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Sunday 20 May 2012
The Dons decade: how our youth system evolved

In the sixth of a series of features focusing on 10 years of AFC Wimbledon and the changes implemented during that time, we focus on the club’s youth section and on the staff who have made such a difference during the past decade.

Though it was only last year when AFC Wimbledon’s youth section was granted Centre of Excellence status, the club’s transition towards achieving that goal has been several years in the making. Without the planning of Youth and Community Director Nigel Higgs and his team of coaches, the Dons would not be in a position to fend off interest from Premier League clubs in its players and have talented teenagers from other clubs queuing up to play for AFC Wimbledon. Just this season, 13-year-old Reece Williams-Bowers turned down interest from Fulham to stay with us and that example vindicated the tireless work of Wimbledon’s coaching staff in raising standards at the club. Head of Youth, Mark Robinson, and Centre of Excellence Manager, Jeremy Sauer, are now continually striving to produce more players who can follow youth products Jim Fenlon and Frankie Merrifield into the professional ranks by utilising our Centre of Excellence facilities and coaching set-up.

But creating this environment has been a far from overnight process and the foundation stones were laid when AFC Wimbledon were back in the Combined Counties League. Nigel Higgs was a member of the Dons Trust Board when AFC Wimbledon was founded and he has seen our youth section evolve through the years. Initially, it was a grass roots operation that grew to a stage when we had two teams for every age group, but this became too much to control and after Nigel was appointed as Youth and Community Director on the Football Club Board, he implemented changes that have helped us move towards professionalism.

“I had a background in local football and I was deemed to be the most appropriate person to take on those areas of the football club,” he said. “We were trying to establish the club by buying a ground and everything else and it was not clear initially that it would be sustainable. Once it was, then the board felt that it required a member to represent us and I was happy to do it. The manager at the time Terry Eames got together with his friends from non league to set-up teams and then we formed a new youth section. It started off with three teams, the Under-8s, Under 9s and Under-12s. From a board perspective I had to make sure the budgets, along with the aims and objectives, of the club were met. The youth section grew from there until we had two teams in each age group from Under-7s to Under-16s. Paul Bentley did a great job in getting in teams to play under the AFC Wimbledon banner and we had teams winning Surrey Youth Leagues, League Cups and County Cups. We used to get Wimbledon fans watching finals and there was a big community side to it."

Major changes had to be made though as the Dons moved through the leagues with Nigel at the heart of driving up standards in the youth section.

"When we got promoted to the Ryman Premier, it was decided that we wanted the youth section to be more of an operational aspect of the club, rather than run by the teams," Nigel added. "I became Youth and Community Director and we started to look at where the club wanted to go. We wanted the club to go up the leagues and get back into the Football League, but we needed to have the set-up that could produce the players capable of playing at a higher level. Up until then all the teams had played for free as it was subsidised by the club, but we had to bring in subscriptions so that it was all sustainable, which had been a smart strategy as it brought good standard players into the club. We were evolving as a youth section by bringing in qualified coaches rather than teams just run by parents and we went back to just one team for each age group. When Terry Brown came in and the club started to go up through the levels we had to start trying to produce players that could play at a higher level. The building blocks for eventually moving towards a Centre of Excellence were put in place several years ago. When we got promoted to the Football League, we had to decide whether to go for Centre of Excellence status. We decided to do it and because of what we had done in previous years it made it easier.”

Nigel says that the biggest changes to the youth set-up have involved the upgrade in training facilities and the recruitment of full-time coaches, in particular Mark Robinson and Jeremy Sauer. He also believes that AFC Wimbledon’s link-up with Merton College, which involves scholars studying for an educational qualification while receiving top-class coaching, has been a key change.

“When we trained at Kingston University Playing Fields at Tolworth, once we got a large number of teams it was very difficult,” he added. “But when we moved to the Kings College training facility we had more space, use of extra floodlights and generally better facilities. The requirements for a Centre of Excellence are that you need decent facilities as they are inspected by the Football League. You need to meet a minimum requirement for contact time with young players. But a bigger change has been getting more professional coaches in. The key to success in any area is getting the right people on board. Setting up the link-up with Merton College was a big thing as it meant we had a great community appeal and could attract talented players who still wanted to continue their education.

"In the second year of us running this initiative though, our coach of the Under-18s left and that was when Mark Robinson came in. He had been working with our Under-10s, but he stepped up and got players in and helped us survive the season. That was very important as if we had lost it then, then people would have been asking why we would want to continue if we could not finish the season. Mark has done a great job in ensuring that he has been getting the right quality of players through from the younger age groups and Jeremy Sauer has helped with the smooth running of the Centre of Excellence. Every year that Terry Brown has been here we have brought one or two players through into the professional ranks. They have not always made it, but we have provided those opportunities. My own personal opinion is that Huw Johnson, Jim Fenlon and Frankie Merrifield have what it takes to play League 2 football in the future.”

Mark Robinson says a key difference now compared to when he first joined is the organisation of AFC Wimbledon’s coaching set-up.

“The fact that we now have good facilities worthy of a Centre of Excellence means you can attract players, but I believe our standard of coaching has been very good for a long time,” he said. “When our Under-18s played against Reading last Sunday eight of our team in the first-half used to play Sunday football for us. The facilities are important, but the coaching here is crucial. With the new coaching set-up, it allows Jeremy and me to get our ideas across to the other coaches to ensure that standards are maintained. All the youth teams are mostly in one place at Kings College and it means that we can monitor that the quality of coaching is being implemented. With the set-up that we have now got, we are not just managing to keep players away from the claws of other League 2 clubs, but away from Premier League clubs and that is a tribute to the work that we have done.”

Jeremy Sauer believes that AFC Wimbledon have now created an environment that is attractive to young players who are looking to further their careers.

“I started here four years ago coaching the Under-9s to Under-12s,” he said. “We had more parents and volunteers managing our youth sides then with players wearing Man United and Arsenal kits. They were not working towards a coaching curriculum, but Nigel gave me leeway to start running the Under-7s to Under-11s as a junior academy with training sessions twice a week. We got all the boys in proper training kit, we started phasing out parents running teams and getting qualified level two and level three coaches. Many of those coaches are still with us. Last summer when we won the play-offs and got to the Football League, we were not far off the standard required for the Football League anyway. We had to upgrade certain things, the minimum requirement for the Centre of Excellence is three hours of training per week for youngsters and to keep getting funding you need to have a minimum amount of full-time coaches and your facilities have to be up to scratch. With all of our youngsters now being based mainly at the same place, Mark and I are able to check that we are providing suitable coaching on a daily basis and that we are creating the right environment for young players to flourish. Everything is still evolving and we still have to improve. But Reece Williams-Bowers deciding to stay instead of going to Fulham showed we are doing things right and the publicity from that meant that we had two or three players who had been released from other clubs wanting to join us.”