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Production Lines and Finishing Schools; the Best Academies in England

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:

Graduates

Players, preferably and almost always still playing, who have graduated through the club’s academy ranks and gone onto bigger and better things.

Current Crop

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.

Nurturing Talent

Turning players, young or old, who have been snapped up from the lower leagues or released from bigger clubs into excellent players.


ASTON VILLA gwgwegw eg ewg ewg

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.

Graduates

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.

Current Crop

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.

Nurturing Talent

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.

Aston-Villas-Gareth-Barry-001

Gareth Barry

CHARLTON ATHLETIC

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. ehergergergergergerhe

Graduates

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.

Current Crop

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.

Nurturing Talent

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.

Jonjo Shelvey

Jonjo Shelvey

COVENTRY CITY 

(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. wgwgwrgrwgerw

Graduates

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.

Current Crop

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.

Nurturing Talent

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.

Callum Wilson

Callum Wilson

CREWE ALEXANDRA

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 gewgewgewgewunlike so many other similar sized clubs. Crewe’s is quite possibly, passed on relative size and finances, the best academy in England.

Graduates

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.

Current Crop

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.

Nurturing Talent

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.

Nick Powell

Nick Powell

CRYSTAL PALACE

(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. hwrhwrh wrh wrh

Graduates

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.

Current Crop

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.

Nurturing Talent

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.

Wilfried Zaha

Wilfried Zaha

DERBY COUNTY

(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 gergergergergegerchurn 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.

Graduates

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.

Current Crop

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’.

Nurturing Talent

Let’s just focus on the now and what’s to come, eh?

Will Hughes

Will Hughes

FULHAM

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.  wegwe gweg wg weg

Graduates

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.

Current Crop

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.

Nurturing Talent

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.

Moussa Dembele

Moussa Dembele

LIVERPOOL

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.  rgrgrw gwe gweg weg w

Graduates

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.

Current Crop

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.

Nurturing Talent

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.

Steven Gerrard

Steven Gerrard

MANCHESTER UNITED

“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. heheth rer j erj rj rej r jt re e

Graduates

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.

Current Crop

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.

Nurturing Talent

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.

Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverly

Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverly

NORWICH CITY  

(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. erg erw erh erh eh esh

Graduates

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.

Current Crop

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?

Nurturing Talent

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.

The Murphy Twins

The Murphy Twins

SOUTHAMPTON

(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. ehe sher herh eh e r

Graduates

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.

Current Crop

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.

Nurturing Talent

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.

Gareth Bale

Gareth Bale

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. re hersh eh ersh eh es r

Graduates

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.

Current Crop

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.

Nurturing Talent

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.

Frank Lampard

Frank Lampard

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2 Comments

  1. J.D. Morris says:

    Excellent article. I voted for Southampton as the best academy, they have been producing talent and winning youth competitions for some years despite spending most of the last decade out of the top flight. Tempted to vote for Charlton, yes, but overcame my natural bias.

    behind Enemy Lines.

    • charltonkyle says:

      Thank you very much. Yes, that’s a very good point, the fact that they’ve managed to maintain such a successful academy despite on and off the pitch problems is outstanding.

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