This story first appeared in the July 2016 edition of the Arsenal Magazine.
Andries Jonker takes one last bite of his lunch before he finally allows a big smile to stretch across his face. It’s been a breathless two years for the Dutchman as Arsenal’s academy manager but, now safe in the knowledge that everything is heading in the right direction again, he can afford 15 minutes to relax in his chair at Hale End’s new restaurant.
The canteen occupies the top floor of one of two recently-opened buildings at the club’s training ground for eight to 16-year-olds, and is just the latest in a long line of developments designed to bring the facility up to date. New offices, strength and conditioning spaces and a state-of-the-art classroom have already been installed, but it’s only when you look out of the restaurant’s window that you see the extent of the redevelopment, with pitches being laid on each side of the building.
With work set to be completed in February 2017, Andries is hopeful that the developments will help Arsenal find the next youngster to follow Jack Wilshere and Alex Iwobi’s path from Hale End to the first team and, as he tells the Arsenal Magazine, help Arsenal re-establish themselves as one of the world’s leading academies.
Andries, the last time you spoke to the Arsenal Magazine you named Alex Iwobi your academy player of the 2015/16. Since then he’s scored twice for the first team, been given the No 17 shirt and has become a Nigeria regular. What have you made of his rise to senior football?
The good thing is that Alex came here to Hale End as an under-9, so he couldn’t have been here any earlier. He spent many, many hours in the training dome working hard with all those coaches. What makes him different from many other boys is that, when you analyse him, he’s good at all aspects. It’s not just him being a good player, he’s also a stable guy who’s working hard every day because he’s not getting distracted by having a lot of success.
Arsène Wenger says he has been surprised by Alex’s impact so far. Has he surprised the academy staff too?
When I came in, I remember he was about to go on loan after having a knee injury and he was not that fit and unable to play 90 minutes. Surprisingly Arsène put him on a training pitch and he did quite well. Then his development started and he became some sort of a rising star. He played better and better in the under-21s, played quite well in the under-19s and scored two brilliant goals against Bayern Munich, and then he deserved his chance. He was named on the bench, then Arsène gave him his chance and he was stable. He didn’t panic, he didn’t have any wrong expectations. He stayed in his shoes. He kept working hard and he grabbed his chance. We respect him a lot and I’m very pleased with his performances last season.
The boss has also been impressed with Alex’s mentality and how he has been able to keep his feet on the ground. What work is done here at Hale End to ensure players have the right attitude?
The main thing is that we’re trying to be realistic. His mentality is one of working hard. That’s what most of those boys bring for themselves. They have this wish, this dream to become a professional player. It’s a natural thing most of them bring. To handle success and handle disappointment is not something we can teach. When it’s good, it’s good. When it’s not good, it’s not good. Alex is one of the examples who got the message quite well.
Alex is a perfect example of a player who has grown up with Arsenal in his DNA, isn’t he?
There are a couple of values at the club that we are using on all kind of levels: be together, act with class and move forward. This guy is mentally strong and is socially strong as part of the team. Act with class: to be complimented for everything. Move forward: he did, also in the moments that he didn’t look like moving forward. He’s a personification of a player with Arsenal DNA. I don’t want to give him too many compliments because he’s played maybe 10 games. We should speak about him like this after 100 games. But the player he is, the man he is, that’s what we want to be. That’s what we want to achieve with all those young players. He’s the example for all of them.
It’s a really exciting time for Alex but also for Hale End because of all the redevelopment here. How much has changed since you joined the club two years ago?
What you see here are two buildings. On the right is a building where the staff are working. Downstairs we have medical staff, the player liaison officer, travelling manager and safeguarding officer. Upstairs we have the people who work on the football side of things such as the coaches, recruitment and the strength and conditioning staff.
Also in the building we’ve got strength and conditioning space where they do their work with the boys. The building on the left is the building where the changing room are downstairs. Upstairs the classroom is there, there is a room for meetings, there is a room for boys to relax in and there is a brilliant restaurant with a nice terrace around it.
In addition to the indoor facilities, four state-of-the-art pitches are being developed too. Can you talk us through those?
The classroom is equipped with everything we need, so it’s for studying and also for the coaches to explain to the coaches what we want to do in the games. You want to give it a football feeling as well, so we’ve put the trophies next to the windows, just to remind the players who they’re playing for, and you also have a great view of the new pitches outside. We have a smaller, full-size pitch for the under-12s and under-13s, and we’re going to have a very nice match pitch which will have a small stand, fences, ball nets, trees and floodlights around it. It will be a brilliant pitch to play on and every player who gets the opportunity to play there should be proud of it. On the other side we’ve got the same composition as the match pitch, but it will be 4G so it will be for training, and then on the side of the dome there will be another full-size pitch equipped in the same way. Again, this will be 4G because it rains every now and then in this country and we have to be sure we can practise!
How important are all of these developments in attracting and training the next generation of talent?
You should create the best conditions for the boys to develop themselves. That means good floodlights, good pitches, good changing rooms. When I came in it was all fine, but it had been built in the 1930s. I think that, with this reconstruction, we’ve made ourselves up to date. We’re living in 2016 and now it looks like 2016. That’s what we had to do.
Once the redevelopment has been completed, will people view this as one of the best academy setups in the world?
There are many different academy setups but what we are building here is special in England. Most clubs are working on huge surfaces with many, many pitches. We are lucky to be in the city but it means that we don’t have a huge surface. We are trying to get the best out of our small surface. It will look very, very special in England because I don’t think there are many facilities like this, and we will be able to compare ourselves favourably with other facilities across the world. There are so many youngsters in England trying to make it to an academy like this.
Can you tell us how you scout the next generation of talent?
It’s an important role for our recruitment people. For the younger ages they will watch in parks and grassroots football to try to find the best players we can. In the English system we cannot sign players until they are under-9s but we try to convince the players and their parents that they want to sign for Arsenal. That’s the first big step they have to make, when they enter Hale End as an under-9 player who has signed for Arsenal.
What are the qualities you’re looking for?
We believe in a model which is ability technical ability, tactical ability, mental ability and physical ability. When you speak about an eight-year-old boy, it’s difficult to say something about it, especially the tactical, the mental and the physical part. The main thing you’re watching is how the boy is handling the ball. Of course it’s important that he’s agile and quick on his feet, but there’s not much you can say about the other parts as they can still be developed.
When the players first join, what are the areas you look at improving first?
The main thing is that you’re able to handle the ball. Football is about playing with the ball so the main thing is to be boss of the ball, control the ball and master the ball. The tactical part comes quite quickly as you have to find out how to play together as a team. It’s integrated in training sessions and matches too. You play together and you don’t play against one, you play against a team. You have to work together and you haver to learn how to play when you have the ball and when you don’t have it.
When does physicality come into it and what can you do to help improve that?
The physical part is important from the moment they come in. You need to develop their ability to move. Strength and conditioning comes in immediately at under-9 level but then the main thing is to learn and experience how to use space. You have to learn when to be quick, when to be slow, changing direction, all kinds of things. You have to improve their coordination.
At what point does Arsène become aware of these young players?
Arsène becomes aware of players the moment they enter London Colney. That means they will be first-year scholars, so when they leave the under-16s here. At the moment I am informing Colney but the staff watching the boys, the under-21s coaches and the under-18s coaches will all feed information to Arsène, and then they train with the first team. Arsène never asks for age, he asks for quality. Every boy who is at Colney is a candidate to join the first-team training pitch. What I do is inform him ahead of time about who’s coming over. This week I’ve told him who’s coming over and which players I expect most of.
Can you talk us through the process of moving from Hale End to London Colney? It must be quite difficult…
It’s a different culture. Here it’s a child’s environment where everybody is protected by Premier League rules. Everyone is playing 50 per cent of games, everybody is treated in a very nice way and there’s protection and safeguarding. When they move to Colney there’s still this protection but on the other hand it’s a man’s world. When you’re practising with Mertesacker, Arteta, Cazorla, Giroud and Alexis, you just have to pass the ball in the right direction with the right speed and you have to do it well. If not, they might criticise you but you have to handle it. That’s the big difference. Here you play for the under-16s but when you make the step to Colney you could play for the under-18s, the under-19s in Europe or even the under-21s. You might even play for Arsene if you’re good enough, and 70 per cent of the players at Colney also play for a national team.
How much satisfaction does it give you being able to see players progress through Hale End and train in a men’s world?
That’s the challenge you have when you bring them up from here to Colney. You have to be realistic. You can have that dream, you can have that quality but are they good enough? We try to make every decision as fairly as we can.Does the player have perspective? Will he be able to handle the circumstances at Colney? Will he be able to practise with the first team? Will he be able to make the step in a few years from the under-18s to the under-21s? That’s the challenge and that’s what we are working for here at Hale End. Of course, at Colney we work to make them feel comfortable and help them adapt to the level to give them a feeling of being a part of the Arsenal world over there too.
There are plenty of academy graduates in the first team such as Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs and Francis Coquelin. Jack made his debut at 16, which shows that if you’re good enough, you’re old enough…
That’s why I feel very comfortable at this club and why my position is much easier than any other academy manager’s. We have a manager who has been with the first team for a long time and I just explained that, while you’re at Colney, you’re a potential candidate to train with the first team. Every single day, four or five players from the academy practise with the first team. Everybody who is performing better than a first-team player gets a chance. It’s good for me to know and it’s one of the reasons I joined this club, but for these players it’s a huge possibility to have this opportunity. They know that at Arsenal they will get a chance in the first team. Chris Willock, Krystian Bielik, Dan Crowley and Ben Sheaf all travelled with the first team last season.
What have Arsenal done at Hale End and Colney to prepare players for senior football so early in their careers?
There are only a few clubs in Europe who have a real identity. With Ajax, Anderlecht, Barcelona and Arsenal you know what to expect. That’s a passing game with us, space for individual quality and creativity, the intention to play football and score goals, and of course we want to win. We have an identity and over the years we have been working on that identity.
How excited are you for the next batch of youngsters coming through?
Arsène is listening to us and, in his words, he’s using many, many players on his training pitch because his first-team players trust the academy players, and he trusts them too. That means we have a high level of players at Colney at the moment and I’m quite pleased with that. At the moment it looks good but the main challenge is for more players to make it to the first team. Nobody can look into the future. We know that there are many respected professional players in the first team with more experience, higher age, so we will see. Hopefully our boys will keep knocking on the door and will follow the example of Alex Iwobi.
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