Director of Youth Mike Dove reflects on 2016 from an Academy perspective as well as looks ahead to the forthcoming year...
The Barcelona game sticks out for me. It was a tremendous experience for the players to face their Under-15s side. The crowd turned out too and the players earned a terrific result. What we’re here for, though, is progressing players and we’ve had Callum Brittain, Connor Furlong, Oran Jackson and Brandon Thomas-Asante all turning pro. A lot of them boys have also played in the EFL Trophy and the EFL Cup. We’ve had a few debuts and goals because of that. We’ve also established an Under-21s group who have played six games. Then, while we’ve lost a couple of staff to Premier League clubs over the year, we’ve given staff within the chance to progress. The schoolboy programme is positive too. I’m excited moving forward.
You mentioned the Under-21s group – talk about the importance of having a side aimed to help bridge the gap between youth and first-team football?
We’ve really discovered the importance of the 18-21s group. I think with George Baldock really coming to the fore at 23, it made people realise how important that Under-21s group can be. Speaking to the players, they say they’ve enjoyed the work and the extra games. We now need to make decisions on our development group moving forward into the second half of the season and whether the players are going to go out on loan. We’re not planning on games at the moment – the hope is we move most of the boys out on loan and give them first-team match experience.
Looking ahead, what do you hope to achieve as an Academy in 2017?
In all honesty, we’re very desperate to get back into the higher category of the EPPP and that’s our task in 2017. We can’t wait until we get a new training ground for that to happen. We’re looking at everything we do, including the games programme, to then work out what steps we need to take to get to at least Category 2. I feel we need that variety in the games programme and I’m not sure we’ve been getting that – we need to get back into that games programme. I watched our Under-16s play Arsenal last weekend and they drew 2-2. I really enjoyed watching that game. They presented a much different challenge to what we face in Category 3 – no disrespect to the teams we face but the technical ability, the tactical awareness and their athleticism was different. We’ve got some great young kids coming through but we’ve got to give them the right programmes to help them progress. We’re an ambitious, progressive club and I’m keen that we work hard to get up to the next category at least.
In the New Year you’ll have to make decisions on the current second-year apprentices – is that a process that you’ve started?
There is still plenty of time for them to impress, especially with a new first-team manager. We’re really asking the boys to think about their options, in case they aren’t to be given a professional deal. If they are to get a professional deal, they need to think about how they want to progress and what they need to work on. That’s for the second-year apprentices but it’s also a time for the first-year apprentices to start thinking as it’s only a year away from them and that will go quickly.