ON October 20 last year, the Football League voted to revolutionise English youth football.
As a result, the Elite Player Performance Plan came into effect this summer in an effort to bring the country’s youngsters in line with their continental cousins.
Historically, Swindon Town have held a good reputation for breeding and nurturing talent. With that in mind, while clubs like Yeovil and Hereford abandoned their youth set-ups entirely with the advent of the EPPP for fear wealthier clubs would be able to pick off the best of their crops for peanuts, the Robins persisted.
What has followed, courtesy of an injection of cash from investors believed to amount to just shy of £100,000, is the assembly of a dedicated army of coaches, scouts, medical professionals and analysts who nurture and teach an academy some 150-plus players strong.
Swindon now proudly boast a category three facility, the highest ranking the club could realistically manage, with more than 50 full and part-time members of staff including a goalkeeping coach, a match analyst, a sports scientist and a physiotherapist.
It is a remarkable set-up, run with all the thoroughness and professionalism you would expect from a first-team manager by Jeremy Newton - a local boy, schooled in Wootton Bassett, who has worked his way up from an assistant in the Football in the Community office to oversee the entire academy operation.
“It’s a bigger workload but it’s an exciting time for the academy this time,” said Newton, talking to the Advertiser in his small office at the far end of the Arkell’s Stand.
“It is a huge transition for us, going from two days a week we’re now up to three days a week.
“It’s more contact time with the players, which is what we want, but it’s making sure policies, proceedures, structures, business plans, budgets are all working to fulfil the requirment of the EPPP along with the contact time for the performance clock.
“It’s more pressure upon our coaches. We’ve got a fantastic team of part-time coaches that we now expect more time of.
“They’ve got a huge commitment to fulfil for us. They do go out of their way to help us.
“It’s added pressure to improve productivity. There’s no getting away from the fact that we are a business, we’ve got to provide players from the academy into the youth and we’ve got to try to provide youth players into the first team.
“We want to try to increase productivity from players throughout the system, we want to try to turn out normal intake into one or two extra ones which will help the long-term development of the club.
“All the late nights going through the information is worth it just to get one player. It proves that it is successful.”
The EPPP is a bittersweet pill for lower-league teams to swallow. While it encourages more detailed coaching and extra contact time between child and instructor it also gives the top sides free rein to cherry-pick talent.
Though Football League clubs voted in favour of the new youth agenda, with 46 clubs saying yay to 22 nays, an absention and three no-shows, many feel the smaller teams were blackmailed into their decisions.
It was widely reported that Premier League funding for Football League youth development, which can amount to more than £5million per season, would have been withdrawn had clubs not accepted the policies.
For Newton, the EPPP has given him the flexibility to bring in talented coaches with big experience in the game.
Jamie Pitman arrived to run the 13-16 year-old age group; Steve Hale is now full-time goalkeeping guru; Chris Jones swapped Championship rugby to take on the position of physiotherapist; Sean Wood runs the younger age section; Paul Bodin remains under 18 coach.
“I like it as it has given us more contact time and more full-time staff and made us do more things,” said Newton.
“The downside is with other clubs now being able to nationally recruit from 12 upwards.
“If you’re doing the job right and creating the right environment and you’re looking after your players as well as developing them then they don’t really want to go anywhere.
All the members of staff fit into office space not much larger than a six-yard box, but from their confined quarters they are creating something truly special.
From the under nine section upwards each player is individually evaluated and profiled, their lines of attack and defence noted and every minute they spend training and playing competitively recorded.
Each youngster is given a player pack, which runs down everything from nutrition to set-piece drills, behavioural expectations to stretching and hydration.
The dossier, which has been seen by the Adver, opens with a statement of intent - a philosophy which Newton and his team want to instil in their players.
It reads: “To have all players comfortable in possession and being able to play through the goalkeeper through the back and to build a foundation to develop further up the field.”
In base terms the academy is still abiding by the principles youth departments have adopted for decades. Only now it is infinitely more thought-through, and designed with the specific intention to develop rounded players - not just from a footballing point of view but in terms of lifestyle and individual etiquette as well.
“That’s what we do it for. There’s nothing prouder than seeing one of our players coming through the system to make his first-team debut with their name on the back of their shirt, or seeing Miles (Storey) play for England,” said Newton. “It’s an amazing feature for us and just shows that we’re trying to do the right things.”
A team of around 20 scouts scour local leagues for the next big thing - with kids as young as six considered for inclusion in the academy.
On first glance that can appear a little bonkers. Can technical quality really be gleaned from watching a primary-schooler enjoy a Sunday morning kickabout? Evidently, the answer is yes. But the academy doesn’t go into overkill with its youngest element.
Up until the age of 12, players are “learning to play”, from 13 to 16 they are “learning to play with a purpose to win”; it takes until they enter the scholar programme at 16 that they are truly “learning to win”.
It is footballing development and personal advancement rolled into one. It is a part of the club that goes frequently overlooked in the wake of first-team success. It is something we should all be very proud of.Newton sums it up succinctly.
“We probably have around 50 staff, somewhere along the line they would have had an input in the player’s development. It might be a small input but it still goes on,” he said.
“Sometimes that goes unannounced but everyone at the club within the academy is working incredibly hard to try to make these players succeed.”