Cameron Stewart does fantastically well to keep the ball in play and cut in back to the penalty spot, where Bradley Pritchard awaits. He sets himself, keeps his head over the ball and drills a shot into the bottom corner past a motionless Lee Nicholls in the Wigan goal. The regular match goers are in shock that Pritchard, whose finishing skills makes Izale McLeod’s look impressive, has managed to convert a chance; the five pound punters are just delighted to see a goal. “Bradley, Bradley Bradley, Bradley Bradley, Bradley Bradley Pritchard” is sung in the highest possible level of volume from the Covered End. The little Zimbabwean has given Charlton the lead; a lead they would cling on to.
Of course, the reality is Pritchard side-footed the glorious opportunity well over the bar, leading to moans and groans from all 23,000 or so Charlton fans inside The Valley on Sunday. It’s not the first time it’s happened. A crucial miss against Derby County last season stands out, with Derby going down the other end and winning a penalty that resulted in Michael Morrison being sent off and the Rams levelling a game that should have been out of their sights, but there’s many, many more examples of a trademark Pritchard miss.
I’m as a frustrated as anyone with Pritchard’s failure to take his chances, not least the opening he was presented with yesterday. There are no excuses for failing to find the target from that position, and very few for failing to score.
But it seems as if Pritchard’s incompetence in front of goal has led many to view him as a substandard player. In some cases, and more cases than there should be, he’s seen as a bit of a joke. No logical reason exists to Charlton fans of this opinion as to why the non-leaguer punching above his weight continues to get a game; Chris Powell is just as incompetent for selecting him.
It’s possible that, along with the dire finishing, his uncharacteristically poor performance against Millwall has yet to be forgotten or forgiven. How dare a player perform so badly on such an occasion and be given a second chance. I myself was left in disgust by the way he allowed Nicky Bailey and Liam Trotter to bully him in the middle that day, but it didn’t mean I had disregarded his dominant displays against Leicester City and Watford.
Nor did yesterday’s howler in front of goal make me view his performance overall in the game as a weak one. It was the usual Pritchard display of endeavour and hard work mixed in with, and I know some will disagree with me, genuine footballing ability.
Although he delivered a number of testing crosses, the myth that he can’t cross a ball is one I strongly disagree with especially considering the filth that was coming in from the opposite flank, the most impressive aspect of his game his defensive work. He won the ball back well, showing great strength against an experienced Wigan midfield, on a number of occasions, teaming up well with both Dale Stephens when drifting in from the right or playing centrally as he did in the closing stages and with Lawrie Wilson up and down the wing.
His run that saw him cut into the box and drill a shot at Nicholls was superb, but the shot wasn’t. However, no doubt he’d be criticised for squaring the ball even if a Charlton player was on the end of it and they failed to score.
And that’s what appears to be the case with Pritchard; for many he can do no right. For most of the many he’s a scapegoat; the first person to blame if things aren’t going right. Why? Mainly because he’s an easy target. An unfashionable player with a non-league history is always going to be viewed sceptically when compared with the experienced league campaigners and the promising young players in Charlton’s side.
But he’s a vital cog to the Charlton machine. When he performs, the rest follow, and he performs more often than not. He keeps things ticking over when playing centrally and the defensive side of his game has come on leaps and bounds since his first season with the club. I felt a little nervous when a player ran at Pritchard early on, but now he’ll win the ball on most occasions.
There’s also those that accept his merits in the centre of midfield, but refuse to believe he should be playing on the right flank. Whilst not the most aesthetically pleasing winger, he offers balance to the team and gritty determination down the wing; much like Johnnie Jackson did on the left wing during the 2011/12 title winning campaign. And, although repeating myself, he can certainly cross a ball.
The stats are also on Pritchard’s side. In the 23 games in which the Zimbabwean played on the right side of midfield last season, the Addicks won 12, drew seven and lost four; in the 23 games someone else played on the right, only five games were won, with seven draws and eleven defeats. His eleven assists last season, only Ince, Eagles and Brady could boast more, also makes for attractive reading for those fighting Pritchard’s corner.
Likewise in this season, his performances against Leicester and Watford were at heart of why the impressive results were gained, whilst, although a little quiet by his standards, he did well in the win over Blackburn Rovers.
But, even with all that taken into account, his failure to convert the chances he’s given mean he still won’t be valued as highly as he should be. Pritchard himself admits that he “should be scoring more” and has stated that it’s something he’s been working on with Keith Peacock. It’s a testament to his level headed character that he continues to want to improve and also continues to get into positions from which he could score when he could so easily shy away on the right.
Who knows what that missing ingredient is that will turn Pritchard into a natural finisher. He can score, his goals at the end of last season show that along with his goal record in non-league. That suggests it is purely a mental thing; something Peacock’s experience will surely help greatly with.
If he can transform himself into at least a competent finisher, Bradley Pritchard will no longer be that ‘clown’ running awkwardly down the right flank, he’ll be Bradley Pritchard, that complete footballer that is raising a few eyebrows in The Championship.
I’m happy enough with Bradley Pritchard the excellent footballer who struggles in front of goal, but excels otherwise.
There’s always a certain amount of dread from Charlton regulars before the annual ‘Football for a Fiver’ game. It’s not that they feel threatened by ‘part-time’ fans, a full Valley is a wonderful sight, and it’s not that the queues for trains or on the roads after the game is too much of a problem, it’s that they’re often hugely underwhelming. The 2011/12 season pair of £5 affairs are an exception, but both the 3-1 defeat to Exeter and the 1-0 loss against Barnsley saw Charlton unable to perform and the bumper crowds fail to raise their voices. Whilst there wasn’t an issue with either of those factors in today’s game against Wigan Athletic, with Charlton matching their opponents and the Covered End in fine form for large amounts of the afternoon, the 0-0 score line left season ticket holders unsure as to whether to be pleased or frustrated and neutrals disappointed.
The Addicks started brightly, but couldn’t find the final ball to complement their midfield dominance. When a Charlton ball from wide finally found a red shirt in the middle, Bradley Prtichard was unable to capitalise on a golden opportunity as he blazed over from Cameron Stewart’s cut back. Before the 23,600 inside The Valley had a chance to get their heads around that miss, the home fans amongst them had to contemplate with their star striker, Yann Kermorgant, hobbling off the field. Kermorgant was making his first start since injury at Watford, but he could only last 35 minutes as Marvin Sordell replaced him. But, despite their attacking threat being weakened, the Addicks had their best chance of the game just before half-time with Richard Wood’s header from Dale Stephens’ corner well saved from young Wigan ‘keeper Lee Nicholls, who stepped in just before kick-off with former Addick Scott Carson injured in the warm-up.
Dale Stephens’ effort from range flashed just wide, but a Wigan flag-kick at the start of the second-half from the same corner that produced Charlton’s chance saw the visitors have their first real effort of the game. Chris McCann’s header crashed back off the underside of the bar and away with Hamer eventually gathering as the home fans breathed a sigh of relief. They had to do that on a number of occasions in the second half as Wigan wasted several glorious openings. James MacArthur, Ben Watson and Grant Holt were all guilty of poor finishing, whilst Charlton’s defence stood firm otherwise, even after rock Wood was forced off injured.
But it wasn’t just a case of the Addicks holding on as Pritchard’s header across goal trickled wide with Sordell failing to react at the far past. An incredible run from Lawrie Wilson from one edge of the area to another earned the biggest round of applause of the match, but Simon Church couldn’t connect with his cross. With referee Martin doing his best to slow the game, giving soft free-kicks at what seemed to be a rate of every other minute, the final ten minutes lacked action. There was, however, one last chance for a Charlton side that had faded in terms of attacking threat as the half went on, but Nicholls did well to block Sordell from point blank range after fellow substitute Johnnie Jackson crossed from the left. A well-earned point and a third game without conceding, but the Addicks will feel it was one they could have claimed all three from.
A good, solid performance from Charlton. One that positives should be taken from as appose to cynically assessing the negatives. Whilst Wigan weren’t exactly outstanding, they caused enough problems to give the Addicks a real test throughout the game, and every man reacted to that well. I’d like to think that, even without the goals and excitement, it was enough to convince the £5 chancers to return to The Valley soon.
After the early season shambles at the back, three clean sheets in a row is a fantastic achievement, and one that does justice to the defensive displays of late. It was a quiet afternoon for Ben Hamer, but Michael Morrison and Wood were almost faultless once again. The pair dominated in the air and made a number of crucial interceptions and tackles on the ground. Rhoys Wiggins and Lawrie Wilson also did superbly both going forward and at the back, just letting themselves down with some substandard balls into the box. The few times the defence was breached, pressure from a Charlton man was as much to blame as poor finishing for Wigan’s failure to score.
Pritchard, except for his glaring miss, had an excellent game, working tirelessly as always down the right hand side and linking up well with Wilson defensively and in attacking moves. He seems to have received a lot of unjust criticism for his performance today; sometimes it becomes frustrating to be the chairman of the Bradley Pritchard Fan Club. Jordan Cousins had probably his least promising game so far, but that’s not to say he was dreadful by any stretch of the imagination. He did well against a physically strong Wigan midfield, but found himself giving the ball away far too often late on and he needed to be replaced by Jackson in order to see the game out. There are always going to be tougher days at the office for young players, and he’ll learn from today. Wiggins and Stewart teamed up well on the left, but for all Stewart’s fancy footwork, he often failed to deliver a testing ball. In that sense, he reminds somewhat of Jerome Thomas in his first full season for Charlton.
It was a shame Kermorgant had to go off injured as he imposed himself on the Wigan defence in the short time he was on, and hopefully it was just a slight knock and he’ll be fit to face Birmingham City next Saturday. Church’s endeavour cannot be questioned and he was unfortunate in front of goal with the ball just evading him on a number of occasions whilst Sordell, although failing to react from Pritchard’s header were he really should have pounced, worked hard and, surprisingly, did well enough out on the right flank in the closing stages of the game.
But the stand out player in a red shirt was Dale Stephens. He completely dominated the midfield, showing fantastic strength to win balls he had no right to win, breaking up countless Wigan breaks and knocking the ball around with ease. It’s fantastic to see a player with such potential finally start to show it after some disappointing performances last season. If he maintains the level he’s at right now, rejecting that offer from Aston Villa in 2012 might not look so silly.
Whilst the league table still doesn’t look too pretty, with Charlton 19th and only two points above the relegation zone, four excellent performances and four games without defeat is enough to suggest it won’t be long until the Addicks finally start climbing the table.
‘I can leave this earth happy knowing I’ve seen my virtual team of choice in the flesh’ was my defeatist conclusion to the end of my previous blog piece. I had seen Dover Athletic, a club that I had grown fond to after leading them to Champions League glory on Football Manager, beat Eastbourne Borough, the side that will be my local club whilst I study at the University of Brighton, by four goals to nil just four days ago. It was wonderful to have the chance to see them play, but I presumed that would be that. Travelling to a Dover home game wouldn’t be practical or affordable and Charlton would no doubt take priority anyway.
But with Charlton not playing until Sunday, Eastbourne away and the prospect of a full day staring at a TV screen, I looked for a League game to attend on Saturday. Brighton weren’t playing until Monday, Crawley, the next closest league team, were away and I didn’t particularly fancy going into London two days in a row.
My search for football took me onto the long list of FA Cup 4th Qualifying Round fixtures. I quick browse didn’t show any local sides at home, but one club down to play at home did leap out at me. Dover were playing Oxford City at The Crabble Athletic Ground; there couldn’t be any harm in investigating how plausible a trip could be.
Reasonably priced train tickets, not a totally ridiculous travel time and cheap admission prices; I couldn’t say no.
Almost definitely without any legitimate reason to be, I was incredibly excited from Thursday onwards after making the decision to go. I had wanted to attend the home of the club I managed so successfully for some time, but I didn’t expect a realistic chance to pop up. Don’t worry, I know I’m mad and I know you’re thinking it.
However, my excitement turned to panic and frustration with 30 minutes until kick-off as my map app sent me around in a circle that at no point crossed with the Crabble; it turns out non-league grounds aren’t always signposted. Thankfully a caught the sight of man with a Dover emblem on his hat and found my way to the ground with ten minutes to spare.
The 25,000 all-seater stadium that existed in the virtual world was a world away from the real life Crabble, but it was certainly impressive for a non-league arena. Two electronic scoreboards and a lovely clubhouse complemented two seated stands, including one that ran along the length of the pitch and housed executive boxes, and two large terraces behind the goal. My only complaint was the Kenilworth Road challenging amount of pillars, which obstructed the view of the action from whatever stand based vantage point was taken.
But, with Dover’s most passionate fans occupying the terrace opposite the one I opted for, there was plenty of space for me to move side to side around the thick steel pole that made viewing the bottom right side of the pitch difficult. I had to do a lot of that in the opening minutes of the first half as Oxford started brightly and Dover, lacking the sharpness they showed on Tuesday night, struggled to get out of their half.
The away side had the first real chance of the game with five minutes gone as a ball into the box skipped off heads in the middle and came through to striker Jamie Cook at the far post, but Whites ‘keeper Mitch Walker rushed off his line and blocked Cook’s effort.
By this time, a small cohort of Oxford City fans, who had arrived late, were making a racket at the front of the stand. They sung continuously throughout the first half whilst barely repeating a chant. “You’re just a small town in Calais” became “You’re just a gateway to Poland”, which brought about a mixture of tuts and smirks.
But the Oxford fans should have had reason to cheer and celebrate 15 minutes in. Another excellent ball into the box caused havoc in the middle and came through to Cook, but he could only head against the bar when it looked easier to score and Dover cleared.
That proved to be exactly the wake-up call the home side needed as they quickly began to dominate. James Rodgers drilled a shot from a tight angle across the face of goal, but it skipped just wide with no Dover player able to divert the ball goalwards.
In their next attack, Dover took the lead in bizarre fashion with 24minutes played. Nathan Elder’s header looped over Oxford ‘keeper Victor Francoz but it didn’t seem to have enough pace on it to cross the line. Thankfully for the home supporters behind the goal their side were attacking, an Oxford defender, in attempting to clear the ball, rather forcefully helped it into the net. After opting to sit quiet when surrounded by Eastbourne supporters on Tuesday night, this was the first Dover goal I had celebrated; a small cheer and a prolonged clap along with the rest of the home fans around me would have to do.
Dover looked to have doubled their lead five minutes later, but Elder’s header was disallowed for offside after Tom Murphy’s half volley and dipped and hit the post. Another dipping effort, this time from Barry Cogan’s free-kick, brought the best out of ‘keeper Francoz as he dived full stretch to tip the ball away from goal.
Three corners in succession for the home side couldn’t be capitalised on, but Cogan was given another presentable free-kick opportunity in a similar position to his first. This time he opted to lash the ball into the far corner and a motionless Francoz could only watch as it flew past him and into the net to give Dover a 37th minute second.
The lively Ricky Modeste was forced off through injury just before halftime, giving me the chance to have a 45 minute look at former Charlton youngster Liam Bellamy. Whilst Modeste was down, a few of the more elderly spectators around me began to move, with one stating “they’ll all be coming down here second half”. I opted to stay put and a steady stream of shirt wearing Dover fans began to surround me over the interval.
Just before the second half was about to get underway, the drummer came and stood in front of me to complete what was now a rammed terrace; quite a contrast from the relatively peaceful surroundings and atmosphere created by the Oxford fans in the first half . I was quite looking forward to this.
But I found myself feeling quite a strange emotion of guilt. Here were all these absolutely bonkers Dover fans, who didn’t stop singing for the entire half, spent a lot of time literally bouncing off each other and even took their shoes off in support at one stage, and I was invading their habitat. All of them could probably be found at The Crabble every other weekend and most of them had probably supported Dover for quite some time; I’d picked them at random on a video game. I found it quite difficult to join in with the chants, despite one of the most passionate fans grabbing my wrist and telling me to do so.
Meanwhile, there was a game going on. A free-kick on the hour from Oxford crashed against the crossbar, but Dover were in firm control of the tie. With 15 minutes to play, Cogan’s free-kick from out wide caused confusion in the box as Francoz tried to desperately to keep the ball out, but it eventually fell at the feet of Sean Raggett. With his back to goal, the defender improvised at backheeled the ball over the line. Cue incredible celebrations from the Dover fans in front of me; I managed to join in with those.
Dover saw the game out and the match finished 3-0 with the Whites progressing to the first round proper of the famous cup competition. The players came over, lead by captain Craig Stone, to applaud their supporters and you could tell just how much getting through the qualifying stages of the FA Cup meant to everyone at the club. A fantastic achievement and, hopefully, an exciting tie against a Football League club is in store.
Once again I was impressed by the way Dover went about things. Given the stigmatism non-league football has, they play quite an attractive brand of football, with the first option always to attempt to find a winger. Modeste and Murphy were excellent, whilst Bellamy did a decent job after coming on. But there’s quality all over the pitch, and every played in a white shirt would have been happy with their performance come the full-time whistle. That’s not to say Cogan’s man of the match wasn’t deserved; he was superb and his set pieces caused havoc time and time again.
But my abiding memory of my first trip to Dover will be just how passionate the fans were. Some of that passion was drunken stupidity, but the vast majority of it was real love towards their club, not just people looking for something to do on an afternoon or, erm, a quirky affiliation. It’s strange observing that when I’m used to participating in it during Charlton games. It’s wonderful what football supporting does to people, even at non-league level.
I’m a hypocrite. A rather large one, in fact. I have always taken an interest in non-league football, I have a non-league team that I follow and I will always fight the corner of football below the top four divisions, but when was the last time I went to game? Barring the FA Trophy Final, a show piece occasion which doesn’t embody the heart of non-league football, I haven’t been to a non-league fixture in what must be at least six years. The fact I’m struggling to give a definitive answer tells a story in itself; I don’t attend non-league games.
So when the opportunity arose to watch the non-league team that I follow, Dover Athletic, in action for the first time, at the home of my new local side Eastbourne Borough, my excitement was limited by dread. Eurgh, part time nobodies knocking the ball about on a cow field on a cold Tuesday night in front of 12 people with an average age of 83; not fun.
But, in a bid to rid myself of this horrible hypocritical trait I have, I thought I better practice what I preach and attend some non-league football over a night in front of my TV watching the Champions League. I also knew this could possibly be my only opportunity to see Dover, who I’ve grown attached to due to some Football Manager related exploits, play and I didn’t want to pass that up.
Even when my lecturer, apparently oblivious to how important it was for me to see the side who I won the Champions League with in the virtual world play in the real one, decided to reschedule a lecture to finish just 45 minutes from kick-off, I opted against using that as an excuse and made my way down to Langley Sports Club for the Conference South fixture.
It’s your traditional non-league ground; three standing areas, a seated main stand and the all-important tea hut. A very plush looking club house just outside the ground bolstered the facilities at Eastbourne’s disposal, but unfortunately my close to kick-off arrival time meant I couldn’t sample it from the inside.
A huddle of travelling fans had congregated behind one goal and I thought for a moment about joining them but, from fear of being an outsider and looking out of place, I opted to sit in the main stand on the halfway line. Just as the game was about to kick-off, a gentleman wearing a flat cap that wouldn’t look out of place on the head of the man this blog is named after sat by me. He too appeared to be an unaccompanied neutral.
The first ten minutes didn’t fill me with much optimism. To call the atmosphere flat would be an understatement and neither side could maintain possession in a very scrappy opening. Two excellent balls from Dover into the box from wide positions caused all manner of confusion in the Eastbourne defence, but the visitors couldn’t capitalise. Dover boss Chris Kinnear, standing just a few yards away from my vantage point, let out a cry of ‘do my strikers want to get into the box?’ in frustration. Thankfully for him, one of his wingers did.
A fabulous individual effort from Tom Murphy, cutting inside into the area from the wing and drilling the ball into the far bottom corner, gave Dover the lead after 13 minutes. It was the first real effort on goal of the game, and just what the previously lifeless affair needed. The contingent of travelling fans, who were now situated at the opposite end after the two sides switched halves of the pitch following the toss, celebrated passionately; I clapped once before realising I was surrounded by a bunch of elderly Eastbourne fans and thought better of it.
The 20 or so away fans were celebrating again just five minutes later as a cleared corner came back into the box and at the feet of Ricky Modeste, who poked the ball home at the second time of asking. His dancing celebration, something even Daniel Sturridge would have cringed at, took the shine off his goal.
Eastbourne were being torn apart at the back, and not helping themselves as they continued to rush clearances and lose possession, but they almost had a route back into the game as a delicious cross was put over the bar by Simon Johnson from close range. Johnson’s miss did little to calm the restless home fans; neither did Dover’s 25th minute third goal.
Barry Cogan’s corner was inviting, but it needn’t have been as the ball sailed straight into the net. Myself and the flat-capped gentleman turned to each other, sharing looks of disbelief at just how awful Eastbourne’s defending was and just how bizarre a goal we had both witnessed.
“Are you an Eastbourne fan?” He asked. I explained to him that I wasn’t, and that I was a newly moved in university student looking to take in some football who actually supports Charlton.
“My best mate manages them,” said the flat-capped gentleman in such a casual manner that it didn’t register with me. It wasn’t until he uttered the words “Chris Powell” in his next sentence that it finally occurred to me what he said.
“Powell is my hero, I absolutely love him,” I rather embarrassingly told him, which qualified me for a ‘good lad’ from the gentleman. Silence fell upon us for about 2 minutes whilst he went through his phone, before presenting it to me with the screen showing Chris Powell’s name and his mobile number, just to prove that he wasn’t “bullshitting me”. The names Kenny Dalglish and David Moyes were also shown to me. It didn’t occur to me to ask what the gentleman’s name was.
Eastbourne continued to find the going tough, and my neighbour explained to me that this game was ‘men against boys’ in terms of both players on the pitch and money in the bank. A brief guide from him on the non-league scene’s finances suggested he knew his stuff. Feel free to make your own mind as to who he was, as I didn’t speak to him after that.
Meanwhile, there was a game still going on, and a deflected shot from an Eastbourne player looped up and onto the top of the bar just before half-time. It seemed to be one of those nights where absolutely nothing goes right from an Eastbourne perspective.
That idea was made fact just after half time as Dover ‘keeper Mitch Walker pulled off an incredible reaction save from an Eastbourne header. Not quite Banks Vs Pele, but certainly a stop the best of ‘keepers would have appreciated.
But, despite Eastbourne’s chances, it was apparent Dover were a class above. The experienced Terrell Forbes was dominating at the back, full back and captain Craig Stone let few past him and was very composed on the ball, whilst Barry Cogan kept things ticking in the centre of midfield. His run into the box with 67 minutes played saw a loose leg send him crashing to the ground and leave the referee with no choice but to point to the spot. Cogan dusted himself down and coolly finished beyond Borough ‘keeper Craig Ross for his second and Dover’s fourth of the night.
Former Charlton youngster Liam Bellamy came off the bench for Dover with 20 minutes or so to play, but I’m afraid I can’t say I saw anything that made me think we made a mistake in letting him go. Also coming on was pineapple on his head striker Elliott Charles, whose introduction produced a chant of ‘if Elliott scores, we’re on the pitch’ from the Dover fans. Images of Bradley Pritchard with rather large dreadlocks brought a smirk to my face.
Both sides exchanged chances in the final 15 minutes, with an Eastbourne free-kick forcing another super stop from Walker, whilst Ross saved one-on-one to avert a pitch invasion after Charles broke through. Another save from Walker, this time from point blank range with his shins preventing an Eastbourne consolation goal after a corner, and an incredible block from Tom Wynter from the follow up effort were the final chances of the game. An exciting game that impressed me after my prior concerns, although not much of a contest in which Dover were comfortably victorious.
Whilst I left feeling rather frustrated that Eastbourne had done little to convince me that I should be parting with my meagre student budget to watch them whenever Charlton weren’t playing, I was also pleasantly surprised by just how efficient and exciting Dover were. The stand outs for me were winger Murphy, who not only had pace and strength put an excellent delivery, full backs Stone and Wynter, who kept popping up everywhere, and Cogan, who did much more than simply score a brace. I can leave this earth happy knowing I’ve seen my virtual team of choice in the flesh.
I will no doubt be giving Eastbourne Borough another go; everything but their performance on the pitch impressed me. And if I’m not attending for the game, it will be to hunt down the flat-capped gentleman.
The international break came at both the best and worst of times from a Charlton perspective. Whilst the fortnight gap in the fixture list gave several key players the chance to recover from injury, the two league games preceding the turn of attentions to World Cup Qualifying saw the Addicks put three straight defeats behind them with two impressive performances in draws against Nottingham Forest and Blackpool; a momentum of sorts interrupted. For the pair of single point-winning games to mean anything, it was of paramount importance that Charlton came away from Ewood Park with all three points and built upon their pre-international break platform. A third successive excellent performance and a second consecutive clean sheet produced a first away victory of the season as the Addicks shocked Blackburn Rovers in a 1-0 win. Job done.
With Blackburn exerting the early pressure, Charlton’s seventh minute opener came against the run of play. Dale Stephens picked up the ball in midfield and chipped it perfectly into the path of Simon Church, who took a touch on his chest before volleying beyond a stranded Jake Kean. The majestic goal belonged to a side in much better scoring form than the Addicks. Just as beautiful on the eye was Ben Hamer’s 30th minute save from Jordan Rhodes’ goal bound volley, with the Charlton ‘keeper diving full length across his goal to tip the effort around the post. With Blackburn growing into the game and creating a number of half chances in the lead up to the interval, the small contingent of travelling Charlton fans were delighted to hear referee Wright’s half-time whistle with their side still holding onto their one goal advantage.
The second-half performance was one of resilience, determination and high quality defending from the away side. Blackburn dominated possession and peppered Charlton’s box with long balls galore, but the heads of Richard Wood and Michael Morrison prevented Rovers from creating a serious opening time and time again. Lawrie Wilson and Rhoys Wiggins, dealing with pacey wingers Joshua King and Ben Marshall, halted several breaks and kept crossing opportunities to a minimum, whilst Hamer was there to pick up the pieces on the rare occasions Charlton’s back four was unable to make a decisive intervention in Blackburn’s attacks. The one time Hamer was beaten, the post was there to save the Addicks after Jason Lowe’s effort from the edge of the area veered just off target via a deflection only referee Wright noticed.
Charlton themselves had a number of second half chances, including a returning Yann Kermorgant attempting to lob Kean from the halfway line and missing narrowly, but the final 10 minutes was really a case of parking ‘the big red bus’ as Chris Powell put it. Rarely did a Charlton player venture into the opposition’s half as the Addicks, now containing another returning man in the shape of skipper Johnnie Jackson, kept their shape and composure to frustrate the host’s attempts to snatch a late equaliser. Alan Judge saw his tame shot trickle wide deep into six minutes of stoppage time, whilst DJ Campbell broke free inside the box only to be denied by Hamer and signalled offside anyway. The sense of relief, and sheer joy, was unparalleled as the full-time whistle was blown after what felt like a lot more than 51 minutes of second half football; Charlton’s rear-guard could not be broken.
The team news was bittersweet for Charlton fans, with injuries still preventing Chris Powell from naming a full strength side. Chris Solly remained absent and is still a few weeks from returning, but Kermorgant and Jackson returned to the bench. Whilst it was slightly disappointing to see the influential pair only fit enough for the bench, it was pleasing to see them involved at all after being labelled, less than optimistically, as ‘having a chance’ of featuring prior to Saturday’s game. In terms of those who began the game on the pitch, Bradley Pritchard, making his first start since recovering from a minor injury picked up in the defeat to Burnley, came into the side to replace Mark Gower, starting on the right of midfield as Powell reverted back to a 4-4-2 formation. The only other change of personnel saw Callum Harriott, who missed out on a place in the 18 altogether, replaced by Cameron Stewart, who started on the left of a midfield that also contained the central pairing of Stephens and Jordan Cousins. Marvin Sordell started up top alongside Church, whilst Hamer and his back four completed the line-up.
Blackburn manager Gary Bowyer made two changes to his side after their 2-1 defeat to Wigan a fortnight ago. Grant Hanley, who was sent off in the loss at the DW Stadium, was forced to sit out the game through suspension with Scott Dann, who partnered Matthew Kilgallon, replacing him at centre back. The other alteration to the starting XI saw former Leicester winger Marshall come into the midfield in place of Corry Evans. The concern Marshall and King provided to Charlton’s defence was amplified by the goalscoring front pair of Jordan Rhodes and Leon Best waiting to pounce in the middle. Lowe started in the centre of midfield alongside Tom Cairney, whilst Tommy Spurr and Todd Kane completed the back four with Kean in goal.
My journey up to Ewood Park, from my university halls in Eastbourne via home in Milton Keynes, was challenging, tedious and costly. I was hoping my commitment to the Charlton cause would be rewarded with an outstanding display from Chris Powell’s side and I wouldn’t have to add ‘disastrous’ to that list of negative adjectives. If the opening five minutes were anything to go by, there was a strong chance I would be heading back to the coast with a ‘why do I do this to myself?’ type of regret.
The home side dominated possession, not helped by some midfield weakness that resulted in the ball being tamely given up on a couple of occasions, as Charlton struggled to settle. Thankfully for the visitors, Blackburn could only muster one effort on goal from their opening burst; Leon Best’s header floated harmlessly over the bar from Spurr’s cross.
But Charlton grew into game, and quite quickly too. Cameron Stewart looked a real threat down the left hand side, always attempting to run at the Blackburn defence, and created the first Charlton opening after five minutes. The winger collectined a poor Rovers clearance and found Church in the middle, but the Welshman’s effort was blocked away for a fruitless corner. Church, who scored his second career goal for Wales last week, was clearly full of confidence, and that showed when he was presented with a chance to give his club the side lead with seven minutes on the clock. Stephens’ determination in the middle gave him possession, and he immediately spotted Church’s forward run, lifting the ball over the top of Kilgallon and straight onto the chest of the Charlton striker. Kean rushed off his line but there was little he could do as Church volleyed calmly into the corner of the net.
There were incredible scenes in the away end as the 250 or so travelling fans celebrated with the vigour of several times that amount, whilst their side began to play ever so impressively. But, as has been the case in previous outings, the final ball was letting the Addicks down. One such ball, a poor Pritchard cross, allowed Blackburn to break but Rhodes’ touch let him down as he was played through on goal.
Rhodes’ mustered his first meaningful effort on goal after 23 minutes, with King’s cross finding him perfectly in the middle. His header was aimed perfectly into the corner of the goal but lacked the pace needed to test a diving Hamer. Down the other end, Cousins had a rather, erm, ambitious effort from all of 35 yards that ended up nearer the corner flag than goal, whilst Marvin Sordell, putting in a decent shift after recent criticism, worked his way into a shooting position after receiving the ball out wide but could only fire straight at Kean.
Despite not creating anything more than some very dubiously labelled half chances, Charlton were comfortable and deserved their lead, so a Blackburn equaliser would have been gut-wrenching. Charlton fans had Hamer to thank as he pulled of an incredible save to keep their guts in working order. Scrappy but effective build up play from the hosts eventually saw the ball pop up invitingly for Rhodes; the sort of chance he buries in a weekly basis. His volley was executed perfectly and a grumblings from the Charlton fans around me suggested many thought there was no keeping it out, but Hamer flung himself through the air and tipped the ball around the post. Wood made sure the ‘keeper knew exactly how impressive his save was, whilst Rhodes himself went up to Hamer in order to shake his hand.
Best wasted a glorious chance for the visitors with seven first-half minutes remaining, sending the ball skyward after Lowe, who appeared to handle the ball, played him in, whilst the striker’s header just before half-time was kept out by a combination of Wood’s feet and Hamer’s hands.
Best’s chances were part of a 15 minute preview that Charlton’s back four endured of what their second half would be like with balls sent into the box from every direction. Morrison and Wood won almost every aerial battle, whilst Wilson and Wiggins were impressive out wide, and Charlton held onto their lead going into half-time.
Blackburn started the second-half as they did the first and immediately won a corner after King, whose pace would prove a major threat all half, broke down the left. Best rose highest to meet Marshall’s delivery but headed way off target. Sordell saw an effort blocked after Church teed him up, whilst Marshall attempted to curl an effort in from range and missed horribly as the half chances racked up for both sides with neither clinical enough to take one.
That almost changed with an hour gone as a Blackburn free-kick was only half cleared and fell kindly to Lowe on the edge of the box. His sweetly struck drive only just missed the target, clipping the post on the way out and, in the eyes of the match officials, taking a deflection off a Charlton body on its way through a melee of players in a crowded penalty area. Two minutes later, Blackburn were almost cursing their bad luck as what could have been 1-1 should have been 2-0 as Pritchard’s pinpoint cross found an unmarked Stephens, only for the midfielder to head straight at Kean. Either side of the ‘keeper and Charlton’s lead would have been doubled.
There were changes to both sides with 25 minutes to play as the wasteful Best was replaced by Lee Williamson, whilst Kermorgant made his return with Sordell heading for the bench. It took Kermorgant just two minutes to make an impact as the Frenchman spotted Kean off of his line and opted to shoot from barely over the halfway line. Kean watched it go wide, but it wasn’t too far away.
Kermorgant came close again after heading Wilson’s long throw over the bar, whilst Church sliced wide from a Wilson cross, but Blackburn were well on top and the Addicks were clinging on to their lead. Cedric Evina came onto replace a tiring Stewart and give something extra defensively, whilst former Charlton target Alan Judge replaced King as Rovers pushed forward. The nerves increased with every cross, corner and Spurr flat long throw the pelted Charlton’s penalty box, but Charlton stayed firm going into the final ten minutes of the game. Tom Cairney’s effort from range flew wildly off target as the hosts were restricted to desperate attempts in search of their equaliser.
Simon Church was given a hero’s send off as Jackson came onto replace him, whilst DJ Campbell was sent on to aid Blackburn’s quest for a goal. At times in the closing stages, Jackson was the furthest player forward as Kermorgant retreated to effectively join the defence and Charlton sat back and invited Blackburn to send their long balls forward. It was horrible viewing, but still the Addicks stood firm as six minutes of additional time was signalled.
Charlton had a chance to put the game to bed right at the start of stoppage time when the ball sat up nicely for Stephens after a free-kick was half cleared, but blazed high and wide, and instead it descended into six minutes of Kean sending the ball forward, Wood and co winning their headers and another red shirt swiping clear in Kean’s direction. Judge mustered Blackburn’s only shot of the six minute period; a tame stab that was comfortably wide, whilst DJ Campbell was sent through by makeshift striker Dann only to see the offside flag raised.
With one last ball pumped forward and cleared, and the clock heading towards a 98th minute, referee Wright finally blew for full-time and the indescribably nervous Charlton fans could finally breathe once again.
There is really only one place to start when looking back at this game, and that’s the defence. An incredible display of temperament and class from the defensive unit, alongside some excellent work from Hamer, won Charlton the three points. Picking a standout in back four not only devalues the work the other three members of the back line put in, but also ignores the work the rest of the side did defensively, but Richard Wood deserves to be lifted through the streets of SE7 on a throne after his display today. Not a single header was lost, the pace of King and Best was no problem for him and he showed excellent composure to collect the ball and start Charlton attacks on several occasions.
Morrison’s work alongside Wood was also exceptional, whilst Wiggins and Wilson had arguably their best games of the season and also both possessed an attacking threat. Cousins gave the ball away a few times more than we have seen in his previous appearances, but he still put in a very mature display in the middle, with Dale Stephens continue his rejuvenation of late. The ball he played through for Church’s goal is up there with his assists for Jackson against Bury and Ricardo Fuller against Watford; perfection.
Pritchard had a quiet game, but nonetheless worked his socks off and teamed up well with Wilson to deal with the threat of King and later on Judge, whilst Stewart’s ability to take on and beat his man was something we’ve been missing. Sordell, believe it or not, worked exceptionally hard and chased down a lot of lost causes but seemed to tire towards the end of his 65 minute appearance, whilst Church’s finish was outstanding and his work otherwise selfless and superb.
Suddenly two points from two games becomes five points from three games; clear and obvious momentum. Whilst the current league position of 20th doesn’t make for pretty viewing, today’s performance shows that we have the ability to climb the table and next week’s football for a fiver came against Wigan is the perfect setting in which this momentum can be continued.
A Young Lad from Milton Keynes
I have a confession to make. My first appearance at a Football League game wasn’t at The Valley, nor was it with the travelling away fans to watch Charlton play; Charlton were not involved at all. It was the Saturday before Kevin Lisbie waltzed round the Liverpool defence to wrap up his hat-trick on the Sunday; September 27th 2003.
I couldn’t tell you why I chose to go, I think that decision was made for me, but I’d started to develop something more than just a passing interest in the game that would come to dominate my life. Watching, alongside 400 others, Chris Dillon and Rene Howe bang in the goals for Bedford Town with a homemade bread pudding from the club’s tea hut was one thing, but this was ‘proper’ football to my 8-year-old eyes. A ‘proper’ stadium with the added bonus of seats, ‘proper’ teams that I could play with on FIFA and ‘proper’ players whose names I’d heard before.
That stadium was the National Hockey Stadium, those teams were Wimbledon and Burnley and amongst those players were Nigel Reo-Coker, Mikele Leigertwood and Jermaine Darlington. I was amongst the 5,639 who witnessed Wimbledon’s first ever game in Milton Keynes; a 2-2 draw.
I couldn’t tell you much about, apart from I remember being told off by my dad for blindly informing the referee he wasn’t very good at his job and a trip to an optician wouldn’t go amiss. But, despite my mind holding onto very few memories from the day ten years on, I clearly enjoyed it as I was back in the stands at the National Hockey Stadium just less than a month later to watch Wimbledon lose 3-1 to Watford.
I’d now seen two Wimbledon games before I’d even considered following in my dad’s footsteps and becoming a Charlton fan. The only thing I knew about Charlton was that their players’ Shoot-Out card weren’t rated very highly and they had Scott Parker, who shared a name with one of my schoolmates, which was rather cool.
In fact, I took in the temporary and unroofed stand behind the goal at the National Hockey Stadium one more time for a league game before a trip to The Valley was even mentioned. Only this was a bit different. The home team were no longer called ‘Wimbledon’, but the rather strange sounding ‘MK Dons’ and they’d ditched the blue and gold for a white kit colour. I was completely oblivious to the outrage, all I knew was that I was witnessing MK Dons’ first ever competitive game, it was far too hot and the girl next to me was very over friendly to the point of making me uncomfortable. So whilst she offered me sweets, I pretended to be so transfixed in the game, a 1-1 draw against Barnsley with Izale McLeod scoring the new club’s first ever goal, that I couldn’t hear or see her. But she had the right idea; I would have rather drowned myself in a sugar coated feast than have watched the game. It was a bit (unbearably) dull (boring).
Thankfully I was saved from the tedium of MK Dons by a trip to The Valley on a Tuesday night to watch a Francis Jeffers inspired (no, really) Charlton beat Aston Villa by three goals to nil. This was very different to my previous football watching experiences. There was a sense that this club meant a lot to the people inside the really big stadium that was even bigger to the one in Milton Keynes. The atmosphere, the passion, the experience; it was all very different to the novelty of Wimbledon/MK Dons. There was a Charlton supporting bug to be caught, and I caught it straight away. At no point watching football in Milton Keynes did I feel especially attached or connected to the home team; I didn’t really care what the result was.
And that is Milton Keynes Dons in a nutshell; a novelty. Even before I was old enough to understand the controversy behind their existence, I was able to realise that, by comparing them to Charlton, they weren’t how a football club should be. I continued to attend MK Dons games when Charlton were away, I went to plenty after their move to Stadium:MK and I even went to the JPT Final. I had an MK Dons shirt, I wanted them to win, but was I a fan? No. Was anyone, baring those who had chosen to carry on supporting the club that had replaced Wimbledon, a ‘fan’ of Milton Keynes Dons in their formative years? I don’t believe so. The majority of people in attendance, and those attendances had improved by several thousand after Stadium:MK was opened, were there for something to do in a dull town on a Saturday afternoon, a family outing or similar.
So why and when did I grow apart from the Dons, why did I start to despise them? There are two reasons for that. The first is quite simple, Charlton dropped down to League One and would now be playing in the same division as the Milton Keynes club, I couldn’t possibly have any affiliation, however insignificant, with a club that would be competing with my club for promotion to the Championship. The second reason is that I not only, as a slightly older child, had the knowledge to understand MK Dons’ situation, but, more importantly, had the experience to understand it. Despite living 70 odd miles away from South East London, I felt a part of the Charlton community. I felt like I belonged to this club and to this group of people. Even as a ‘visitor’, I knew that taking a football club out of a community would be crippling. Charlton got me through some difficult times in my life, and the thought of having the club taken away from me when I was at my most fragile was sickening.
It’s from that understanding and those bonds that I had for Charlton that I realised that my first game of league football should never have been in Milton Keynes. Wimbledon should never have been taken away from their community.
The Historical Bit
Wimbledon’s infamous move to Milton Keynes came as a result of their own success. After winning Division Four in the 1982/83 season, the club were in the top flight by 1986/87 and finished in 6th above the likes of Manchester United (11th) and Chelsea (14). Their infamous FA Cup success followed in the next season, with Lawrie Sanchez’s goal securing an unlikely win over Liverpool at Wembley, but things weren’t quite so rosy off the field.
The Taylor Report, commissioned after the Hillsborough tragedy and released in 1991,called for all-seater stadia across the country. Wimbledon’s Plough Lane was far from the standards required to meet the criteria in the report and the club were unable to finance redevelopment of the ground, meaning they were forced to make what was meant to be a temporary switch to Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park whilst a site to develop a new ground on, and financing to do so, was found.
A wonderful idea in theory, hide out at your neighbour’s base until you’ve been given the eyes for your new home, but it was far from ideal in practice. A proposed site in Merton became a car park, a recommendation to move to Beddington was knocked back, Tolworth and Brixton offered no sign of a location, whilst chairman Sam Hammam, angered with Merton Council, rejected a plan by the Greyhound Racing Association to redevelop Wimbledon Stadium and also vowed never to return to Plough Lane despite the council’s efforts to keep it in public use.
With the search for a ground going absolutely nowhere, Wimbledon’s finances were heading in reverse with attendances falling amidst the added cost burdens the Premier League brought. Selling the club to Norwegian pair Kjell Inge Rokke and Bjorn Rune Gjlsten in 1997, in addition to finally securing the sale of Plough Lane, there was at least some hope the finances would stabilise whilst Hammam, who remained at the club in advisory role, looked further afield for a new home for his club. The Premier League gave him permission to move Wimbledon to Ireland, only for the FAI, who thankfully had a bit more common sense, to reject the bizarre proposal.
After attempting to buy Selhurst Park, Hammam eventually gave up, selling his shares in the same season that Wimbledon were relegated to the second tier, leaving the Norwegians to fend for themselves. By this time, the 1999/2000 season, the pair had already realised that the club wasn’t financially violable and a huge burden they didn’t fancy having on their shoulders, so they left the day-to-day running of the club to their colleague Charles Koppel.
South African Koppel had had success managing a powerboat racing team, but he’d never seen a game of football in his life and had no idea about the nuisances of the game that make it so much more than just a business. He couldn’t have understood my emotional attachment to Charlton Athletic, all he could understand was that the club’s balance sheet didn’t make for pretty reading. Cue a fire sale of players, a number of sackings in the backroom staff and an inevitable relegation to the Championship. But, of course, what happened on the pitch didn’t matter to Koppel. “We can’t maximise the potential of hospitality, of advertising hoardings, of anything here,” he said, completely ignoring the fact that dropping to what is now the Championship lowers potential income.
The crazy Norwegians and the clueless Koppel needed a saviour; they need the burden off their shoulders. In stepped a man with facial features created by God’s work experience understudy at 4:30PM on a Wednesday, hair that belonged to man with considerably less wealth and an unconfident stutter; not your traditional hero at the eleventh hour. But in stepped Pete Winkleman, along with his chums ASDA and IKEA, as part of the Milton Keynes Stadium Consortium to offer the owners a way out and Wimbledon a way out.
The consortium, aptly, was looking to build a stadium in the new-ish city-except-it’s-not-a-city-city of Milton Keynes. But they had a problem; how do you go about justifying the building of a football stadium when the local club, the now defunct Milton Keynes City, plays its football at level eight in the football pyramid? You sit on your backside and wait for the club to rocket through the divisions, obviously. Alternatively, you can ask every club in a 100 mile radius with the slightest whiff of financial problems whether they fancy a new home. Winkleman opted for the second option.
Luton were approached, but the FA, strangely enough, rejected the proposal stating that no member club could leave its home town. Crystal Palace, Barnet and QPR all were given the chance to move to Milton Keynes and keep their name, colours and badge, but all laughed off the suggestion, as did Wimbledon initially to the back drop of some very disgruntled fans.
But Winkleman, who had registered ‘mkdons.co.uk’ and ‘mkdons.com’, along with attempting to buy the Milton Keynes City club name, moved for Wimbledon again in 2001 and didn’t get a no. After a move to merge the club with QPR broke down, Wimbledon and Koppel were stuck between a rock and a hard place. They only option they had was the offer from Milton Keynes, if that wasn’t accepted than the club would end.
Koppel announced in August 2001 that he intended to allow the club to be moved to Milton Keynes, but the FA and the Football League, not forgetting almost every fan in the country, rejected the proposal. The Football League, in possibly the most sensible thing they have ever said, told Winkleman’s consortium that a Milton Keynes club would have to move up the pyramid and that franchised football would be disastrous. However, the decision was overturned by an FA Panel in May 2002; Wimbledon were off to Milton Keynes.
Wimbledon fans were fighting a losing battle, especially when Koppel told residents near Plough Lane to actively protest against any plans the club’s fans might have to move back to their former home, so they opted for a previously unprecedented route. They formed their own club. AFC Wimbledon were born just a few days after the FA decision, and in the following season were attracting more fans than the original club at Selhurst Park, who were sliding into administration.
With AFC on the up, Wimbledon were on the verge of going out of business even after their move to Milton Keynes. Relegated from the second tier, the club’s financial problems worsened amidst reports that the stadium deal would be off if the club were to go bust. Winkleman, desperate not to see his ‘hard work’ ruined, bought the club in June 2004 and immediately took them out of administration before changing their colours, badge and name. MK Dons were born.
Do MK Have a Leg to Stand On?
Sickening. A club not only taken away from its fans, but completely destroyed. It’s why so many football fans hold a soft spot for AFC Wimbledon, whose incredible climb up the leagues has gone someway to elevating the suffering Wimbledon fans have had to endure, and despise the Milton Keynes club. It was horribly unfortunate when the two sides were drawn together in the FA Cup last season, made even worse by the face the game was played in Milton Keynes and gut wrenching by the score. I’m so glad I lost the association I had with the club in my naïve youth.
But there are those that argue AFC don’t deserve the sympathy they get, not least Winkleman himself. With the fact that MK Dons are the legal continuation of Wimbledon as his foundation, Winkleman suggested that the fans of the original club betrayed it ‘before their team left them’ and that the fans had ‘abdicated their right’ to owning Wimbledon’s trophy replicas when ‘they all walked away’.
Thankfully, Winkleman changed his tune when the Football Supporters Federation refused to admit MK Dons supporters in after the Wimbledon Independent Supporters Association had objected to them and called for other teams to boycott their trips to Milton Keynes. The disagreements were somewhat resolved when Wimbledon reclaimed their history and silverware, with MK Dons renouncing any claims to history before 2004, in 2006. Hurrah for common sense.
But What Now?
Do we start to accept Franchise FC? Several opinions and pieces, in support of MK Dons, inspired me to investigate this situation further and give myself a platform with which to answer the aforementioned question of acceptance.
The novelty boosted crowds that brought an average attendance of over 10,000 for two seasons at Stadium:MK is now a thing of the past, the last two seasons have seen an average of 8,000 or so spectators per game, but the Dons are developing their own fan base. The first generation of Milton Keynes born Milton Keynes Dons fans are supporting their club like anyone else would; Like someone of a similar age from the Wimbledon area would support AFC. It’s not their fault their local team was given to them in an unethical manner, and in that regard I have sympathy.
Some credit must also be given to Winkleman, whose project has been a success. The area around the stadium is a thriving retail location which has produced 100s if not 1000s of jobs for a young, local community. The football club in Milton Keynes has worked wonders for the town of Milton Keynes.
The club also has excellent community links, with a football trust that engages with 60,000 people a year on top of affordable tickets for youngsters and a thriving academy with several youth internationals.
However, any sympathy or praise ends there. Let’s strip this down to the bare, footballing bones without the legal side of things. Football is much more than facts and documents. For starters, all of the praise that can be given to MK Dons is done so by ignoring the fact it shouldn’t have been achievable in the first place and has been achieved unethically. A bit like finding out the answers to a test before hand and getting top marks; it looks good, but it really isn’t right.
Even when disregarding the obvious injustice of a football club being taken away from a local community, a football injustice remains. MK Dons play in a higher division than AFC Wimbledon; a brand new club in MK Dons have high jacked the league position of the former Wimbledon through no on the pitch effort, whilst the new Wimbledon were forced to work their way up through the leagues over several seasons.
What you have to ask yourself is would AFC moving above MK in the league ladder make everything right? Of course not, the damage that has been done is irreversible. If AFC were to reach the Premier League, or even the Championship were their former club left off, would they suddenly forgive and accept the Milton Keynes club? Of course they wouldn’t. Would the rest of the footballing world care less about the ethics of MK Dons’ existence if they dropped below AFC? Possibly in two or three generations time, but certainly not now. MK Dons is no normal club and shouldn’t be treated as such.
Some comfort can be taken from AFC Wimbledon’s plans to return to Plough Lane. Whilst it certainly won’t feel like it to those close to club, from the outside it looks like, after they return to their former home, they’ll have everything back that they once lost except from the league they were in. As much as AFC fans will wish the situation never occurred, what they’ve got in the shape of their current club is very special.
With thanks to @harrymkdons04
We’ve heard it all hundreds and hundreds of times; English football is, roughly speaking, 3891 years and 7 months behind the rest of the football world. Even the Americans, who don’t call the sport by its proper name, the Greeks, who probably have to have a whip round to afford flights to games, and the Swiss, who have given 50 (fifty) caps to Philippe Senderos, are better equipped to rule the footballing world than the English according to the latest FIFA World Rankings.
But, for a nation that does its best to fail to qualify from the easiest of qualification groups and then limp to penalty shoot-out defeats in a major tournament quarter-finals, our academies are really rather impressive. From the big boys who churn out player after player, or poach youngsters from affair and turn them into superstars, to the smaller clubs who work wonders with limited resources, the talent factories are definitely producing.
And with so many English academies having success, the question is which one is the best? It’s a question that every football lover will have a different answer to. It’s been hard enough picking the teams to include in this list, let alone pick one of them.
The likes of Spurs, not enough success for a club of their size, Sheffield United, not successful enough to outdo another candidate selected from League One, and MK Dons, ethical and moral reasons, were amongst the clubs who just missed out as a result of careful and calculated consideration (your writer discussing the matter over the course of 30 minutes with a friend via iMessage) that has produced 12 candidates, listed in alphabetical order, for the honour of best academy in England.
They have been assessed on five categories:
Players, preferably and almost always still playing, who have graduated through the club’s academy ranks and gone onto bigger and better things.
Academy graduates who remain at the club and have an important role to play within the first team.
Next in Line
Those youngsters currently in the youth set up who have the potential to be the next big thing.
Coaching, Facilities and initiatives
Assessing individual coaches as well as coaching techniques. Looking at how facilities help development as well as academy status. Considering different initiatives clubs employ to raise money for their academies and draw attention towards them.
Turning players, young or old, who have been snapped up from the lower leagues or released from bigger clubs into excellent players.
Villa really don’t get the praise they deserve for the amount of players they’ve produced over the past 20 years. In fact, only a handful of Premier League clubs seen more players graduate from their academy and stay in the top flight than Villa. With a first team squad full of young players and academy graduates, manager Paul Lambert isn’t afraid to give youth a chance; expect plenty more bright prospects, of which many will have played a part in winning the NextGen Series, to pull on a Villa shirt in the near future.
From experienced pros coming towards the end of the year, players right at the peak of their powers and slightly younger players with plenty more to give, there are all manner of Villa academy graduates dotted about. England international Gareth Barry has impressed since joining Everton on loan after years of valued service for Manchester City, whilst Steven Davis and Liam Ridgewell are also experienced top flight players. Peter Whittingham has recently returned to the Premier League with Cardiff and will be looking to continuing the form that saw rated as one of the Championship’s best talents over the past three seasons, a tag that Harry Forrester will be hoping to pick up after moving to Doncaster. The stand out, however, is England centre back Gary Cahill; arguably the best English centre back at this moment in time.
As mentioned above, Villa’s young first team squad is filled with academy graduates. So young is Villa’s squad that 26-year-old Gabriel Agbonlahor is one of the more experienced personnel, racking up an impressive 249 league games for his boyhood club. Agobonlahor is often found exchanging wide attacking positions with fellow former youth team player Andreas Weimann, who has come on leaps and bounds in a very short space of time. Defenders Ciaran Clark, Nathan Baker and Chris Herd are regulars in the back four, whilst winger Marc Albrighton, although used sparingly, has made over 50 appearances for the midlands club.
Next in Line
As NextGen series winners, there’s plenty of talent coming through Villa’s ranks. The highest rated of which is 18-year-old Jack Grealish, who has earned plaudits not only for his displays in Villa’s youth sides but also during his current loan at Notts County. Striker Graham Burke, a Republic of Ireland U21 international just like Grealish, was joint top scorer in the NextGen competition, whilst Samir Carruthers, another Irish youth international, has impressed on loan at Milton Keynes Dons. Elsewhere, Englishman Nathan Delfouneso is in the middle of his fourth loan spell away from Villa Park with plenty of potential yet to be fulfilled.
Coaching, Facilities and initiatives
Long term employee, holding his current position since 1997, Bryan Jones is the club’s academy director and has overseen the development of every player mentioned in this section in one capacity or another. His assistance comes from former Villa player Mark Delaney, an academy coach, and development coach Gordon Cowans, who played for Villa over three spells in the 70s, 80s and 90s. It’s coaches that know the club so well, in addition to Jones’ experience and expertise, that has helped to produce so many graduates, most of whom are local boys and Villa fans.
Chairman Randy Lerner is a strong supporter of the academy, had has invested in tune with those beliefs. As a category one academy, the club’s Bodymoor facility reflects those standards. However, unlike many other clubs, Villa prefer their youngsters to receive education at local schools. Jones is passionate about youngsters receiving a rounded education and taking part in all school sports, letting the academy players have as normal a childhood as possibly.
From this belief of rounded education comes several community links. Villa offer not only football development programmes to local youngsters in order to find the best local players, but also offer education incentives, such as the Aston Villa CIC that provides state of the art facilities at Villa Park for the whole spectrum of education.
Hands up who had heard of Christian Benteke 18 months ago? My hand certainly isn’t raised. Especially in the last couple of season, Villa have developed a keen eye for a young player who doesn’t break the bank to sign; £7,000,000 for a player who is now valued at four times that amount after scoring 23 goals in competitions last season is quite an impressive investment. In addition to the likes of Ashley Westwood and Fabian Delph, the signings of a host of young players from the continent this summer, such as Jores Okore and Antonio Luna, will hopefully highlight Villa’s ability to spot a talent and nurture them in a few years’ time.
How predictable. A blog named after Charlton’s manager, littered with Charlton related writing and written by an avid Charlton fan includes the writer’s own club in a list of the best of something in the country. But favouritism plays no part in Charlton’s selection as one of the best academies in England; it’s fully deserved.
In the past ten years, five former Charlton academy members have won full international caps for England; quite some achievement for a club that is anything but fashionable. Paul Koncheskey and Jonjo Shelvey, a former and the current youngest ever player to play for Charlton have two caps and a cap under their belts, with Shelvey surely set to claim more in the years to come. Carl Jenkinson has also a senior cap to his name after choosing to play for his country of birth over Finland, the country of his mother and who he played his youth international football for.
The remaining two Charlton academy graduates to have pulled on an England shirt since the start of the new millennium have contributed significantly more to the national side’s cause. Jermain Defoe, although despised by Charlton fans following his acrimonious move to West Ham United in 1999, has a half-century of caps and 19 international goals to his name whilst Scott Parker, also less than popular for a brief period in SE7 after leaving for Chelsea in 2004, captained England at Wembley in a friendly against the Netherlands in 2012.
Elsewhere, ‘keeper Darren Randolph has two caps for the Republic of Ireland, whilst former Republic of Ireland youth international Rob Elliott has established himself as second choice at Premier League club Newcastle and Michael Turner is a regular at Norwich City. An impressive list of successful graduates.
With budget constraints and financial concerns restricting manager Chris Powell in the transfer market, Charlton have turned to a number of former youth team players to bolster numbers in the first team squad. 22-year-old Chris Solly has won Charlton’s player of the year award for the past two seasons, whilst teenage winger Callum Harriott broke into the starting XI at the end of last season and began this one as first choice on the left side of midfield. 19-year-olds Jordan Cousins, capable of playing in a number of positions, and Joe Piggot, a stereotypically tall target man, have both made their debuts this season, with the pair also notching their first goals for the club. Lawrie Wilson and Danny Green, two former academy players who left the club before being bought back, are also under contract at The Valley.
Next in Line
There’s no shortage of exciting talent coming though the Charlton ranks at present. The most high profile of which is Diego Poyet, son of former Chelsea and Tottenham midfielder Gus, who played an important part in the development squad’s title and play-off win last season whilst still representing the under 18s. In addition to Poyet, who has represented England U16s and U17s, Charlton can boast a number of youth internationals in their academy set up. Defenders Joe Gomez and Archie Edwards, who have both attracted interest from Premier League clubs, have also represented the U16s and U17s, pacey striker Tobi Sho-Silva and the versatile Tarieq Holmes-Dennis have been capped at U18 level whilst forward Adebayo Azeez, who has a Charlton first team appearance to his name, is an U19 international.
Coaching, Facilities and Initiatives
Whilst the facilities may be average, the Charlton’s youngsters have a number of superb coaches assisting with their development. The academy set up is led by academy director Paul Hart, who has previously worked wonders in the youth teams of Leeds, winning the FA Youth Cup twice and Nottingham Forest, helping to produce a number of highly talented players. Academy manager Steve Avory, who has been at the club for 12 years, has coached the U18 side to a number of successes in recent years, including a title win last season. Charlton legend Jason Euell and former USSR international Sergei Baltacha also play a part in coaching the youth sides.
In terms of initiatives, Charlton’s Valley Gold scheme has played a huge role in the continued funding of the academy in troubled financial times for the club since exiting the Premier League in 2007. The scheme, which began in 1989, has helped raise millions of pounds for the club’s youth section through £10 a month membership and fundraising activities. The club are always quick to relate any youth success back to the success of Valley Gold.
This is a category where Charlton have less to shout about. The years after Charlton’s fall from the top flight were marred by a number of signings from lower leagues and non-leagues that failed, such as Izale Mcleod, Dean Sinclair and Stuart Fleetwood. However, Bradley Pritchard, signed from non-league Hayes and Yeading, has become one of the most important cogs of the current Charlton side, whilst Kevin Feely, signed from Bohemians, and Michael Smith, currently enjoying a fruitful loan spell at AFC Wimbledon, impressed for the development side last season.
(With thanks to @_CharlieHarris)
In a time of unimaginable doom for the Midlands club, Coventry need some hope. With no home, it comes as some solace to Coventry fans that the club is producing excellent home grown talent. Not only are they the future of the club, probably the first players to play back in Coventry should they return, but also the present with finances restricting player purchases.
Coventry’s list of academy graduates may not be as star-studded, exciting or successful as some of the other teams’ on this list, but it’s a respectable list nonetheless. Newcastle’s Gael Bigrimana, who took part in this summer’s U20 world cup, is Coventry’s latest export, with the energetic midfielder possessing plenty of potential. Looking slightly further back, Gary McSheffrey has been a steady performer at Championship level throughout his career and is viewed as a Coventry legend with over 200 appearances for the club, whilst Chris Kirkland, whose injury record has prevented him from earning more than one England cap, played 24 games for the Sky Blues before moving to Liverpool.
Given Coventry’s current situation, it’s never been so important for the club’s youngsters to be ready for first team action and keep the club going. In a recent game against Gillingham, nine of the 18 man squad came through (or are still in) the club’s academy, whilst four of the starting XI were academy graduates. Young defenders Jordan Clarke, 21, and Cyrus Christie, 20, already have over 70 appearances for the club with the strong and pacey pair now regulars in Coventry’s back four, whilst 19-year-old Conor Thomas, a former England U18 international and once a Liverpool loanee, is nearing 50 appearances in midfield. However, the most impressive of the current crop of youngsters is 21-year-old Callum Wilson. The striker has eight goals in six league games this season, supported by fellow young striker Billy Daniel’s three in five, and it’s only a matter of time before a club higher up the league ladder than Sheffield United are interested in him. Coventry will no doubt have to cash in on him eventually, but not before he’s added a few more goals to his name.
Next in Line
Despite concerns that the financial situation will hinder the academy, there are several promising talents coming through the ranks. The most promising of all is former MK Dons youngster Leon Lobjoit. The 17-year-old winger has already been linked with moves to Manchester City and Liverpool. 18-year old Louis Garner, who spent time at Manchester United before finishing his footballing education in Coventry’s academy, impressed in pre-season friendlies and more recently for the development squad. Fellow 18-year-old Jordan Willis, who is beginning to break into the first team, is an England U19 international, whilst ‘keeper Lee Burge and defensive pair Aaron Phillips and Ryan Haynes have been fast tracked into the first team picture.
Coaching, Facilities and initiatives
The academy is led by academy manager Gregor Rioch, son of former Arsenal manager Bruce, and has been for the past six years. Many of the players who have come through Coventry’s youth system, including Bigirimana, have praised Rioch’s role in assisting their development and the 38-year-old coach is held in high regard by all associated with Coventry City.
There is of course a danger that the facilities designed for the academy will suffer given Coventry’s situation, but manager Steven Pressley and club director Steve Waggott have spoken of the importance of the academy, suggesting it and the facilities will both be safeguarded. The Member Clubs Scheme the club runs is an important factor in protecting the academy with links created between the Sky Blues and local grass roots clubs, allowing Coventry to build good relations with the local community and offer opportunities for local players to impress.
Although Lobjoit and Garner progressed into the first team from Coventry’s academy, they spent time at other clubs and Coventry will hope the opportunities they can provide will help to develop the players quicker than their former clubs could have. Former Rangers youngster John Fleck, once very highly rated, hasn’t quite reached his early potential, but at just 22 there’s still time for the Scot to develop. Being one of more experienced players in Coventry’s side will help to do that. Stuart Urquhart, another player produced by Rangers, signed recently after turning down a contract offer at Ibrox and will hope to make an impression on the first team. In terms of players that have moved on from Sky Blues, Aron Gunnarsson, plucked from AZ’s reserves as a 19 year old, will credit Coventry for giving him his chance in English football, whilst Scott Dann, signed as a 21-year-old from Walsall along with a 22-year-old Danny Fox, have Coventry to thank for giving them the a chance higher up the league ladder.
Crewe, Dario Gradi and youth development; three things that have gone hand in hand over the past 30 years like bacon, lettuce and tomato, producing similar levels of tasty results. In 2013, Gradi fulfilled his ‘golden vision’ at Crewe with manager Steve Davis selecting an XI of academy graduates. When some clubs struggle to find space for a single youth product, or even an Englishman, fielding a whole team of them is quite an achievement. 75 players have made it to Crewe’s first team during Gradi’s time at the club, keeping the Alex in the black unlike so many other similar sized clubs. Crewe’s is quite possibly, passed on relative size and finances, the best academy in England.
With Crewe so successful in producing talent, this list is quite a long one. From the now retired trio of England internationals, Danny Murphy, Dean Ashton and Seth Johnson, to Football League regulars, Rob Hulse, Nicky Maynard and Ben Marshall, and the latest graduates with the world at their feet, Nick Powell and Luke Murphy, Crewe have kick-started the career of many an excellent footballer. Much of the attention is now on Powell, with the Manchester United and England U21 starlet tipped for the very top of the game. Currently enjoying a fruitful loan spell at Wigan, the 19-year-old will no doubt be another international footballer produced by the Alex.
Ben Garrett, Kelvin Mellor, Harry Davis, George Ray, Matt Tootle, Ryan Colclough, Ollie Turton, Luke Murphy, Byron Moore, AJ Leitch-Smith, Max Clayton. Those are the eleven academy graduates who started Crewe’s game against Walsall on April 27th 2013. Arguably the most promising of that list who still remains with the club is striker Max Clayton, an England U19 international. The likes of Leitch-Smith, Davis, and Moore are slightly more experienced and have made themselves mainstays of the Crewe side, with Moore racking up well over 200 games for the club. 18-year-old Ryan Colclough, a winger with 21 games already under his belt is also a major part of the first team.
Next in Line
Goalkeeper Ben Garrett, who made his debut for Crewe in the game against Walsall, is an England U19 international and also has caps for the U17 and U18 sides, whilst 19-year-old defender George Ray has a Welsh U21 cap, as well as a handful of first team appearance for the Alex already.
Coaching, Facilities and initiatives
A lot, if not most, of Crewe’s player producing achievements comes down to the outstanding work of one man. Dario Gradi has not only worked wonders for the club, but helped to change the face of English football’s academy system over the past 30 years. During his 28 years as manager over three spells, he gave all manner of youngster a chance in the first team, from Danny Murphy to Nick Powell, as well as taking a hands on approach to youth development. He now works as the club’s academy manager, feeding manager Steve Davis with player after player for his first team side.
The training ground has improved in recent years, with an onsite classroom and modern physiotherapy room helping to grant the Alex Category 2 status; incredibly impressive for a League One club without the finances to compete with those clubs in the top flight.
Not only do Crewe have an excellent record in producing their own talent, but also handing a second chance to those released from bigger sides. Robbie Savage’s career was kick-started at Crewe after he left Manchester United, whilst Neil Lennon played 147 games for the club after leaving Manchester City. Amongst the current crop of youngesters, Liam Nolan (Everton), Robbie Johnson (Wigan) and James Baillie (Manchester United) have all been snapped up after leaving clubs higher up the league ladder.
(With thanks to @Russell2103)
What’s all this then? A Charlton blog praising Crystal Palace? Have I gone mad? The answer to that is of course yes, but Palace deserve plenty of praise for both the work they’ve put in to improve their academy and the players that have come through it in recent years.
The list of exciting talents who began their career at Palace before demanding huge transfer fees as they joined Premier League clubs is truly exceptional. The most impressive name on that list is arguably Wilfried Zaha. The winger has been a consistently excellent performer in the Championship over the past three seasons but really made a name for himself in the campaign just gone, earning himself a £15,000,000 move to Manchester United and two caps for England. Zaha isn’t the only winger Palace have produced, with Victor Moses, currently making a promising start to a loan spell at Liverpool, and Wayne Routledge, who has been in fantastic form since moving to Swansea in 2011, also academy graduates.
Nathaniel Clyne, who racked up 123 appearances for Palace after coming through the youth ranks, joined Southampton upon their return to the Premier League and has since made himself first choice at right back for both the Saints and the England U21s. Hayden Mullins, Sean Scannell and, scorer of the winner in last season’s FA Cup Final, Ben Watson are all plying their trade in the Championship, whilst former wonderkid John Bostock is attempting to rebuild his career at Royal Antwerp in Belgium’s second tier.
Zaha wasn’t the only academy graduate to play a crucial role in Palace’s promotion last season. In fact, may fans of the South East London club rate Welsh international Johnny Williams more highly than the recently departed Zaha. Despite being just 19 years of age, the youngster already has the ability to dictate play from the centre of midfielder and is suited to both a deep laying and a more forward thinking playmaker. The only thing Williams lacks is goals, with none in his 44 league games for the Eagles, whilst injuries are a concern, but should he stay fit and add goals to his game he’ll surely become a top class Premier League player. Fellow academy graduates Kyle De Silva and Matthew Parsons also have a handful of first team appearances to their name.
Next in Line
Palace’s production belt continues to churn out exciting prospects and there are a number to look out for in the current crop of youngsters. The most exciting of which is 17-year-old Reise Allassani, described by one admirer as ‘quick, direct and a good finisher’ in the Jermain Defoe/Darren Bent mould. Not only does he have caps for both England U16s and U17s, but he also has a fantastic head of hair, which can only help his cause. Strong defender Ryan Inniss, currently on loan at Cheltenham Town, has also represented England at both U16 and U17 level, captaining the sides on a number of occasions, whilst fellow defender Jerome Williams made his debut for Palace in the League Cup this season and has an U18 cap to his name. Although not a product of the academy, big things are also expected of winger Jason Banton, who is currently impressing on loan at MK Dons.
Coaching, Facilities and Initiatives
Former chairman and current sun bed lover Simon Jordon devoted a lot of his time and money whilst with the club to developing both the facilities and set up of the academy system itself, and that is continuing under current chairman Steve Parish, who has ambitious plans to upgrade the facilities at Palace and apply for category one status.
In terms of coaching, much of the praise is heaped on academy director Gary Issott, who oversees both the development squad and the academy set up. Palace fans regard him so highly that he’s seen as one of the main reasons for the successful production of players in recent years.
The Eagles also use a number of initiatives to their advantage. Palace’s affiliation with local school Whitgift has helped them secure talent, such as Victor Moses, whilst giving the young players a solid education and allowing them to gel as a group off the pitch. Financial support comes from first team players’ shirt sponsorship, with all money raised through the mechanism going towards funding the youth teams.
Palace have taken punts on a number of young lower league players in recent years and given them a chance higher up the league ladder. The likes of Stuart O’Keefe and Kwesi Appiah have appearances under their belt in the Championship for the Eagles, whilst Dwight Gayle will be hoping to continue the development that Peterborough and Dagenham and Redbridge began.
(With thanks to @BuckTaylor64)
This isn’t as strange a choice as you might immediately think. Every so often a club will produce a talent that is not only tipped for the top, but tipped to be one of the players of his era. That’s not unnatural; almost every club has produced a very shiny gem. But for a club to churn out not one but two of these players in quick succession, and for that club to be in the second tier of English football, is really quite something.
Whilst the main source of reasoning behind including Derby in this list is based around the current players they’re producing, The Rams have been no mugs in the past when it comes to seeing players through their youth set up and onto bigger things. The stand out name in recent years is that of Tom Huddlestone, who has recently joined Hull after being frozen out at Spurs by their recent cohort of signings despite being a steady and consistent performer during his 143 league games for the club. The England international, who has been capped four times by his country, joins Lewis Nyatanga (Wales) and Lee Camp (Northern Ireland) in graduating from Derby’s academy right through to the international stage.
A respectable number of former youth team players populate Derby’s first team and several of them are several categories higher than just respectable players and prospects. Two in particular, the two mentioned at the start of Derby’s section, are arguably among England’s hottest talent. 18-year-old Will Hughes already has 46 appearances and three goals under his belt for the rams, putting in a number of outstanding performances over the past three seasons and being rewarded with a quick move up the ladder from England U17 level to a regular starter for the U21s. He himself has stated he models his game on the likes of Xavi and Andreas Iniesta; if he reaches a level half as good as the Barcelona pair, he’ll have done well. In addition, teammate Mason Bennett has been limited in his first team game time, but he scored his first league goal for the club this season and at just 17 has plenty of time to make a more sustained impact on Derby’s starting line-up. Lee Grant, Mark O’Brien and Jeff Hendrick are also academy graduates who play a significant role in Derby’s first team.
Next in Line
With several promising players within Derby’s academy set up, it may not be too long until we see another Will Hughes or Mason Bennett. Arguably the most exciting player currently in the youth side is striker Charles Vernam. Previously of Scunthorpe, the 17-year-old had a trial at AC Milan a few years ago and is still very highly rated. Other prospects include defender Josh Lelan, who is currently on loan at Gateshead and the versatile Jamie Hanson.
Coaching, Facilities and initiatives
Darren Wassall, a former Rams defender, oversees the academy as academy manager and head of coaching has done since a restructure to Derby’s academy set up following Nigel Clough’s appointment as manager in April 2009. The recently departed gaffer also helped to secure the services of Michael Forsyth, another former Derby defender with over 400 appearances for the club, and John Perkins, well respected in his role as academy director at Wolves, to the academy’s coaching staff. The appointment of the trio four years ago has coincided with a surge in first team worthy talent coming through the academy ranks.
Despite being a category two academy, Derby’s facilities belong to that of a category one club. Built at cost of £5,000,000 in 2003, Moor Farm can boast six training pitches, an indoor facility and technology such as ProZone. Investment towards the facilities and academy as a whole has increased to £1,000,000 a year under the current ownership, helped by the ‘Rams Club’ members lottery, and it’s this kind of financial commitment that CEO Tom Glick believes will make Moor Farm ‘the academy of choice in the midlands’.
Let’s just focus on the now and what’s to come, eh?
Aside from being that club who fluctuate between the mediocrity of lower mid-table to the mediocrity of higher mid-table, that club who everyone sees as a chance for three points and that club who once hosted a Michael Jackson statue on its doors, Fulham are that club with an academy that’s reputation continues to grow. Winners in the National Academy Final last season and recently awarded Category 1 status; the youth set up at the club is highly underrated.
A big name graduate is still yet to come from Fulham’s ranks. Arguably the most successful is big in size defender Zat Knight, who has two caps for England and wealth of Premier League and Football League experience. However, there are few other graduates that have made a name for themselves. Netherlands U21 international Danny Hoesen, allowed to leave the club last summer after splitting his footballing development between Fortuna Sittard and Fulham, has been impressive for Dutch giants Ajax, scoring 5 goals in 18 games, whilst Swindon’s Wes Foderingham has been tipped for the top.
With Fulham’s first team squad a mixture of foreign journeymen and experienced English pros, there is little space for academy graduates. Matthew Briggs, the Premier League’s youngest ever player, and Neil Etheridge, resident third choice keeper, are the only former youth team players in the senior squad. However, all that is about to change.
Next in Line
It’s almost as if Fulham have been freezing young talent in a Futurama-esq manner for the past 134 years and are now ready to release them all at once. It’s been helped hugely by a scouting system that has been able to pick out hidden gems from suffering clubs and those let go by the bigger boys. 21-year-old Dan Burn, previously at Darlington before joining the Cottagers as a 19-year-old, has impressed on loan at Yeovil and Birmingham despite having the worst hair football has ever witnessed, whilst fellow 21-year-old Josh Pritchard, previously of Manchester United, is currently enjoying a successful loan spell at Tromso. Joanthan Buatu Mana and Ange-Freddy Plumain, youth internationals for Belgium and France respectively, are also highly regarded.
In terms of actual academy players, George Williams already as two appearances for MK Dons to his name, Patrick Roberts is an England U17 international whilst Moussa Dembele (no, not that one) scores goals for fun at youth level.
Coaching, Facilities and initiatives
The resent serge in player development has a lot to do with the recently appointed coaching staff at Fulham. Huw Jennings, former development manager at Southampton, was appointed as academy director in 2009, whilst Malcolm Elias, former Liverpool academy director, joined as head of talent ID and recruitment, and England U21 assistant manager Steve Wigley became heading of coaching and U18 manager in the same year. They’ve not only helped produce players, but also led the youth side to a win in the National Play-Off Final, their third appearance in the play-off in three years.
Fulham’s facilities, in comparison to their Craven Cottage home, are of the highest standard and are part of the reason the club is a Category 1 academy. Players are given the chance to gain BTEC and NVQ qualifications whilst part of the academy as a back-up if their footballing career fails.
It will be interesting to see just how many of the youngsters on Fulham’s books that have been snapped up from other clubs break into the first team; even if 25% do they’ll develop an excellent record for nurturing talent.
For a club of such strong tradition and highly emotional links with its community, there’s no wonder that Liverpool’s academy has achieved great success in recent times. Often competing with their Merseyside rivals to attract young talent, Liverpool have a knack of outdoing Everton and finding the country’s hottest talent first.
With Liverpool reluctant to use any British talent, let alone academy graduates, under Rafa Benitez, it’s often forgotten just how impressive the Reds’ list of former youngsters is. From the recently retired trio of Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen and Jamie Carragher to the under 25s impressing elsewhere, such as Tom Ince, Daniel Ayala and Gary Mackay-Steven, Liverpool have continued to produce year on year. In between those two extremes are the likes of Stephen Warnock, who once beat Leighton Baines to an England call up, Reading’s Danny Guthrie and Nottingham Forest’s Jack Hobbs.
Brendan Rodgers has continued from where Kenny Dalglish left off in giving copious amounts of game time to the club’s young talent. Those youngsters are led by captain Steven Gerrard, a beacon for all things young development at Liverpool; rarely does a year go by without Gerrard praising the likes of Steve Heighway and the academy set up for where he is now. Of those players who have only recently broken into the first team, there is some serious talent and potential. Raheem Sterling and Martin Kelly are already capped by England, whilst Andre Wisdom and Jon Flanagan have impressed in their handful of appearances for the club.
Next in Line
The future at Anfield is bright with an exciting array of young talent at the club. Winger Suso, who already has a number of first team appearances under his belt, Conor Coady and Adam Morgan are all currently out on loan and are expected to be mainstays of the Liverpool side in years to come. There is also much expected from a pair of young wingers; Jordan Ibe and Jerome Sinclair, with the latter the club’s youngster ever player at 16 years and 6 days.
Coaching, Facilities and initiatives
When Steve Heighway retired as academy director in 2007 after 18 years of incredibly successful work, his shoes were always going to be big ones to fill. And so it proved, with it taking two years for Liverpool to appoint current academy boss Frank McParland, who is now settled in the job and overseeing the progress of Liverpool’s young talents. He is assisted by the likes of highly rated Rodolfo Borrell as head of coaching and recent appointment as U18s manager Neil Critchley, who formerly worked at Crewe.
Unlike most academies, Liverpool’s young players train away from the first team, with the club’s Melwood training group kept exclusively for Steven Gerrard and co. Instead, the youngsters have a state of the art facility in Kirkby, with the club focusing on youth development, scouting and experimenting with training techniques from the academy base. With the site purpose built, there is also a lecture theatre and a technology filled classroom in order for the youth team players to combine education and football development.
With Liverpool a global brand, they have a number of partnerships around the world that act as a talent pool for Liverpool’s academy back in England. They range from as close to home as both Northern and the Republic of Ireland and as far away as Indonesia.
Despite many foreign born players playing for the club’s reserve and academy sides over recent years, few have made the grade. But the current Liverpool side contains a number of successfully nurtured players, and some that Liverpool hope they’ll be able to nurture into world class talents. You could almost argue Daniel Sturridge is one of them, with his career progressing at pace since joining the club after never reaching his full potential elsewhere, whilst Jordan Henderson has improved after a slow start to his Anfield career. Of the players poached from elsewhere with much expected of them, Luis Alberto and Samed Yesil are amongst the most highly rated.
“You’ll never win anything with kids” – Alan Hansen when discussing Manchester United’s opening day loss to Aston Villa after a number of departed key players were replaced by academy graduates (1995).
1995/96 Premier League champions and FA Cup winners – Manchester United.
The rest, as they say, is history. Those ‘kids’ have been amongst the best players in the world over the past 18 or so years, whilst Manchester United, with their status and riches, continue to churn out youngster after youngster. No doubt David Moyes will be hoping to continue where Sir Alex Ferguson left off in giving youth a chance at one of the biggest clubs in the world.
From the Nevilles, the Beckhams and the Butts off the past, to the impressive names of the present, Manchester United’s academy has given football many of its key names in recent times. Robbie Brady, Frazier Campbell and Ryan Shawcross are all plying their trade in the Premier League after graduating United’s academy, whilst Gerard Pique, Ron-Robert Zieler and Paul Pogba are at the top of their game across Europe. Not only is it the case that players graduate through United’s ranks and reach the top, but many who fall through the door find a chance in the Football League, with Oliver Norwood, Craig Cathcart and Corry Evans all regulars in The Championship.
From 18-year-old Adnan Januzaj to 39-year-old Ryan Giggs, many of the key members of United’s current side began their careers in the club’s academy. Tom Cleverly, Danny Welbeck and Jonny Evans are all first team regulars, whilst Darren Fletcher will no doubt reclaim a place in the starting XI after recovering from ulcerative colitis. 23-year-old ‘keeper Ben Amos is also in and around the first team.
Next in Line
Of course, there are the obvious candidates in Nick Powell, Jesse Lingard and Michael Keane, United have a promising crop of youngsters currently in the youth side. Jack Barmby, son of Nicky, has impressed in the youth sides in recent years and is currently in the development squad, whilst striker James Wilson and midfielder Ben Pearson are both current England U19 internationals. There is also a pair of United youngsters in the U17 side, with ‘keeper Dean Henderson and defender Cameron Borthwick-Jackson (think of the shirt sales) both capped at that level. That’s not to mention a whole host of youngsters with at least one youth cap at various levels to their name.
Coaching, Facilities and initiatives
Academy director Brian McClair, appointed in 2006, oversees the youth set up. He’s enjoyed a successful time in his role, helping to develop the likes of Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverly. And with the former United player stating coaching the youngsters is ‘the next best thing’ behind actually playing, the Scot is motivated to help United produce the talent such a highly regarded club is worthy of. Paul McGuinness, who became a coach after injury limited his playing career to a handful of appearances, is manager of the U18 side, winning the youth cup in 2011.
As you would expect, United’s facilities are the cream of the crop. The Aon Training Complex (Carrington to me and you) even has its own Wikipedia entry, which is quite something. From the various training pitches, hydrotherapy pools and classrooms, the site has everything and more that a young player would need in their development. Unlike other clubs who are more open and allow the public in, young players are protected via the 30,000 trees and 1.5 miles of fencing that surrounded the facility, with parents only able to watch games from a special viewing area.
United’s worldwide soccer schools help to lure the cream of the crop from around the world to United’s door, with youngsters given the chance to train at Carrington and learn from the best coaches around.
With their financial backing and status, it’s easy for Manchester United to purchase the hottest young talent around and hone them into superstars. United’s first team squad is packed with several players of that type, including twins Rafael and Fabio, who moved to the club as 18-year-olds from Fluminense in 2008. Phil Jones, signed from Blackburn, and Chris Smalling, snapped up from Fulham, are expected to be United’s and England’s first choice centre back paring in future years, whilst much is expected of Wilfried Zaha, the recent £15,000,000 signing from Crystal Palace.
(With thanks to @CanaryAlec)
Unfashionable, no record of producing any great names before and Delia; it came as a surprise that a club like Norwich pulled off an impressive FA Youth Cup win last season. Led by talent that isn’t only some of the best produced by Norwich but the best of their generation, the Canaries performance over Chelsea in the final raised a few eyebrows. Norwich’s youth production is about to match their Premier League status.
The attractiveness of Norwich’s academy is in what’s to come, but that doesn’t mean they don’t boast some excellent academy products. Craig Bellamy is coming towards the end of an incredibly successful career that began with 32 goals in 84 games for the Canaries, whilst England international Rob Green has racked up 200 appearances for both Norwich and West Ham. A trio of players who played over 100 times for Norwich, Darel Russell, who has been a fans’ favourite wherever he’s played, Jason Shackell and Chris Martin, two excellent second tier players, also came through the club’s youth set up.
Well… there’s… erm… oh no he’s not an academy product…erm… nope, there’s no one. Declan Rudd, a promising young ‘keeper, is currently out on loan at Preston North End but no member of Norwich’s first team squad came through the club’s academy. Onto the next one then.
Next in Line
Ah, here we go, I can finally convince you the Canneries deserve to feature in this list. Having won the FA Youth Cup last season, there is no shortage of exciting young talent currently in the Norwich ranks, the most exciting of which is a set of identical twins whose parents clearly had no consideration for name on the back of their shirts complications when naming them. 18-year-old wingers Jacob and Josh Murphy were both integral parts of the Youth Cup, both have caps at England U19 level and both bring flair and pace in the style of current Norwich first teamer Nathan Redmond. A third promising player in the youth set up, Carlton Morris, is a forward with unbelievable amounts of pace, height and strength for someone who is yet to turn 18. Described by Clark Carlisle (for whatever that’s worth) as a ‘million pound striker’ and scorer of a hat-trick in the quarter-final of the Youth Cup, the talented striker is tipped for the top.
Coaching, Facilities and initiatives
The academy is led by academy manager and youth team coach Ricky Martin, who, whilst not exactly livin’ la vida loco, has had a crazy effect on the success of the youth side since taking up the joint role in 2007. A once unfashionable club who rarely produced anyone of note now have a series of exciting talents and Martin has played a huge part in that. His job has been made easier by Chris Hughton’s hands on approach to the youth side with the first team manager a spectator at every Youth Cup game and praised by member of Norwich’s academy for his willingness to offer advice.
The facilities have been dramatically improved in recent times to the point where they are now impressive enough to earn Norwich the highest academy status. This allows them to scout the globe for fresh academy talent, not just the local Sunday morning playing pitches, meaning that the Canaries have the potential to turn themselves into a force to be reckoned with, or at least a money spinning feeder club for the giants of football.
With the recent success of the academy leaving fans in a very positive mood towards it, a scheme in which Norwich offered fans the chance to pay an extra £19 on top of their season ticket price proved popular, with all the money raised going towards the ever growing youth set up. It’s become clear the club now view the academy as its main asset and have been very conscious to support and promote it since the Youth Cup victory. Why wouldn’t you?
The Canaries have done very well in turning mediocre Football League players into, well, mediocre Premier League players; it’s an achievement of sorts. The likes Of Anthony Pilkington, Elliott Bennett and Wes Hoolahan have all been given a chance by Norwich in the top flight and proved themselves at that level. When you add, Bradley Johnson, Robert Snodgrass, Jonny Howson and Ryan Bennett, and also consider Luciano Becchio and Jacob Butterfield to be the only real failures, that’s an incredibly impressive track record of having success from giving players, young or experienced, a chance in the Premier League. Nathan Redmond, the next in line, is arguably Norwich’s biggest opportunity to develop a superstar.
(With thanks to @ConnorArmstrong)
In case you’ve been living under a rock, and that rock was buried deep in the middle of the ocean, Southampton have a rather impressive academy. It’s not very often that a collection of England internationals can almost be ignored when it comes to singing the praises of the Saints Academy; only one man needs to be mentioned. Gareth Bale’s career began with him putting in, well, Gareth Bale like performances for Southampton in the Championship, now he’s playing for Real Madrid and is worth far too many million pounds. Not bad.
Southampton’s list of academy graduates is as impressive as any club’s in the country. In my opinion, it’s probably the very best. From established Football League and Premier League players, including Nathan Dyer, Dexter Blackstock and Andrew Surman, mediocre internationals, such as Finland’s Tim Sparv, Northern Ireland’ Chris Baird and the Republic of Ireland’s Leon Best, to former and current England internationals, Wayne Bridge, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain fill that category, Southampton have produced a whole host of quality players in the past 15 years. Oh, and some Welsh lad too.
Southampton’s first starting XI of this current Premier League campaign raised a few heads. To have one teenager start a top flight fixture is quite something, to have two is very brave/stupid, but to have three, well that’s almost unheard of. The Saints fielded Luke Shaw, James Ward-Prowse and Callum Chambers, a trio of 18-year-olds that will play a significant part in the future of English football. Shaw’s and Ward-Prowse’s names are rarely mentioned in the press without praise or links to the giants of football, whilst Chambers, a right back who can also double as a tricky winger, has impressed since breaking into the team at the start of the season. The youngsters are led by skipper Adam Lallana, who also came through the academy and is nearing 200 league appearances for the club.
Next in Line
Unsurprisingly, Southampton can boast a number of talented prospects who will be looking to emulate the successes of the academy graduates before them. Winger Omar Rowe, forward Jake Sinclair and midfielder Harrison Reed all made their first team debuts in this season’s League Cup, whilst Wales U21 international striker Lloyd Isgrove added a second career appearance and defender Jack Stephens was an unused substitute. There are also high hopes for prolific youth team striker Ryan Seager and left back (yep, another one) Matt Targett.
Coaching, Facilities and initiatives
Much of Southampton’s impressive track record in producing players comes down to the coaches within the youth set up. The academy is currently headed by Matt Crocker, who will leave the club in due course to take up the position of Head of Coach and Player Development at The FA’s Burton complex. Crocker has been with the club for seven years and overseen the development of the impressive crop of youngsters to graduate from the academy in that time. Martin Hunter, who is in control of the development squad, worked with the FA for 13 years before leading various Southampton age groups, whilst a number of former Southampton players, such as Radha Jaidi, Graeme Murty and Jason Dodd, coach within the academy, helping to implement the club’s ideals.
Former Charlton manager Les Reed oversees the ‘Football Development and Support Centre’, with the facilities of the department and the complex continuing to improve. Although previously behind closed doors, stands are now being built around the impressive training ground pitches to allow fans to view youth and development games; if you’ve got it, flaunt it.
In terms of initiatives, the academy has an affiliation with local college Sparsholt, giving those who miss out on a scholarship the chance to achieve a rounded education whilst still attempting to impress on Southampton’s training pitches.
Put simply, they don’t need to; they make their own. That being said, Southampton’s first season in the Premier League saw them field a number of young players who had played little or no top flight football before. Although having much of their footballing development elsewhere, Paulo Gazzaniga, Jack Cork, Nathaniel Clyne and Jay Rodriquez will no doubt credit the Saints for taking their careers to the next level.
WEST HAM UNITED
(With thanks to @whufcirons16)
You’ve got to be pretty good if you can refer to yourself as ‘The Academy of Football’, and that West Ham are. A more than respectable production line, from ‘winning the World Cup’ to filling modern day England squads, puts the Hammers right at the top of academies in England.
There aren’t many clubs in this list who can match the calibre of player produced by West Ham. Many an England squad in the past ten years would have had a strong West Ham connection, with a host of internationals coming through the East London club’s ranks. From Bobby Zamora (two caps, one start, 115 minutes, no goals) to Frank Lampard (100 caps, 85 starts, five times captain, 7323 minutes, 29 goals) ‘The Academy of Football’ has produced some of England’s finest players of the past decade. Glen Johnson, Michael Carrick and Rio Ferdinand, players than also have bigger money moves to their names, are amongst the other players to have graduated from West Ham’s youth team to putting on an England shirt at Wembley.
In addition, the likes of Fitz Hall, Elliott Ward and Leon Britton are all in the middle of very respectable careers that began in the Hammers’ youth set up. It’s an incredibly impressive list and one that highlights why West Ham’s youth development is regarded so highly.
It seems only right that West Ham’s current captain is a Hammers and an academy graduate. Mark Noble, arguably one of the best players of this era never to play for England, is the driving force of West Ham’s midfield and has racked up 27 goals in 219 league games for the club. He’s joined in midfield by Welsh international Jack Collison, who is nearing 100 appearances for the Hammers, whilst James Tomkins remains a highly rated centre back, appearing for the Great Britain Olympic team in 2012. 19-year-old left back Dan Potts is also a part of the current crop in the first team picture, impressing in a brief spell in the starting XI last season before injury cut it short.
Next in Line
A lot of faith is being put in 20-year-old midfielder George Moncur, who previously played for England at U18 level and enjoyed a successful spell on loan at AFC Wimbledon last season. The playmaker is in the mould of Mark Noble and isn’t too far away from a first team breakthrough. There is also much expected from 18-year-old defender Leo Chambers, who has been capped from U16 level right through to the U19s, after he made his debut for the club in this year’s Capital One Cup. Fellow 18-year-old Elliot Lee, a Durham-born striker, has been scoring for fun for the development squad and made his league debut this season.
Coaching, Facilities and initiatives
You can’t get to the point of being able to refer to yourself as ‘The Academy of Football’ without some excellent coaches teaching and training the youngsters. The youth operation is overseen by academy director Tony Carr, who has worked with the youngsters at West Ham in one form or another since 1973. The 62-year-old, who had his career cut short due to injury, is credited with producing talent the talent that has filled the England team in recent years and brought over £80 million worth of transfer fees into the club. Elsewhere in the coaching set up, Steve Potts, father of Dan, is highly thought of for his hands on work with the U18 side.
The Hammer, as you might expect, were awarded Category One status and their facilities are up to and above that standard. Those standards have been maintained by David Gold and David Sullivan investing more than £1,000,000, helping to develop a stadium pitch at the Rush Green complex and classrooms at Rush Green and Little Heath, since they began their roles as co-chairman, whilst vice-chairman Karren Brady has worked in partnership with Carr to organise the current academy strategy.
As is becoming the norm for clubs with successful academies, West Ham have formed a partnership with a local school, the Robert Clack School of Science in Dagenham, who cater of the educational needs of the club’s youngsters. That includes full time education for the U15 and U16 age groups, allowing them not only to get an excellent education on top of quality football development, but also allow bonds to be built between the players off the pitch.
The key name in this category is Jermain Defoe, who joined the club from Charlton after spending his formative footballing years in SE7. Those associated with West Ham will no doubt claim him as their own, and they have every reason to, with the Hammers giving him a platform from which he’s become one of the best English goal scorers of his generation. Other players who have been given a chance by West Ham at a young age from another club include Nigel Reo-Coker and Jobi McAnuff, two players taken from a dying Wimbledon in 2004.