Can the Swans afford Academy status?

The six figure investment last summer in the new training facilities alongside the Glamorgan Health Club in Llandarcy was the first step by Swansea City FC to bring modern day training facilities to the Swans professional playing staff. In previous years, training had been undertaken at the old AWCO sports ground at Jersey Marine and prior to that, the artificial pitches at the old Morfa Stadium, local council operated playing fields in the Swansea area, and also in the mid-1970’s at Bishopston Football Club at Pwlldu Lane.

For so long professional footballers representing the Swans have endured quite a nomadic existence with regards to training facilities, and at one stage in the mid-1960’s the greyhound stadium at Skewen had been a regular venue for mid-week training, as well as the INCO sports ground in Clydach in the mid-1970’s. For the first time in the football club’s history, with the need for modern day facilities getting desperate year after year, a six figure cash sum had been made available for new training facilities, a tremendous investment by the club considering that in previous good times no other Board of Directors in charge at the Vetch Field had the foresight to think about.

Attempting to secure the better top class schoolboy talent in any town/city, let alone Swansea has shown that there has always been competition from almost every professional club in the league pyramid for their signature. What clubs with modern day facilities, catering for it’s professional staff as well as it’s schoolboys have shown is that if there are top class facilities available, it would prove to be a head start in securing the best talent, as well as the effect those type of facilities had on bringing senior talent to the club.

Modern day football demands top class facilities, whether it be the stadium, or the training grounds. What many scouts attempting to sign a highly rated schoolboy would say to the boy’s parents is, “if he fails to make it with my club he can always stay in the professional game lower down the pyramid and sign for the Swans.” That statement certainly applied when the Swans were based at the Vetch Field, but with a modern stadium, what the new training ground, and should Academy status be achieved, will show is that for the first time ever the Swans will be on a more equal playing field in attracting the cream of the schoolboy talent to make a career in the professional game with Swansea City FC, rather than Manchester City, Liverpool or even Cardiff City.

With the Ospreys indoor sports centre the opposite side to the new training ground, what a shame it was when the hall was initially built that the Swans were unable to forge a shared ownership of the centre with the Ospreys. At the time, a move to the new stadium at Landore was high on the agenda for the football club, especially in the costs incurred by the move, with the availability of spare cash from the club’s bank account non-existent to support the Ospreys in their venture in the construction of the indoor training ground. Comprising a modern state of the art facility featuring an indoor artificial pitch, classroom, cafeteria, with at present the use of the sports hall by the Swans coming on a pay as you use basis.

Unlike many football clubs outside of the top flight who have wealthy benefactors, the Swans should they look to acquiring Academy status would have to take on board, or even share modern training facilities, but also the added financial outlay of full-time staff. An Academy set-up should also show that it is not only the younger footballers who benefit, but also it’s coaches. The vast majority of coaches in Academies are part-time, but what is important is that within the Academy it’s coaches are also encouraged to progress their own profile as coaches which in time would prove to be of benefit to the club’s younger footballers.

Looking at a typical Academy set-up, there are at least six departments split up between Coaching, Scouting, Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation, Sports Science, Education Welfare and Administration. Each department should be fully staffed with highly qualified and experienced people in their particular role. There are not many clubs, because of the cost, operating an Academy outside the Championship, Millwall, Crewe Alexandra, Leeds, Huddersfield and MK Dons being the exceptions.

At Crewe Alexandra, the full time staff include, Academy Director, Assistant Academy Director, Academy Recruitment Officer, Academy Welfare Officer, Sports Science, Academy Physio, Academy Administrator and the Soccer Centre Manager.

All of the above would be full time, increasing the club’s financial budget year in, year out by approximately £300,000. For the Swans to take on board Academy status, the above salaried positions would substantially increase the club’s budget and payroll. The benefits to the football club are obvious, and besides the ability to show off top class, modern training facilities to schoolboy, professional signings, the week in, week out matches for the youth and reserve teams would present a significant higher profile than the current youth and reserve team competitions.

At present the Swans possess just the one full time employee as Head of Youth for it’s centre of excellence, with the other positions being part-time, with coach Colin Pascoe also acting as reserve team manager. The criteria set by the Football League for the current centre of excellence is quite complex with the yearly budget from the League being on a five year basis, with stringent regulations/assessments in force before the yearly budget is given to the clubs. At present each year group has to have two coaches per team as well as medical back-up.

Regulations in force with regards to signing young schoolboys mean that up to the age of 12 they can sign up to one hours travelling distance from the club. From 12 to 16 that distance increases to one and a half hours travelling distance. What a number of the top clubs have been doing in recent years is when they have identified schoolboys, especially the ones who live outside the regulated distance for travelling to training, they leave the youngster with his nearest professional club, and when he comes to school leaving age the youngster is then free to sign for the top club, with compensation packages being paid to the club.

MK Dons, who play in the same Academy league as Cardiff City have developed their Academy in a different way in comparison to other clubs, incorporating direct links with the Football in the Community Scheme in the Milton Keynes district, where coaching in schools and on holiday and evening courses see promising youngsters selected to Development Centres, with the promising footballers progressing to Elite Centres, then to the club’s Academy. Within the confines of the Academy there are 14 full time staff and 30 part-time coaches employed.

On the other end of the scale, the recently improved Academy at Liverpool has shown that when an open cheque book is available how the facilities differ. With one full size pitch, indoor arena, theatre, full size Astroturf pitch, classroom, changing rooms, cafeteria, gymnasium, medical centre, hydrotherapy pool, laundry, the training pitches also include 3 full size pitches, 2 mid-size, and 5 mini-pitches.

There is no guarantee that the extra cost in setting up, running an Academy will bring success, as has been shown with the high rate of youngsters not making the grade in the top tier of the game let alone further down the pyramid. But more importantly, whatever finance is made available for the youth structure must be used responsibly and within whatever budget the department allocates. Part of the success Cardiff City have had in bringing through youngsters to the first team, and then transferred for large sums has come at a cost. The initial concept by the Bluebirds saw them throw thousands of pounds at the youth department, but what you must ask yourself is was this action irresponsible, considering the debt the club was already in.

The continued expansion of the Development Centre within Swansea City Football Club is perhaps the way for the club to move forward within it’s budget. An extremely successful department within the club’s centre of excellence which was set up some years ago to supplement the club’s existing youth structure, the department has proved to be extremely successful, resulting in an almost 50% success rate of young footballers between the ages of 12-16 graduating to the scholarship scheme with the Swans, but more importantly, spreading their centres throughout South and West Wales with sites currently in place at Newport, Brecon, Tenby and the Sandfields, Port Talbot. Within their age groups, the Development Centre over the last couple of years have competed successfully against Premiership clubs such as West Ham United, Fulham and Chelsea whenever they have met each other.

Indoor training/playing facilities and quality outdoor pitches, especially in the depths of winter are desperately needed to move the club forward, and, although finance has been made available to construct it’s own training pitches, perhaps the football club should consider investing, making available, further finance to construct it’s own indoor training centre. The benefits to the football club would be enormous in the long run, and although there is nothing wrong at present in sharing the Ospreys Academy, when you have your own facilities it would become a Jewel in the Crown as far as attracting talented youngsters to the football club. This indoor facility could prove to be the most critical, and beneficial investment the club could make for it’s future, and in time would show that there would be no need to go down the Academy path, and in years to come, the conveyor belt of promising young footballers could maintain Championship football for the Swans for years to come, rather than the yo-yo existence the football club has had since losing it’s Second Division status in 1984.