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Monday 04 October 2010
Making plans with Nigel

As most of you know, here at Wimbledon there is a rich tradition of producing home-grown talent, and our Youth Development Programme has always been geared to following in those footsteps. That goal is supported at all levels of the club, from the board of directors, through the first-team and reserves managers, down to the Dons Trust members who voted unanimously for a continued investment in youth development at the last trust AGM. With that support in place, last season I worked with the Senior and Junior Academy head coaches, Mark Robinson and Jeremy Sauer, to put together our vision for the next stage of progress for the Youth Development Programme.

Our long-term strategy is to emulate all that is good about the professional academies while developing our own Wimbledon approaches for where we think they fall short. In the medium term, we are aiming to have non-parent managers and professionally qualified coaches for every team, one team for each 11-a-side age group, and twice-weekly training. The good news for the club is that we have managed to do this without increasing the budget. Football League clubs get close on £200,000 to run their academies; our funding comes from player subscriptions and from the club, its sponsors and the Dons Trust. Our goal is to be ready in terms of infrastructure and player quality to take advantage of that funding as soon as we regain our Football League status.

We are well advanced with implementing those targets this season, and the hard work of preparing for the new season is nearly complete. The planned structural and staff changes have been made. Mark and Jeremy have appointed the team managers and coaches, who in turn have selected their squads and started back for pre-season training and friendly games.

In many respects we are aiming to mirror the structure and facilities of a Premier League youth academy. However, we are aiming to be different in number of key areas. This is where our own AFC Wimbledon philosophy comes into play. Once all the coaches are happy with their squads, we will stick with those players for as long as they progress in line with our development programme. We need to get away from the mentality that a boy’s future may lie at another club: we will fight to keep our boys and we won’t constantly bring in new players on trial.

It would be easy to think that running our Youth Development Programme in this way could lead to players becoming complacent -- but that could not be further from the truth. Every player will be continually challenged at training and in matches, and will be expected to progress every season while maintaining a professional attitude -- and they will be able to do that without the disruption of trial players turning up at training every week. We will have a small scouting network keeping an eye on the local talent, but we believe that boys will be queuing up to join us because of our reputation for development, progression and looking after our players. If one of our players has to be released because of lack of progression or poor attitude, we are confident that we will be able to choose a replacement from the best of the rest.

Our players will benefit from playing competitive matches in tough local leagues, which is something the professional academies cannot offer. But we are about more than winning titles and cups, however rewarding that may be. We aim to turn out players who are technically excellent, well motivated and disciplined. We want to give them every chance to progress to the Senior Academy and on to the reserves and the first team.

Why have we taken this approach? It is a fact that there are very few Wayne Rooneys out there -- and if there are, then unfortunately they are not with us. So we are left with lots of good players, who have different qualities and different weaknesses. It is our mission to keep the good players we already have and work on every element of their game over a long period of time. We believe that if they are in an environment where they feel comfortable, working with good coaches, then they have a genuine chance of getting where we need them to be.

Mark Robinson leads youth technical development at 11-a-side, and he has developed a coaching curriculum that covers the approach and methods he has already applied to both the hugely successful Under-13s (now the Under-14s) and the fast-improving Senior Academy squad. The curriculum covers all aspects of player development and aims to make sure that we are implementing the best methods to improve our players, both technically and physically, as well as nurturing them as young footballers and people. This curriculum will be rolled out to all the other age groups as the season progresses. Jeremy Sauer is doing similar great work on developing professionalism at mini-soccer level.

In a change from previous seasons, the Senior Academy will consist of two Under-19 teams, with players drawn exclusively from the scholars at South Thames College, Merton (formerly called Merton College). The “Under-19” is a little misleading: it reflects the age qualification for the leagues in which the teams will compete, though the squads will be made up entirely of Under-17 and Under-18 qualified players. The teams have been known as the Blues and the Yellows. The FA Youth Cup squad will be drawn from all these boys, together with any age-qualified players from the first team and the reserves. The Blues will play in the new Football Conference Youth League Premier Division, and will be mainly second-year scholars. Home games for the Blues will be at Corinthian-Casuals’ ground in Tolworth. The Yellows will play in the English Colleges Football League and will be predominantly first-year scholars. Their home games will continue to be played at Walton Casuals’ ground.

In recent seasons we have been running an Under-18 team in the floodlit Ryman Youth League. We have decided that the benefits the college-based approach of three daytime training sessions, focus on development and good squad cohesion outweigh any of the downsides. Objections that we will miss out on talented players who will not commit to joining the college do have some validity, and we would consider making an exception if we identify any players who are significantly better than boys already in our system.

Our Youth and Junior Academies will carry on from previous seasons’ foundations, and the new structure but with the new philosophy. The Youth teams will play on Sundays, with home games at Kingston University’s sports ground at Tolworth. The Juniors will now play on Saturday mornings where the first team train, at the sports ground of King’s College, in New Malden.

We continue to have pro clubs chasing our boys. The traditional view in non-League circles is that boys should be going off to professional academies, and clubs like ours should not “stand in their way”. But we do not see ourselves as a feeder club, and we do not want our talented youngsters to leave us. We believe that what we are building here will equal the best of what is on offer elsewhere. The club and the fans have put a lot of time and money into building the Youth Development Programme, and as Erik says on page 5, it is unfair for that investment to be appropriated by bigger clubs.

While we would not stand in the way of any boy who wished to move on, we do talk to them and their parents about what we are building here at Wimbledon and how for a player with us there is every bit as much chance of making it though to a professional career with us as there is with a Barnet or a QPR. Our present ten-year-olds have potentially eight more years with us, and in eight years’ time, with all the work and progress at this club, our dreams of recapturing what was stolen from us will hopefully have been achieved.

We know that our Youth Development Programme can be something special -- and so it should, because our club and support are special. Building on a passion and a refusal to let something die, our players will be brought up to understand exactly what AFC Wimbledon is all about. The biggest problem we face and will continue to face is our players being lured to the so-called big clubs. We are already fighting to keep several players, and so far we have had mixed success. But the more they feel part of Wimbledon, the easier our job will be.

This is where the fans can help. At the Arsenal game, last season’s all-conquering Under-13s got a great reception from the fans. When we spoke to the boys afterwards, they were completely made up about the experience. This type of support confirms even more what a great club they are playing for and gives them a taste of what the future could hold. All the teams in the Youth Development Programme will be at a game at Kingsmeadow over the course of the season, and you will be able to read regular updates on their progress both here and on the official website. Please give them the same kind of reception you gave the Under-13s. Come on you young Dons!