ONE of the many proud achievements of AFC Wimbledon is the development and stature of its Academy and Youth Football programme. Much of that is down to Academy Head of Football Mark Robinson. In this extensive and heartfelt interview with WDSA, Mark gives a fascinating insight into what goes into building the Club’s future.
i) Anthony Hartigan and Egil Kaja made an impression in their first team outings last season. How do you rate their playing futures? Mark: It is very easy to forget that Anthony only had one year at U18s with me and then went straight into the first team environment. He only played one game in the U21s so the fact he still had another year to do with me shows the potential he has. The game is getting increasingly quicker and for Anthony to deal with that he needs to make sure he does the necessary physical work to be as quick and agile as he can. However he reads the game so well and is such an excellent technician I honestly believe if he keeps the same work ethic he currently has then he will be a top player. Everyone has to be patient though he has just turned 18 and because in the past we have had the odd Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney that is not the norm in any sport. I see sport no different to any other business so whatever you do or your readers do for a living how many 18 year olds walk into your work environment and smash it. You may see some real potential but that potential needs nurturing and some learning that can only come with experience. Of course, if they are good enough they will play but there are so many factors that go into it none more so than the social/psychological side of things. For lots of people the decision making part of the brain is not even fully developed until they are 26. I am not being downbeat, we are all striving to bring through our own talent but if you go through the leagues how many 18/19 year olds are there playing regularly? In a nutshell though I think Ant has a great chance to be a real success he is very focused and level headed. Regarding Egli, I have coached him since he was 11 and we are very close. He has a real tendency to over-think things but he has a huge passion to be a professional footballer and play for AFC Wimbledon regularly. I think he has shown glimpses of what he is capable of but I do not think he can be judged until he has a run of consecutive games. I think that opportunity is getting closer but he has to earn that trust to get that run. So with Egli if he can get his focus right in terms of not over-thinking things I honestly believe he can be a very effective player for the Club and I know Alan Reeves shares this view, but again he is still only 20. This season is a big year for his development.
(ii) Who do you think might be the next youngster(s) to break into the first team? Mark: Bearing in mind what I have said earlier about being patient and how players develop in different ways it is difficult to say. However if we get their development right and their attitude is what it needs to be then I would say Toby Sibbick and Paul Kalambayi certainly have the potential to become first team players. Those boys have still not turned 19. We have an exciting prospect in Kane Critchlow, who is a clever quick No. 10. I picked him up the beginning of last season and for the last few months he has been training with the first team and been doing very well.
(iii) What is the biggest single challenge for youngsters trying to make the jump to the first team? Mark: The physical challenge is huge obviously and being able to cope can also vary on what position you play (clever No. 10 might get away with things and buy fouls. A centre back has to be able to dominate even if he can read the game). If you are struggling physically then it can affect players mentally and affect their decision making so that can play a big factor particularly in the lower leagues as there are more battles to win second balls, etc. Things will also happen quicker so it’s earning that game time and being trusted so you can adjust. I think Hartigan did that very well before his injury. So again I do not think you can say it is just one thing it is “different players, different journeys” and that is the art of coaching recognising those different journeys and the development needed for the players to fulfil their potential.
(iv) What are the pros and cons of sending our young players out on loan to non-League teams? Mark: The pros is they are getting regular game time in football where winning is going to be the focus. The Manager has a job he wants to keep and he is not going to play a player he cannot trust no matter where he has come from. They get to see what is ahead of them if they do not forge a career in the pro game. So I think in the social/psychological corner there can be huge benefits. The con’s in my opinion is if you do not build the right relationships with the right Clubs then it could end up as poor for development. For example if you sent a very good technical midfield player out on loan to a team that made no attempt to play any kind of progressive football is that good for his development? You could argue that he gets to learn the ugly side of the game but my personal opinion is there has to be a trade- off. If a player loses the love of why he picked up a football in the first place I believe you can lose the player. So personally I think it is crucial to get the right Club fit for each player’s needs. I will say it again “different players different journey’s”. If you had a young son who was doing carpentry and joinery and not only had talent but had a real passion to be the best he could be would you advise him to do work experience with a company that was going to limit his talents!!
(v) Give us an insight into just how challenging is it for a talented 18/19-year old, who has smashed it at youth levels but has no first team appearances, to then take on hardened professionals with 5-10 years’ L1 experience? And what role does the Academy play to support both our first team management and the individual player in making the transition? Mark: It is very challenging and it is the hardest part of development bridging that gap between youth football and first team. In reality there are very few Michael Owens, Wayne Rooneys and, fingers crossed, Anthony Hartigans. That does not mean other players will not eventually be good enough, it can just take longer due to many reasons. Obviously once they have left me their development is in the hands of Alan Reeves and first team staff but before that journey the players would have normally had plenty of experience in U21 football with Reevsey. We are in continual conversations about what players need in terms of development before they step across. We try to ensure the players are robust have an excellent work ethic and have a passion to play for the Club. If we fall down on one of those I take it personally as we take great pride in our environment and the way we educate our players.
(vi) We hear former top flight players in England talk about talent, hunger and self-belief being key to their own success as professional footballers. Do you think that a lack of these attributes is why it appears so few of the boys who come through Academy football (in general) fail to go on and make a career in the game? What are the other factors? Mark: This is very difficult to answer. First of all in terms of talent apart from the real elite youngsters the gap in talent is not huge so what is then key is hunger, self-belief and most important of all, good learners. Most lads are products of their environment and to be honest the environment for most youngsters is not one of hunger, self-ownership and desire. It is an environment of self entitlement and having everything done for them so straight away you have a big problem. This is why our culture and environment as an academy is so critical and it is the one thing we are continually working on because without it you have no chance. This includes CPDs [Continuing Professional Development] for parents before I even get into talking about other influences like agents, etc. What we have to remind ourselves as coaches though, is all the problems we face are not the players’ fault. They have been dealt a rubbish hand in terms of what they experience in day to day life and how it translates to their aspirations of being a professional footballer. Social media, lack of activity competition at school and life in general all go into the melting pot. All these things kill two of the key attributes you ask in your question. We work under two titles at the Academy “Winners Do More” and “Better people make better Dons” and this forms a social, psychological and physical programme that runs from our U9s right the way through. I know we are doing some special things at the Academy and we get an awful lot right but even then the big key factor is opportunity. Without opportunity you will never have success and even with opportunity (which Neal Ardley is working hard to make happen) that success is still very difficult because at the end of the day it’s a numbers game in terms of how much opportunity can there possibly be when so much is at stake at first team level and also a financial game in terms of how long can you give a potential talent to fulfil that potential. Saying all this I do not see it as a bleak picture certainly not at our Club it just depends on expectation and a bit of patience. I would happily have any fan come down and spend a week with me day and night to see what goes on at our Academy and if they was not massively impressed and optimistic I would be incredibly surprised.
(vii) Is it cost effective to ‘grow your own’ anymore when the Elite Player Performance Plan allows bigger clubs to come in a just hoover up our emerging talent at next to no cost? For smaller, less wealthy clubs why does it not make more sense to pick up players falling out of Premier League academies at upper-youth, Scholar and U19 levels and work with them when perhaps the pain of rejection and desire to prove a point are at their fiercest? Mark: I have heard this said a lot and I cannot lie it saddens me a little. Not because as fans you are challenging the Academy because as far as I am concerned any football Club is about the fans and everything we do is to serve the fans’ ambitions. This could not be more true than at our Club. What saddens me is as an Academy maybe we have always been so optimistic about our goals and what we intend to achieve despite our restrictions (resources, local competition, etc.) that our glass half full approach has maybe not lent to what has actually been achieved in a short period of time. Firstly, we do have players come in on trial regularly from Premier League Academies and apart from the rare occasion that Reevsey or the Gaffer has signed them they are not up to the standard of our own Academy players. In terms of our own cost effectiveness and worth all I can do is maybe put a little meat on the bones then you can make up your own minds. Although I do not get involved with the financial side of things I am very confident to say that the Academy produced a healthy profit last season. That obviously leads to your point of us selling our best products like Ryan Sweeney, etc. Well firstly, the fact that we have produced four players good enough to be sold to Premier League Clubs must surely be looked at as a positive. On top of that three of those players were internationals for their age group (2 England 1 Republic of Ireland). I do not think when you look at international squads you will see many players from League 1 Clubs. We also have players in international teams or training camps in our younger age groups. Regarding our best talent being bought for next to nothing. That is not always the case. Although we may need to balance the books by selling a player we have also turned down substantial amounts for our young talent because we do want to produce our own and not become a selling Club. Obviously our main purpose is to produce first team players to make a difference. As a very young academy if you have sold four of your best products to Premier League Clubs it is currently difficult to have another four in or around the first team. I would agree we have had more near misses than regular players but you still have to take into account that your Brendan Kiernans, Huw Johnsons, Frankie Merrifields and even more so Jim Fenlons served a purpose. We were still moving forward as a Club and when those players filled a hole or started how much were we saving financially rather than having a seasoned pro on the bench earning at least five times the wages. The same can be said for Kaja now and Alfie Egan. They may not yet have reached the heights we are hoping but they are not letting the Club down and if they were not there who would be filling those holes and at what cost? Tom Beere is another player who did not reach the heights we would have hoped but how much value would you put on his Accrington goal in terms of our progression as a football club and financially. We had a 17 year old in Anthony Hartigan make 16 appearances before injury and won the League 1 apprentice of the year that tells you we are getting more right than other clubs. As an Academy we cannot publish results of our younger age groups but if you ask anyone in Academy football how our Academy sits in Category 3 football in terms of talent, forward thinking and culture I am very confident you will get the same answer. We regularly test ourselves against Cat 1 and 2 Academies and do excellently. Our U10s recently won a tournament against eight clubs, including Millwall and Manchester United. I was assured by a neutral FA coach we were the best side there with the best players. Our U18s have reached the last 16 of the FA Youth Cup on two consecutive years beating the likes of Huddersfield, Watford and Newcastle away from home. I might be wrong but I felt that the fans who made those trips, particularly the 150 fans up at Newcastle felt something they related to. Certainly Peter Beardsley saw something that made him have to voice his appreciation. Apart from Luton we are the only Cat 3 side to achieve this in fact most Cat 1 sides outside the big six would be pleased with this record. I only list these things and I could go on because we are still very new in terms of a professional Academy and I would have thought that would be a cause for some pride and optimism for what the future could hold. Other clubs have a 20 year head start on us in terms of Academy set ups and most are not achieving near our levels before you even take into account our resources and competition around us. When I came to this Club over 13 years ago our players were playing Sunday League football and on training nights in the park were running around in Chelsea, Arsenal and Man United shirts. We had parent managers, our discipline record was poor, we were not particularly well liked because of it and we had no coaching curriculum. After having unprecedented success with a young group Nigel Higgs asked me to restructure the Youth set up and Jeremy Sauer came in to restructure the little ones. We could write a very long book on the obstacles and challenges we had to overcome to get us operating like a professional set up. When the first team got promoted into League football because all this work had been done we were accepted as a centre of excellence. Then a year later with the emergence of EPPP we had to work even harder to obtain Academy status and we did. I would like to think despite his injury problems when Will Nightingale plays for Wimbledon and talks about playing for Wimbledon you see a player who has come through a culture and you can see how much it means to him. I would like to think when Alfie Egan talked after beating Watford in the FA Youth Cup and said “we don’t care who we play we are Wimbledon” you saw something potentially to be proud of in the future, something you can relate to. I completely understand that the main goal is to see more Academy players make a difference to the first team I am just trying to make the point for how long we have been doing this compared to other Clubs we are in pretty good shape. Our mentality as people is to continually learn, self-reflect and evolve so I can only see a bright future. I hope maybe most of you see it the same as to give our fans something to be proud of is what makes it all worthwhile.
[The Mark Robinson interview was first run in WDSA’s Wombles Downunder fanzine in May/June 2018 and is reproduced in edited form. Details on how you can subscribe to Wombles Downunder.]