The future must be youth

Cod Almighty | Article

by Dave Roberts

27 February 2018

Former Grimsby Town board member Dave Roberts explains how the Youth Development Association can form the basis of a new core strategy and an ethos and identity for fans to buy in to.

We are going through turbulent times as supporters of GTFC. It is hard for many to see light at the end of the tunnel – but the light is there, even though the tunnel is a long one. This is why I have got involved with the club again, heading up the Youth Development Association (YDA).

I want to help establish a new culture and ethos that will make us more competitive, and give the club an identity that supporters can associate with and be proud of. Irrespective of owners or managers, if we have a way of doing things that everyone buys into and supports, then we will be a whole lot better off.

It will take time and patience, which is never easy when fans are hungry for success. But there is little alternative: further significant investment is highly unlikely. In fact I think we should be immensely proud that over the last five years or so we have been sustainable. I would much rather be in a position where we do not need to rely financially on any one individual or group of investors. A new stadium would certainly be a big help in terms of improving competitiveness, but as that is some way off, we need to focus on something that can make a difference sooner – and that is the academy.

I have heard some people criticise the club's commitment to youth development. During the non-League years it would have been easy to scrap a system that was costing £150,000 a year and put that money into the playing budget. I was part of the board at the time and proud that we – with fantastic support from the parents' group – found the money to keep it going. We maintained a basic infrastructure that we could build on once we regained Football League status. If the club had needed to start again from scratch it would have taken years to re-establish itself and achieve the current Category Three status – and the funding that goes with it.

Despite the great work keeping it going, the base level of investment has unfortunately resulted in a dearth of youngsters coming through. However, it was fantastic to see Harry Clifton make his full debut last Saturday and I know Max Wright is also very highly thought of. Hopefully they will both become first-team regulars as the start of things to come.

Change in the air

Circumstances changed significantly during the six-year gap when Town received no funding to support the youth system. And more change is on the way. EFL regulations mean that from next season, at least one of our seven subs has to have come from the academy; if not, a team can only have six subs on the bench. I would like to see it go much further but it's a good start. I am the last to give any praise to the Premier League or the EFL, but the support now available enables clubs like ours to put together a really good quality system. In time that has got to improve standards.

When you consider all the money sculling around football, the size of the fund is actually peanuts, but again it is a good start. For Category Three level, the funding received is £390,000. On top of that, the club has to match at least £155,000. In actual fact, Grimsby Town are putting in £190,000, so total funding for the academy is £580,000, way beyond anything the club has done in the past.

But to get that funding, we must meet a whole range of criteria. Gone are the days when money was handed over because the Football League could see you had a youth team, irrespective of the resources being employed. In the new world the money is only handed over after a strict audit of staffing, systems and facilities. There is no way the club can just take the money and use it for something else.

Town miss out on signing players simply because of the location. When we do make signings, it often costs more to lure players here. It is surely better to have youngsters coming through who already live in the area and get what it is all about

Since our return to the League, a massive change has been going on behind the scenes as the new academy structure comes together. They would be the first to admit that it is by no means the finished article, but huge improvements have been made and continue to be made. It will take time for the benefits to show through to the first team, but it is definitely happening.

In my view, the club has to achieve a competitive advantage in this area. We need to be renowned for the quality of our academy system and for the way we develop players through to the first team. Make no mistake about it: location is a major problem for this football club, and that is not going to change.

I for one am fed up with players coming here, only to find they cannot settle, or that a long commute takes its toll. From my time on the board, I can tell you that we missed out on signing a number of players simply because of the location. When we do make signings, it often costs more to lure players here. It is surely better to have more youngsters of the right quality coming through who already live in the area and get what it is all about.

Even young prospects who join from outside the area are more likely to settle here and become part of the community. Signing players is always a risk because although their playing attributes are known, it is much harder to get a grip on character traits like attitude and mental strength. But with players developed from within these attributes are well known.

The other thing: it is much cheaper to bring through young players into the first team, which allows the balance of the squad to be supplemented with fewer, better-quality players. It could also produce a steady flow of income as some of the best players move on to higher levels, but are replaced by the next influx.

Core strategy

For all these reasons, I think bringing players through the academy has to be the core of the strategy of the club. I'd like to see players who have come through the academy making up to 50 per cent of the squad at any one time with the remainder coming from a mixture of good-quality experienced pros, one or two hot prospects from non-League (like Peterborough) and one or two young hungry professionals who have not quite made it at a high level but can prove useful to us.

Of course, there are no guarantees. As one who was lucky enough to witness the golden era of Drinkell, Ford, Moore et al, maybe I am being too optimistic – but other clubs have done it and shown it is possible on a sustained basis.

I guess the key question is: if every other club is receiving the same support, how will we have an advantage? This is where we, the supporters, come in.

The YDA has been set up to raise funds to help further improve the academy and give it an edge over others. There are a dozen or so of us volunteers involved in the YDA. Although we will be asking for some sponsorship and donations, generally we will be organising things in which the supporters can take part and enjoy themselves while at the same time raising funds.

You will shortly see details of the YDA sixes, Tour de YDA, YDA Open and a new Lotto. Later on in the year we are planning a comedy night, speaker evening and darts evening. You can help to give Town the edge by supporting these initiatives. Supporting youth team and pre-season games at Blundell Park also helps financially so please get along to these if you can.

It is not just about money though. It is about supporting a shift in culture and developing an ethos that everyone buys into. The club needs to reflect the priority and importance of the academy in its communication. We need to get to a point where the fans know what is going on, who the coaches and staff are, who the players are, how are they doing, who to look out for. The whole interest level needs ratcheting up.

To start to raise the profile, a new dedicated academy website has just gone live. It is still a work in progress but hopefully you can see the benefit of increased focus this will bring. I would particularly draw your attention to the information section and the academy handbook. Give this a good read, and I hope you will agree that this is a real opportunity for the academy to become the heartbeat of the club.

The words within the objectives and philosophy are not set out lightly. Why, for instance, in four or five years' time should we not have five players good enough to become professionals and at least three make their debuts? When those targets are met year after year, we will then be in a position to reap the rewards of moving some on as others come through. 

There is one solution and one solution only: develop more from within. That has to be the ethos of the club in future, and I will certainly be promoting it through the YDA. In the meantime I just pray that we can do enough this season to stay up. The thought of relegation and undoing the fantastic work now taking place is just heartbreaking. UTM.

Send feedback on this article