Some unexpected names are shining in the FA Youth Cup these days. Gavin Willacy  explains why lower-division teams are suffering hammerings as the result of an educationl initiative

Anyone who glanced at the FA Youth Cup results this winter might have wondered just what was going on. Second Division Hartlepool lost at home to Ches­ter-le-Street, who then put five past Port Vale; Stevenage Borough thrashed Oxford United 6-1 away; Hayes beat QPR; Crawley Town won at Bristol Rovers

The explanation for these bizarre results is college football academies. Twenty years ago, when Lilleshall opened its doors to 16 of England’s best 14-year-olds, the vast majority of fans would have associated the word “academy” with art schools and drama classes. Or perhaps West Ham. Football academies did not exist here, or were called youth teams. Now you can’t move for academies – every senior club seems to have one and now there are dozens that don’t even belong to clubs. Today there are an awful lot of teenagers doing what most of us once dreamed of: playing football all week without being told off by the teachers.

In Hertfordshire, for example, the sole League club, Watford, hung on to FA Academy status despite their financial meltdown. But the county’s other two full-time clubs, Conference sides Barnet and Stevenage, also run academies, as do Ryman League sides Hitchin Town, Boreham Wood and St Albans City.

They can afford to do so by connecting with local colleges to run them. Barnet’s Under-19 team is bas­ically Southgate College’s first XI, run by Protec Sport; Hitchin youth are North Herts College; while St Al­bans have tied up a deal with Oaklands. And the same is happening all over the country – Chester-le-Street’s giant-killers are almost entirely at Gateshead College – as non-League clubs realise they can run a youth team that may produce some quality young players, without the cost or organisational effort usually required.

The benefit of college-led academies to the clubs are clear. Morecambe, Kettering and others are part of similar schemes, getting the use of players who are training almost full-time, rather than one or two nights a week. Twenty-two of the clubs play in the Conference-run PASE (Programme of Aca­demic and Sporting Excellence) League on Wed­nesday afternoons.

“Generally, the standard of players at the college academies isn’t fantastic but it varies quite considerably,” says the former Brighton and Swindon striker Craig Maskell, who coaches at Southgate. “The Con­ference clubs definitely have the better lads – they’re attracted by the link to the club, understandably.”

The players train regularly with highly qualified and experienced coaches, are watch­ed by pro clubs and – most importantly to their parents and occasionally the players themselves – are still in education. At Southgate they have a choice of courses, ranging from the football-intensive OCN (OpenCollege Network) course which has little classroom time, to BTECs and AVCE (vocational A-levels) in sports, leisure and recreation. Some first-teamers are taking AS or A-levels, instead. The colleges want the courses because they attract more students and therefore government funding; they bring football’s street cred to the college, which helps recruitment; and they provide an entry to further education, which many young lads would previously have treated with disdain.

As the public are paying for these courses, they are entitled to ask what they get for their money. Well, thousands of teenagers are in a structured en­vironment five days a week when otherwise many, frankly, would be on the dole. Others are com­bining the sport they love with a planned route towards higher education.

But if Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea can produce only a couple of regular first-teamers each in the past half-dozen years, what hope have college academies of producing professionals and improving the standard of young English players entering the game? Interestingly, about as much as many lower-division clubs, it seems. Southgate have seen Derek Asamoah leave for Northampton, where he is banging in the goals, Ben Martin has made his Swindon debut and several others are in League clubs’ reserve teams.

Although the best teenagers are snapped up by pro clubs – most sign as many as possible, terrified of missing out on a gem – the majority are discarded. But college academies are giving them a second chance. For ex­ample, full-back Brett Freeman realised he wasn’t good enough before being released by Arsenal and decided to try again at Southgate. Three months later he made his Barnet debut in the LDV Vans Trophy and still re­ceives his Arsenal scholarship money so long as he attends college classes two mornings a week.

“You have to take each player on their merits, re­gardless of where they’ve come from,” admits Maskell, who had a traditional apprenticeship at Southampton. “It’s quite difficult to improve players who’ve come here from training full-time at pro clubs with quality coaches. Perhaps they are not going to take any more on board and they don’t progress. But some have a new lease of life with us. It’s most satisfying, though, seeing really raw lads improve vastly and go on trial to clubs.”

The success of established college academies such as Cirencester, Lancaster & Morecambe and West Suffolk could be judged by how many of their graduates are playing League football. However, it is almost impossible to compare them with previous schemes as they have only developed since the influx of foreign players to the British game caused a drip-down of talent to such a degree that homegrown players who would previously have been with Second Division clubs are now in the Conference. And with a drop in full-time pros of about 400 this season, post ITV-digital fiasco, there are even fewer opportunities for moderate play­ers. Some academy students still harbour vague dreams of starring in the Premiership, but most realise the extra experience should give them the platform simply to earn money from football, either playing for a senior non-League club or going into coaching via the community schemes many col­leges run.

College academies dominated the English Schools FA Under-18 Trophy so much that the ESFA had to launch a new competition, while the England Schoolboys Under-18 team, launched 35 years ago to provide international football for grammar schools’ sixth-formers, is now packed with academy students. Only nine of the 34 players at two recent trial weekends at Lilleshall are sixth-formers at normal schools.

Few of these players are with pro clubs, which suggests that scouts, in the lower divisions especially, have not been doing their jobs properly. “There’s not a great deal of difference between college academies and the pro clubs,” claims Maskell, whose Southgate team have drawn with Sheffield Wednesday and beaten Orient and Northampton. “They are more organised and fitter but when we played Watford Under-19s recently I’d say three of our players were certainly better than what they’d got.”

As if to prove his point, in the FA Youth Cup third round in December, Cirencester beat Bradford, Blackburn struggled to overcome Bury Town (aka West Suffolk College) and Chester-le-Street won at Derby, earning a trip to West Ham in the fourth round. The original Upton Park “Academy”, Moore, Brooking and Cole among their graduates, will need to produce their best work to avoid an embarrassing ticking off.

From WSC 205 March 2004. What was happening this month

Related articles

Grassroots footballers in Manchester awaiting the fate of the Trafford Soccer Dome
The deadline is approaching to decide the future of a scruffy but well-used sports centre, the closure of which could leave hundreds of children...
Cut-throat academies abandon children to broken dreams and mental heath issues
The age at which children are signed by professional clubs is getting younger, but the consequences for those stuck in the world go far beyond...
Learning Curve: Life inside one of British football’s most unusual clubs
by Chris EvansAnother League Books, £8.99Reviewed by Gavin WillacyFrom WSC 374, March 2018Buy the book...

Sign up to the WSC Weekly Howl - a small portion of despair and enlightenment delivered to your inbox every Friday