I’ve been in my role as our academy manager pretty much since I retired from playing - and I have to say it’s gone by really quickly.
I’ve always been passionate about football, about youth development and about getting the best out of everyone both on and off the pitch. When I was growing up, the key element from the start was being authentic and present. I had to be reliable and I was willing to learn. I learnt those traits from my family background.
You need to work hard and smart to become a better person and a better academy manager. That’s what I’m striving to do every single day. It’s something I’ve learnt from my parents, who are still parenting me on a daily basis, when they can! I have my own little family now but that will always stick with me. The values they gave me are critical to me learning and developing as an academy manager.
You learn every day and when you’re constantly trying to make a difference, the time flies by. From the beginning I was really privileged. I was offered the role by Arsene Wenger and Ivan Gazidis. I want to play my part. I want to be present and give everything I have to make sure that all our youngsters get the needed development on the football side and on the non-football side to be strong young Gunners and to ride any challenge in life. That’s our mantra, our vision and that’s what I try to implement every single day.
I came in with a vision and tried to prepare myself for my next journey. I asked myself what I wanted to bring as an academy manager and how I could implement the knowledge I had through my experience of working with young players, observing how they conducted themselves. I took that on and thought about the stats around how many of these young players will make it in professional football.
You never know how long you’ll be a professional for - it could be one year or it could be 15, because anything can happen. The average now is around seven years. So it’s about feeling the responsibility for all the players who start at under-nine - and to be honest, even those in the pre-academy - to make sure they have a very good experience and development in order to make sure they’re equipped for what life brings. That was the starting point.
We came up with four pillars that we wanted to progress with. For the football pillar, it’s about what makes an effective team player. It’s about how we measure players by what they do on the pitch but also how we measure them in times of life-long learning. That’s also a pillar - you have to put education first and have a hunger for personal development, while also making sure that you are a student of the game. The third pillar is about the physical things, specifically making sure you’re as efficient a mover as you can be. It’s about getting your football actions right and maximising what you do on the pitch in terms of the movements a football player needs to have. The fourth pillar is really about mindset - we call it champion mentality. Not everyone will necessarily lift a trophy, but it’s about your mentality and dedicating every single day, every month, every year to your development and making yourself the best person you can be. That’s champion mentality. The ones who have that will be successful in football and in life. We try to measure around these four pillars and make sure that the players have a target that they can work towards for each of them. That’s how we started the journey.
We have obvious examples of strong young Gunners that are now in the first team, and we also have examples who haven’t made a professional career but have still been able to use their experience and development to get outstanding GCSE and A-Level results and open themselves up for the market that is out there. I could mention various examples of strong young Gunners. From the outside, the focus is always on the first team, so you naturally discuss the likes of Bukayo, who rates highly in every single one of those four pillars. But there are of course other players who fit that too. Tom Smith is a goalkeeper with the under-23s. Tom studies and puts himself in the best possible position to be successful.
When a young player gets called up to train with the first team, it can happen in a variety of different ways. Mikel and the first team assistant coaches obviously know all the young players, so they may reach out and ask for a certain individual to join the group. Alternatively, they might reach out and ask for players in different positions. Kevin Betsy - our under-23s coach - manages the link to the first team assistant coach to manage that transition to whoever deserves that chance to get picked, through a combination of their performances and their attitude.
Sometimes you’ll have a whole under-23s group called up to shadow an upcoming first-team opposition. It’s similar during the international break and it’s then about making an impression when you have the opportunity to train with the players who are still at London Colney. There are many opportunities. Players want to make an impression the first time they go over, even if it’s a bit nervy. You only stick when you do something consistently and are really committed. That’s the challenge for all of our players, because the academy is in a really good place, with good facilities and good pitches. You should never take that for granted.
We pride ourselves on our academy standards being based on respect, discipline and humility. A lot of that is about appreciating the opportunities you’re given, but then being disciplined enough when you get them and make sure you really go for it. Even if you make mistakes, it’s about maintaining that discipline and creating positive habits for yourself. You need to champion yourself.
We’re trying to build a framework and once that happens, players are in a good position. The beauty of it is that even if something doesn’t go well the first time, you will get more opportunities if you maintain those standards. You need to build your foundations and make yourself seen by others. I’m excited for these players because they have so many opportunities to get better, on and off the field. They need to be prepared to rise to the challenge when they get their chance. You have to be reliable. That’s what managers look for - not just in football but in any industry. You can take traits from football and implement in any other business. Of course everyone wants to realise their dream and become a footballer, but only one per cent of players will make it, so we need to find the balance in that bubble.
Every player and every person who enters our environment matters. We look at academy graduates in a different light because you have the likes of Bukayo, Emile, Eddie, Ainsley, Arthur Okonkwo and Flo Balogun who have been with us since a very early age and have had lots of ups and downs on their journeys. Then you have others, who have been really successful and, while they haven’t made it as a footballer, they’ve had the opportunity to show that they are strong young Gunners in other areas.
Chris Thurston now works in our player care team and is an example of a strong young Gunner who has built his career going in a different path. We have many role models, many coaches who have been part of the academy and are now on other successful journeys. We are really working towards having those examples to show in the future. Every single young player really tries to make the most out of their football journey. That’s why they start at the academy. It’s their passion and something they continue with for as long as they can. Hopefully we can give them equipment to really kick on in any industry, not necessarily just in football.
I really feel that this is an exciting time to be a part of our academy. We have a first-team pathway, which is very positive, motivational and inspirational. It’s important to remember that you can take different routes to reach the first team here. Some youngsters are given their opportunity through a loan move and some do it through coming through the age groups. Bukayo went through the roof - he played for the under-18s for a few months, then went up to under-23s and ended up progressing to the first-team dressing room fairly quickly after that.
But not everyone is like that. There are different pathways and you need to find your route to get there. Some may play in the under-18s for two seasons and then move on to the under-23s, before getting an opportunity to move on loan to a League 1 or League 2 side. It may be that you get your chance in the first team after five, six or seven seven years, or you move on to another professional club where you’re equipped to make the difference because you’ve been constantly developing and evolving to maximise your career.
You get players like Dan Ballard, whose development we are really proud of. He was nearly released twice. To come back, work his way up and create a pathway for himself - I’m just so proud of him. He’s now a reliable defender, playing international football for Northern Ireland and scoring for Millwall in the Championship. It’s brilliant to see. That’s an example of staircasing - taking your time in our system, because there will be a pathway for you if you perform at the right time.
There are many different ways in which I’d like to see the academy progress. I have to admit that to myself, as well. After these three years in the position I’ve realised how big a project this is for me. It’s not going to be achieved and completed in three years - it has a longer cycle. It’s a 10-year cycle from when a player starts at under-9s and finishes in the under-23s. The academy has always been in a good place. It’s always produced and has always been at the forefront of trying to move forward. And that’s exactly what I’m trying to do. I’m not going to change everything but I want to make a difference for every single person who enters the academy.
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