The job of CEO will provide me with my third big challenge at CUFC.
In May 2006, the club looked very different to what we are today. Most pertinently, there was no youth scheme. It had been closed in the previous year after the club suffered relegation, came out of administration and had sold the ground. There was a massive challenge of repairing a great deal of mistrust as well a huge amount of bad will from local colts clubs caused by a hybrid scheme that had emerged in the months after the highly respected Centre of Excellence had closed. It was a blatant money making exercise and one that everyone saw through. If closing the youth scheme in October 2005 wasn't bad enough, what was created from November 2005 until May 2006 was even worse.
When we started we had no players, no staff, no money and no fixtures. We had no funding and looking at it realistically, we had no chance. We approached the task with a three pronged attack for the academy, which ultimately should always be the lifeblood of a club but so often is deemed dispensable by a board of directors. Bear in mind, every single player had left when it closed. That's from 8-16 years old. The likes of Jack Collison, Liam O'Neill, George Thorne, Ethan Ross and many others.
The short term plan was to get a few quick wins. Therefore, we worked hard to recruit scholars from U16 Exit Trials throughout the country and tried to sell CUFC to players from far bigger clubs and, in some cases, living miles away. The pick of whom would be Liam Hughes. We also had the likes of Josh Coulson, Rory McAuley, Adam Marriott, Jordan Patrick, Sam Ives and Luke Berry from my previous club. They were so vital in those early years. We had to take this approach. We couldn't wait 10 years for the first intake of U9's to come through before producing our first player. In fact, we are still only the ninth year into the "new" youth system and 18 graduates from the scholarship scheme have made their first team debuts, amassing over 1000 first team appearances between them.
The medium term plan was to be as competitive as we could be in the "middle" age groups where we couldn't sign the best players because they had left the club when it closed. We had to find the "next best" and put teams together to compete in order to grow and improve our games programme. That started with fixtures against Boston, Histon, Kettering et al punctuated by the odd game against Football League clubs, such as Northampton, Gillingham and Orient. I am still grateful to the likes of Geoff Harrop, Bryan Bull & Andy Edwards, all really good men, who helped us so much in those early days by committing to play against us. That might not seem much, but for a youth scheme with no fixtures and a million miles from the level we are today, it gave us much needed credibility and something you offer the players. With every year that passed, and every new intake of U9's, these weaker groups shrunk and we were able to start to grow the games programme, to gradually include more Football League clubs and then eventually some Premier League opposition.
The long term plan was arguably the most important. It was the one that can easily be overlooked because the fruits of the labours are so far away. That is why continuity and stability are so important. Staff will invest more into the future if they believe that they could be part of that future. In this case, it was creating a structure whereby every season we could recruit the best 7&8 year olds into the youngest academy age group. The work that Tom Pell started eight years ago, with pre-academy age groups, to identify players before anyone else and create an environment where they and their parents wanted to play for us ahead of bigger clubs, cannot be understated. In fact, it is the biggest single factor in the academy developing to where we are today. Quite simply, that's because almost all of the boys have been with us since the age of 7 or 8 years old, either in the academy or having progressed through our development programme.
As I stood with Richard and Bonz watching our U9's and U11's own version of "Goals on Sunday" at our training ground two days ago, I could only marvel at the quality of our players. But not just that. The quality of play, the quality of goals but also the quality of work ethic, attitude and humility. It is something to be really proud of. The staff are fantastic and when you get our scholars mesmerised and enthused by our youngest players, you realise that we have something very special.
Their is a coherent approach but the players are given the freedom to express themselves, there is a club identity that is recognisable in each team but the players are individuals and, above it all, the club DNA shines through. No one larges it, everyone works hard and an environment that expects and demands excellence ensures that everyone is challenged to learn, develop and perform at their best.
In February 2011, the first team was spiralling towards relegation after a series of disastrous results. The wheels had come off. So to my second challenge. The short term was simply about survival; by staying up and reducing the wage bill. If it wasn't for the youth scheme, and these young players, it could not have been achieved. The medium term task was to completely restructure the player contracts, change the whole culture of the first team football operation and create a structure that could help the club overachieve in the future. The long term aim was that promotion to the Football League could be possible, without massive investment but by implementing a different approach. Obviously the pivotal decision to that end was the appointment of Richard Money as Head Coach in October 2012 but his arrival was only possible due to fact that we had already completed an overhaul of the whole football operation. It needed Richard's knowledge and experience but the foundations, and most importantly the structure and other staff, were already in place.
Now, in October 2014, I have been asked by Dave and the board of directors to take up a third challenge, with the position of Chief Executive. It is a job with huge responsibility and one that I was honoured, privileged and excited to accept. I don't want to talk specifically about what needs to be done. It is always better to "walk the walk" than "talk the talk". Grand statements of intent usually see you fall flat on your face! All I will say is that I have learnt so many lessons in the last eight years that will stand me in good stead, particularly that short, medium and long term thinking cannot be mutually exclusive. All are crucial for success.
It's not rocket science. It's like building a football team. You need good players, with good attitudes, all highly motivated, all knowing their individual roles, all capable of performing these individual roles to a consistently high level and a structure to ensure the sum of the whole is always greater than the sum of the individual parts. Players need to buy into a vision, take responsibility for their performance, be accountable for their performance and be willing to sacrifice themselves for the team. Creating the right environment, structure and a vision that is shared by everyone brings the best out of everyone.
So really it's all about people. That's why we've got a good team. It's because we've recruited or developed good players. And good people. It's the same with our academy. And it's the same with our staff throughout the football operation. Good people, good at their jobs. If you can tick the three C's, then you'll assemble a good team. Competency, character and chemistry. The great challenge for our academy, as we added staff this summer for the demands of EPPP, was to grow but not lose the "CUFC" way of doing things. Those values; that philosophy; our DNA must remain as strong as ever. It will as long as you have strong leadership and the right people.
That's the challenge now as we add staff, implement some changes and try to grow revenue streams so that we can keep progressing on the pitch and match the ambition that exists within our support base.
Every single one of us has a different role to play but it all centres around one thing - the team and our players. That's how a club is judged; by results on the pitch. The players decide the level at which you play, the level of funding you receive and define your club. Every function at the club centres around providing the players with support. You always fulfil your role brilliantly. And that's what makes out club special; our unbelievably loyal and passionate supporters.
Enjoy the game.