Friday, November 14, 2008

Dream Academy

A vibrant youth system producing a stream of home grown footballers good enough to make it into the first team. It’s the dream of every club from the top half of the Premier League to the lower reaches of the Conference, yet very few English teams have found a way of achieving it. Outside the top four in the Premier League there’s possibly only Manchester City, Southampton, West Ham United (historically at least) and, thanks to the magic of Dario Gradi, Crewe Alexandra with the consistent ability to produce good young players. There might be others doing well but the point is there’s not many. It’s not easy to get right especially when most of the focus is on first team results.

I think Roy Hodgson touched on this at one of the recent meet the manager forums. Modern managers don’t have time to look at the youth or academy set up. The need for getting positive results, and getting them in a relatively short time span, means they have to think about the here and now. They can’t worry about picking up players who might be good in five years time, when they might (in fact probably will) be out of the job by then.

Juande Ramos has already been a high profile casualty of the need for instant success. I read this article recently that suggests Sevilla fans were not surprised he’d failed to achieve the success he had seen in Spain. He was not considered a great coach but was able to benefit from the excellent structure Sevilla have in place, under the guidance of long standing Sporting Director Ramon Rodriguez Verdejo. Sevilla’s success (and it’s interesting to note that they seem to be having a decent season so far) is based as much on their excellent scouting system as their youth team but both are aspects of the club that can be developed independently of the first team manager.

So it seems, if Fulham want to survive at the top level and be successful in the longer term, we need a youth and scouting structure that can operate irrespective of the current incumbent of the manager’s post. At the start of the season Fulham filled the vacancy created by the departure of David McNally to Arsenal by bringing in Alistair MacKintosh as CEO. MacKintosh had recently left a similar post at Man City following his opposition to the sacking of Sven Goran Ericksson. A man of principle maybe? A man also with some input to the very successful youth scheme being run at City. A few weeks back we also filled the vacancy for Academy Director by bringing in Huw Jennings from Southampton. The role had previously been temporarily filled by Gary Brazil (coach for the under-18 squad) and Lee Hagger (Head of Education & Welfare). Brazil and Hagger were supposedly doing an excellent job but the arrival of Jennings allows them to concentrate on their primary roles. Jennings has been at Southampton for some time where he was a significant influence on the structure that has seen so many former Saints players (Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale and a certain Chris Baird) break into the top levels of the game.

There have been many false dawns, I’ve certainly thought we were getting things right before, but hopefully this time we really can put together an organisation that will stand us in good stead further down the line. I’d like nothing more than to see a team which features a decent proportion of home grown players. Maybe that’s just a pipe dream - we can but try.

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