Fame academy

Youngsters in search of a football career are turning to the sport’s equivalent of a public school. Gavin Willacy wonders whether this experiment will work or if good money is going after bad

Borehamwood’s Hertswood School v Birmingham City was a league fixture. On the same day, Dagenham & Redbridge lost at home to Brightlingsea Regent, Conference club Histon played Queens’ School in Bushey and Oxford United lost at home to someone called FCV Reds.

This was not a Fantasy Football League, although any Blues fan at Hertswood might think so. Welcome to the strange world of the Football Conference Youth League, where school teams and Premier League clubs meet. The bizarre pairings can be explained: each team in this under-19s competition is based at a school sixth form or college and the vast majority are linked to an amateur, semi-pro or pro club. It is open to clubs from inside and outside the Conference, but only 11 of the 68 clubs in the Conference’s three divisions are represented among the 53, mainly southern, teams in this season’s FCYL.

But what of FCV Reds? They are the Football CV academy, a unique, private set-up launched this season and based at Rushden & Diamonds’ Nene Park. Many elements of the FCV academy are replicated at hundreds of colleges across the nation: 16-to-19-year-old players combine studies with training, most dreaming of becoming a pro after failing to make the grade so far.

The chairman, Peter Mallinger, a former Newcastle director, was, like almost all the many staff, once at Kettering Town. Academy manager Kevin Wilson will be recognised by Chelsea and Northampton fans, while former GB sprinter Daniel Caines is strength-and-conditioning coach. All of this comes at a cost: £18,000 a year for boarders at the nearby Frontier Centre; £14,000 for day students. This equates to the fees at many public schools. But unlike those establishments, FCV have no idea how long students will remain with them and, as government funding is only triggered when students complete courses, they want the bills paying up front.

But why bother going private when almost every town has a college academy nowadays? The same reason some folk send their children to private school when there are great comprehensives on their doorsteps. “The parents must think their son is guaranteed a place at a pro club by the end of it,” said an opposition coach soon after his team had comfortably beaten FCV Reds. “But there’s no way you can guarantee that. Judging by their first intake, they’re pretty deluded.”

While the opposition players and coaches I spoke to have not been impressed by the standard of the FCV Reds team, they were amazed at the presentation. Everything is done to provide the boys with a professional experience: a large squad, half-a-dozen staff, excellent equipment, intense preparation and evaluation of performance. “I suppose they have to justify the fees to the parents,” said one amazed onlooker. It is either extremely impressive or totally disproportionate. Whatever the support network, the boys will only make a career out of football if they have sufficient ability.

The parent company, FootballCV.com, was launched in 2000 and is increasingly respected in professional and semi-pro circles as a reliable source of overlooked talent, of players who have slipped through the net and can perform at the level required anywhere from the Premier  League to the Ryman League. An openly and overtly commercial venture, it provides an agency service as much for the discarded players as for the clubs. Their academy off-shoot aims to do the same with teenagers but, at £14,000 a year compared to a few hundred pounds at rivals, they are restricted to sons of well-off families. “You could tell they were rich kids,” said one opponent. “They were too weak to compete.”

The likelihood of private academies succeeding remains slim. The fashion for every college or sports school to link up with a local club, however small (Redbridge College somehow represent Southern Amateur League side Winchmore Hill in the FCYL, an hour’s drive away), cannot continue at the current pace. There will be changes and a clear pecking order established, probably led by the League One and Two clubs, who see college academies as a canny way of developing young talent on the cheap, with non-League clubs left behind when their branded under-19 teams are exposed as glorified school teams.

But provided that club-linked college academies improve their standards, there seems to be little reason for private, stand-alone academies to exist. As David Beckham “rolls out” his academies across the world, Glenn Hoddle is the latest name to promote such a set-up – based in a Spanish resort, rather than Wolverhampton.

At Christmas, FCV Reds were mid-table in the Conference Youth League Midland Division.  They had lost at home to Birmingham City, a week after beating Hertswood School. Weird.

From WSC 252 February 2008