Google+ Blueprint for Football: Making Second Chances Work Better Than The First

Friday, September 7, 2012

Making Second Chances Work Better Than The First

Those of Paul McCallum, Quade Taylor and Michael Chambers might not be the most familiar of names apart from, perhaps, to the more avid among West Ham and Crystal Palace fans.  Simeon Jackson and George Elekobi might be more widely known but, even so, they're not exactly household names.

For the people at A.S.P.I.R.E. however, every one of those names signifies a success story; a player whose career they managed to kick-start.

A.S.P.I.R.E (Academic and Sporting Inspired Routes to Excellence) is a football and education programme for 16 -18 year old males which is based in London (and, as such, is not to be confused with the Qatar foundation that bears the same name). The programme was set up in July 2002 to enable young people to pursue their dream of playing professional football whilst also enjoying the advantages of furthering their education whether that is in a vocational or academic capacity.

"Ten years ago I felt that young players were being overlooked once they had gone past the age of sixteen and not in the professional academy system," Gavin Rose, a man behind a lot of what goes on at A.S.P.I.R.E., explains as he talk about what led to the academy's existemce.

Despite enjoying a very sucessfull schoolboy career, by his own admission he felt that he struggled with the physical strength to play at professional level.  So started a career at non-league level that saw him go among others to Gravesend and Northfleet (later renamed Ebbsfleet), Bromley, Dover and Dulwich Hamlet.

Meanwhile he had also started coaching, an activity that he found soothed the disappointment of not making it as a professional.  It was also at this time that he began feeling the need a for a way to get back into the game those players dropped by professional clubs.

"Well before we set up A.S.P.I.R.E  up it was proven that there are late developers who come into professional football and in that era Ian Wright and Les Ferdinand were the biggest ambassadors for this," he explains. "The feeling myself and Junior Kadi [co-founder at the academy along with Rob Mapp] had was if these young kids were given more time to work on their game understanding, technique, fitness there could be a lot more making the grade."

"From the outset, the area where we predominantly recruited players was from my local area in Peckham, where I had a group of players I had coached for six years who had all represented their district and county sides respectively."

"Along the way a few gained professional scholarships and, in Anton Ferdinand, eventually a  professional. But we still had a surplus of at least 14 quality players without clubs and not much direction of alternative vocation or career path, so those guys along with another 10 strong players in the surrounding area made up the first years intake. We now recruit all over London."

That recruitment process is a very focused and specialised one where the aim isn't necessarily to pick those who are the best players for the simple reason that such players often opt to go somewhere higher up the scale.

"We may see something in a player that others may not have picked up on," Gavin explains. "Some players have excellent ability, but maybe lack the personality to show it so we would see that as a worthwhile challenge. Enthusiasm at a young age is always something that we look for, as well as a will to listen and learn. Technique and movement on and off the ball are also key aspects to what we look for."

Often such players come from professional clubs; players who are cast aside from the system.  Some are disillusioned by how they've been treated and many come with shattered confidence.  Meaning that it can be hugely difficult to get them to a point where they can perform to the best of their abilities.

"When players have been released by bigger clubs the issue of our humble surroundings is the first thing the boys need to acclimatize to. It often helps when our former players such as George Elokobi come down and train with them in the summer to show them he is not to big to train with them."

"Confidence is a bigger problem, many clubs release players with terrible feedback about why they are not being taken on by the clubs. Boys are being left with the reality of not only them being released and out of the pro game but with the parting shots of "your not big enough" or " your too soft to become a footballer". So you can imagine these young lads are quite deflated by the time we get to work with them.  Whilst we empathise with their feeling of rejection, we don't endorse a "feel sorry for me" mentality. Instead we try to fire the boys up into reverse these negative comments into positive ones with hard work."

Having dealt with so many kids who have been 'burnt' by the academy system, one would expect Rose to be critical of it.  Yet this isn't the case.  "It's easy to criticise on the outside looking in, because you are not privy to the constraints or fortunes of each academy up and down the country."

"I've noticed there seems to become changes happening in terms of quality assurance and producing more top talent for the highest level of the game, so it will be interesting to see how that develops. I've noticed at academy level in the main coaches are encouraging young players to express themselves and pass the ball in tight areas and so on."

"The problem is the transition into the first team.  I don't feel young players are getting their chance and we lose a lot of promising talent to lower league football where, largely, the emphasis is not as much on the technical side of the game thus making it harder for these talents to make their mark."

Pleasingly, Rose states that his coaching philosophy "is to try to play attacking attractive football, with players who are comfortable taking the ball in tight areas and able to express themselves. I like players to back their ability and not to fear making mistakes. Of course this message is not easy to convey when trying to chase points in big games, but I believe if your players stick to their principles they stand more chance of being successful."

What makes the project a success, however, is the holistic view that it adopts, where the focus isn't exclusively on football.  "We try to build the young men as well rounded people on and off the field, and place a high level of importance on their academic progress via our partnering education provider."

"There are different levels of success for each young man who is apart of our academy.  Of course, to become a professional is the highest on the list for them all, but we try to make them aware of the different exit routes that can be achieved in and out of the game such as non league football, coaching, education (university). We try to fuel their ambition to be successful people."

There is also a practical aspect of such an approach.  "We have noticed the boys who have gone onto professional football from our academy were either very intelligent academically or very diligent academically. So we believe it's places great significance to young players development."

That desire to give their graduates as many opportunities as possible saw them look to partner with a senior club with the decision ultimately falling onto Dulwich Hamlet.

"The relationship first started 10 years ago when we first started the project," Rose explains.  "After 3 years we moved onto Fisher Athletic at a time we probably felt we needed more of a challenge in that I could manage the team there, even though I was only 28 at the time."

"I was offered the chance to manage Dulwich Hamlet three seasons ago and it was a perfect fit to re-establish our old partnership with the club."

Naturally, as the manager, Rose's main aim is to ensure the on pitch success of Dulwich Hamlet, something that he has done to a degree with two play-off final defeats in the Isthmian League Division One South.  "Honestly the Football Club have benefitted from our Academy in a big way because with such a tight budget, we are able to blood young promising players who don't come at a great expense and balance the budget quite nicely. Also we have managed to sell three of our academy products in the past 18 months from which both parties have benefitted financially. The partnership offers young players coming in at 15 with the clear vision of a pathway to some sort of achievement."

"If a young player continues to excel in the academy set up I believe they should be rewarded to keep them motivated to continue challenging themselves and how far they can go. I will introduce tho train with the senior team to see how they cope and take from there really. If you're good enough you're old enough."

All of this bears testament to the success of the A.S.P.I.R.E. system.  Yet despite that success, sadly it is still something of a struggle to ensure the academy's financial well-being.  "The academy was financed by Southwark Council for the first three years of its existence. Due to funding cuts, however, the council were unable to sustain its support."

"This coincided with an approach from then Ryman Premier League side Fisher Athletic for A.S.P.I.R.E to give the club an academy set up from 10 years old up to 18 year olds. This lasted for two years with many of the academy players going on to represent Fisher in the Conference South league."

"Unfortunately Fisher came into hard times and the whole club had to be folded, with the senior side relegated three leagues.  For the following years Rob Mapp, Junior Kadi and myself paid for the running costs out of our own pockets with no return."

"In recent times we have been funded by our education providers formerly London Nautical and our current partners Sedgehill school in Sydenhamcome."

"We have also come under the umbrella of the Rio Ferdinand Foundation, an initiative which is still in its infancy to help young children in inner city backgrounds  to access various Sports, Arts and Crafts, Music, Media and so on.  Having grown up with Rio we always discussed the issues we encountered as youths and how easy it would have been for us to turn to crime, as the wider opportunities to develop a career away from an academic background was somewhat non existent. The love and passion to chase a football career was enough to keep us at bay, but we were naturally gifted so there was no real input given to us."

At the moment, there are 46 players at the academy "as we just started an under 16 age group as well" Rose says.  The potential is there, however, to serve three times as many kids. "With the correct facility and funding we could easily look after 150 players from a wider range of age groups, as we have many promising coaches to call on who have come through the academy over the years and taken their badges."

Inevitably, expanding the academy's reach is one of Rose's main hopes.  "I would love the academy to be able to expand in numbers as I mentioned earlier, as well as having a permanent facility of which the boys can develop and hone their skills. I'm 100% certain that if we had these luxuries we would be producing a lot higher number of players performing in the premiership. Having said we feel scouts have missed out on some top talent worth developing over the 10 years we have existed."

"Personally I would like to challenge myself to working at the highest level in the game as my ability will take me, as manager and a coach. I place no limit to what can be achieved with hard work and continued personal development."

The Success Stories not necessarily measure success by the number of players  for whom they manage to get a professional playing contract, but even so, they're very good at it.  Here are some of the success stories:

George Elokobi
Elokobi joined  A.S.P.I.R.E.  after arriving in England from Cameroon in 2002, where he was a valued member of a successful youth team before stepping up to league football with Colchester United in 2004 after being spotted by scouts whilst representing us in a Kent Youth League fixture.  He eventually moved to Wolverhampton Wanderers making it to the Premier League.  The defender maintains regular contact with the staff at  A.S.P.I.R.E. and attends training sessions with the academy's young graduates.

Paul McCallum
McCallum was playing Sunday league football well into his teens before being given a chance at Dulwich Hamlet.  He scored eleven goals as Dulwich made it to the Third Round of the FA Youth Cup in the 2010-11 season which attracted a host of clubs, as did his scoring record in the Ryman League Division One.  Eventually he opted to move to West Ham for a figure of £40,000, disappointing the likes of Chelsea and Arsenal who were also interested.

Simeon Jackson
Born in Kingston, Jamaica but raised in Ontario, Jackson moved to England as a fifteen year old and immediately caught the attention of  A.S.P.I.R.E.  From there he was able to land a successful trial and Rushden and Diamonds before moving to Gillingham and, eventually, Norwich for who he has scored in the Premier League.

Michael Chambers
As with many players on  A.S.P.I.R.E. and Dulwich Hanmlet's roll call, Chambers was released by a league club - in his case Reading - and told he had no future in the game before he had even turned sixteen.  The staff at  A.S.P.I.R.E.  saw that he had talent, however, and nurtured it up to the point that eighteen months later the defender moved to Crystal Palace having even caught the attention of Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United.

Quade Taylor
On Fulham's books from the age of eight, Taylor was realeased at fourteen and could have drifted out of football if he hadn't joined Dulwich Hamlet through  A.S.P.I.R.E. There he impressed with the ease with which he played either in defence and in midfield.  Both West Ham and Crystal Palace invited him for a trial and eventually he opted for the latter despite the late interest of Stoke City.

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