Programme Notes – Wycombe Wanderers
If you missed them in Tuesday night’s match day programme, read Chief Executive Jez George’s notes as he discusses the exciting developments that have taken place within the club’s Academy.
It is very unusual that the whole mood of a football club can be changed by a group of 14, 15 & 16 year olds. Well that's what happened here two weeks ago following the defeat at Stevenage. On the following Monday, we hosted Liverpool for an U15/16 friendly at the stadium. Remarkably, we attracted a crowd of 946. That is incredible and testament to the support our academy enjoys within the fan-base and how much it means to our club to develop our own players. It's in the Cambridge United DNA. This followed on from a similar fixture against Tottenham in October, where 924 spectators attended. In May, we will have the final opportunity to break the 1000 barrier when we entertain another massive club, Chelsea, at the Abbey Stadium under the lights. We are very thankful to Jimmy Fraser for arranging the fixture and it is a great opportunity for our best young players to pit their wits against some of the best players in their age group not just in this country but, such is the extent of scouting nowadays within these clubs, throughout the world.
The match will take place on Thursday 5th May, 7pm kick off. Please put the date in your diary. If you speak to anyone who attended the game against Liverpool, I am sure they will strongly recommend that you watch these talented youngsters. The biggest compliment that you could pay them is that if both teams had swapped shirts, no one would have batted an eye lid. That is not being disrespectful to Liverpool. Far from it. That is just a testament of the quality of players in a black and amber shirt. We were exceptional in the first half, had to respond to Liverpool upping the ante in the second half and then showed other qualities that we value as highly as technical ability - character, resilience, desire, determination, belief etc - to claim a late goal for a deserved 2-2 draw.
Six days later, we visibly showed what a seriously long term project it is to develop your own young players by inviting our "pre-academy" group to follow each other age group this season by playing on the pitch at half time during a first team game. It demonstrates the start of the timeline for each individual. The end of the timeline is a professional contract. The time in between is ten years. That's why seeing the latest group of academy intake on the pitch at half time against York, just six days after watching our U15/16's, was so pertinent. These youngsters are six & seven years old, and about to embark on their own individual journey. We know that not everyone will emulate Luke Berry and Josh Coulson into our first team, or even the lads playing against Liverpool, but the only things we will focus on is trying to help them become the best they can be, enjoying that challenge and using the experience to help them grow up as excellent young men. That is the true value of our youth programme.
Using the competitive nature of football to give youngsters incredible opportunities, experiences they will remember for the rest of their lives and using the lessons that football can give to set them up for life, in whatever field they eventually pursue as a career. Respect, for the game, team-mates, opponents and officials. Discipline. Teamwork. Overcoming set-backs. Handling success and failure. Gaining self-confidence. Becoming an independent thinker. Understanding the value of hard work. Communication skills, in a world where verbal communication is becoming less of a necessity. And then at the most basic level, starting life with a healthy lifestyle based around a good diet, another challenge of the 21st century where processed food and fizzy drinks dominate the supermarket shelves. And being active, through exercise when again there is a tendency for children to think exercise is playing FIFA rather than actually playing football, or another sport.
Talking of which, I also think that it's important that our players do just that; play other sports. They need a break from football. However much you love anything, you'll love it more and you'll love it for longer if you don't do it every day of every year. So in the summer, I really believe they should pick up a tennis racket, try golf, play cricket. Anything to find another way of staying active but having a break from football.
The reception they received from the NRE was superb and something they were absolutely buzzing about. We have to persuade these youngsters, and their parents, to commit to Cambridge United at such a young age ahead of many much bigger, including Premier League, clubs. We do so with the quality of staff, the reputation of our academy but also when it is so evident how much the development of young players means to everyone at the club from the Chairman, to the Directors, to the supporters. Imagine how it felt for them, at such a young age, to receive such an ovation. Class.
The one thing that annoys me about the perception of youth development at a professional club is the lazy argument that players shouldn't join a professional club at a young age because there is too much pressure and they should just be "enjoying it". Well, those same people should see the faces of our youngsters at training and matches. There is less pressure in a player orientated, development orientated environment that our coaches create that some park pitches where there is too much "noise", too many "experts" and too many "don'ts". We encourage the kids to be creative, to think for themselves, to play with no fear, to make decisions and a result, they will make mistakes. That is necessary for them to improve. We have brilliant staff, brilliant coaches and a brilliant environment for every individual to flourish and have the best opportunity to become the best they can be. That's why we punch way above our weight, have an Academy to be proud of and can attract the likes of Tottenham, Liverpool and Chelsea to play against us.
When you think of the age difference between those players on our pitch last Saturday compared to those who faced Liverpool, it is ten years. Our "new" youth development programme started in 2006, ten years ago. That's the time required to see the fruits from the labours of recruitment, and coaching. In 2026, we will be extolling the virtues of individuals within the group of six & seven years olds that you enjoyed watching at half term against York. In 2006, the group that excelled against Liverpool were being recruited. That's youth development; long term. No short term fixes. The decision taken by the club in 2005 was scandalous. I said in 2006 that it takes ten years to create a youth system, with players from six-16 years old, and therefore ten years to repair the damage of a single decision. We must never let that happen again because the blood, sweat and tears required to survive let alone flourish running this programme outside the Football League for eight years would not be achieved in any normal circumstances. And even with Football League status, not many staff will see through a ten year project. We have special people, special staff and, as a result, some special players in a youth system that epitomises everything that's good about Cambridge United and one which will ultimately define our future.
Talking of which, it was fantastic to speak to Mark Bonner on my way back from Portsmouth about the youth team on Saturday. It was great to win 2-1 against Peterborough, but even better to do so without one single second year scholar and with two Under 15's, Ben Worman and Joe Neal, up front. These lads are top players with top attitudes that exemplify Cambridge United. They also love CUFC. I remember seeing them both when we were on the balcony of the Guildhall after the play-off final win in the crowd below cheering the team. There is nothing better than seeing really talented local youngsters playing for the club they've grown up in, and grown up to support. Our club. Joe scored the equaliser on Saturday, from Ben's cross, and when you think that both boys are aged just 14 years old, it would be an understatement to say that Bonz has an exciting job in the next few years.
In February Half Term we saw hundreds of youngsters participating in CUFC Community Football events. In the next six weeks, we will be working in 70+ primary schools and delivering sport from fencing to football, gymnastics to archery, and a plethora of other sports to thousands of children every week. And wait until you see what's on the pitch this Saturday! That's what underpins our academy.
We are also very close to announcing a number of sponsorship deals for the club and an initiative that will give you all a chance to engage with the club in a unique way. More to follow against Yeovil, at the Community Trust sponsored game, which will highlight our work to "Kick it Out".
We all know the importance of tonight's result. The long term of our club is in great shape. The short term is always the next challenge. That's Wycombe, a club that mirrors our ability to overachieve against the odds. Let's get behind the players from the first whistle and create that special atmosphere under lights as we strive to gain the three points that will propel us back within touching distance of seventh place. Then, anything is possible. Keep believing because whatever happens in the last fourteen games, this club is only going in one direction.
Enjoy the game.