionately known as "Ginge". In the last couple of weeks we have learnt of his decision to take up an opportunity at another club. He has worked within our academy for three and a half years, so while we never want to lose any member of staff, there is no animosity and he leaves with our best wishes. Ginge has been fundamental in helping us to improve the games and tours programme at every age group but the players have done the really hard work of ensuring we continue to play these clubs by competing so well in these fixtures and impressing all of our opponents with our quality, professionalism and general standard of play.
Things constantly evolve and our academy is no different. Staff have left before, most notably Steve Lilley,who went into teaching, and Matt Walker, who left for a fantastic opportunity at Watford but thankfully is now back with us in charge of the Sports Science for the whole football operation and the education of our scholars. Longevity, continuity and stability have been the bywords of our youth development scheme at every level. We don't have a high turnover of staff. We have talented, hard working, committed staff who in my opinion could work at any club at any level. The likes of Mark Bonner, James Cutting and Jake Hammond are unsung heroes who are the reason why our youth scheme can flourish against all the odds. Add to them Martin Davies and Matt Walker, who combine their role with our youngsters with their first team involvement, and you start to appreciate the quality of people that we have providing this excellence pathway. Most recently we have added Stephen Payne to our coaching staff, with responsibility for developing the U12-U16 academy players. I can already see that he will be an excellent addition and help elevate our academy to the next level. We never strive to stand still. We always strive to be better.
I had better keep quiet for a few weeks after my rant about everything involving the footballing authorities but my points all lead to one basic argument. Professional football clubs do exist outside the Premier League and Football League. There are clubs, of which we are one, who have an academy, a full-time scholarship programme and the potential outcome of a 52 week/year full-time professional contract. All we want is to be treated the same as our counterparts one league higher. Professional clubs in League Two get treated the same as professional clubs in League One. If they meet the criteria for EPPP, they receive funding, compensation rights to protect them against losing any of their registered players to another club and a games programme. All we want, as a professional football club in the Football Conference, is the same opportunity. Nothing watered down, no favours, no concessions. If we were promoted and met the criteria for a category three club in EPPP, next season we would receive funding of £270,000. We would need to find £135,000. Now we have to fund it all. Over these last eight years, that is over £2,000,000 in funding that we have not been able to access. Wow! At present, the trust operates the scholarship programme, academy, shadow squads, development centres and football holiday courses. We have spent eight years trying to get this operation to break even whilst enhancing the quality throughout, so the best players have the best possible chance to fulfil their potential. This business now turns over around £600,000/year and sustains itself. How is that possible? Because of the unbelievable dedication, ability and work ethic of our staff. Their hours/week are ridiculous. If they equated their salaries to an hourly rate, they wouldn't do it. They do it because they passionately believe in the cause.
But it's wrong. We want to raise money for our trust to expand our community work. We want to liberate the trust from sustaining a football programme. We want the trust to make a bigger contribution to every cross section of the community within Cambridge and Cambridgeshire to really achieve our mission statement. But we are hamstrung by a lack of facilities and a lack of funding for our youth scheme, which means that generating income and survival are always our first priority. With the current rules, only promotion can change the situation.
Why is our academy different to any club in League Two? Why do half the clubs in the Premier League play against our academy? I want the football authorities to recognise that professional football clubs exist outside the Football League. Stop calling us Non League. It just perpetuates the myth that there are only 92 professional clubs in England. Not true. I cannot understand the unfairness of ineligibility for EPPP based solely that our first team are playing in the "wrong" league. How can anyone justify our exclusion? Or that of any other professional club who can meet the criteria? The authorities say it will open the floodgates and loads of clubs will apply. Well try looking at the criteria. At most, a handful of clubs outside the Football League could or would have any hope of meeting it. Why can't we be judged on a level playing field and treated fairly? Maybe I have one last fight left in me!
I have deliberately not mentioned one member of staff so that I can highlight him separately. It will also lead me in nicely to my special guest this afternoon. Tom Pell stands for everything that we do, why we are good and how we have come so far in the last eight years. Tom joined me at the outset, has developed into someone who is brilliant at his job and a person who has the highest respect of all the staff, players and parents. Tom is responsible for almost every player in our academy, mostly recruited by him at 6 or 7 years old and I cannot begin to say how much I value his contribution. He should take more credit than anyone for the quality of players in our academy from 6-16 years old, the plaudits we receive, our growing reputation throughout football, including the biggest clubs in the country, and most importantly, how we do things.
One of these talented youngsters within our academy was Elliot Thorpe. I use the past tense because having travelled to Portugal for a trial with Sporting Lisburn before Christmas, Elliot has now joined Premier League giants, Tottenham Hotspur. Whilst we are always disappointed to lose a player of this calibre and potential, we also have to consider what is right for the player. In this case, it is a fantastic opportunity for Elliot and one that we feel we should not have discouraged. He is joining a massive club who do things right at youth level, have amazing facilities, fantastic staff and have conducted themselves impeccably throughout the whole process.
We have an excellent relationship with Tottenham and regularly play games with their academy at every age group. Elliot goes with our blessing and our relationship with Tottenham has been cemented to grow further in the future. This outstanding young individual is the perfect example of what we strive to achieve within our academy. He joined us at 8 years old, having been recruited by the aforementioned Tom Pell, and conducts himself superbly on and off the pitch. He is hugely talented but also mature, humble and level headed. I have witnessed him speaking eloquently at a sponsors evening when he was just 10 years old, having written a speech about his experiences within our academy himself, and watched with admiration how he has dealt with the interest of bigger clubs over the last few months. He is mature beyond his years, great credit to his parents and we are proud to have played a part in his development over the last four and a half years.
I am sure that Elliot will leave us with many happy memories, especially some of the tours abroad and matches against some of the biggest clubs in England, where Cambridge United punches way above our weight. You really have to pinch yourself sometimes that a tiny club from the Football Conference, with no funding for our youth programme, we can compete against the biggest Premier League clubs and some of Europe's elite. The fact that Tottenham Hotspur want to play us and respect us on and off the pitch is testament to the outstanding work of our staff over the last eight years and the biggest compliment we could receive.
Let me end by wishing Elliot all the best for the next chapter of his young career and thank Tottenham Hotspur for their professionalism.
Enjoy the game.