On the 30 July 2012 the Club announced that the Fulham Academy had been awarded Category One status under the new Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP).
The EPPP is a Barclays Premier League initiative, backed by the Football League and Football Association, with the aim of revitalising youth football by developing areas such as coaching, education, welfare and medical care and providing greater opportunities for young players to progress.
Fulham are already one of the clubs leading the way at academy level having won their respective league title for the past two seasons and the national final last term. During the 2011/12 campaign Kerim Frei, Alex Kacaniklic, Tom Donegan, Neil Etheridge, Lauri Dalla Valle and Marcello Trotta all made their First Team debuts, with Buomesca Tue Na Bangna, Dan Burn, Sean Kavanagh, Josh Pritchard, Ronny Minkwitz and Alex Brister involved in Martin Jol’s pre-season plans this year.
Fulham Academy Director Huw Jennings recently explained to fulhamfc.com what Category One status means for the future of the Club:
Huw, congratulations to everyone that was involved in the Academy achieving Category One status following a very stringent audit carried out by Double Pass (the League’s auditors for classification) to achieve Category 1 Status.
It was, and first and foremost I would like to thank all the staff at the Academy who have worked tirelessly to make sure we achieved top status. The inspection took place over three days and it was a very thorough and exhaustive process. To complete the pre-inspection alone was a huge undertaking and took at least 80 days preparation. We were assessed in several areas including management, quality of coaching, education and welfare, recruitment, facilities and productivity – pleasingly they were very complimentary as we met what was needed. That was a massive boost and shows that we are heading in the right direction because out of the 23 clubs that applied for Category One status we were one of the first to be audited.
So what does our Category One status mean for the Academy and Club?
As fans are probably aware, the EPPP is a new system that has been introduced this season and basically it will categorise all professional football clubs for their youth programmes. That categorisation ranks from one to four, with one being the highest. So to be ranked in the top bracket is obviously great news for everyone associated with the Club, because the benefits in many ways are endless. One of the main benefits is that a Category One club gets the opportunity to play in a national games programme at Under-21, Under-18 and Under-16 level – providing a more competitive environment.
Crucially, we will also retain the maximum funding level for our academy programme and over the next couple of years the funding to support that will increase as well. Then, on a playing front, we also have the added benefit that over time we will be able to sign players from further afield and spread our net more widely.
One of the key focuses of this re-structure is the long-term development of our young players as well isn’t it?
Well the idea is to develop more, and better, players for our First Team. Of course, over the past couple of seasons we have started to see some of our younger players make the step up, but we want to create a regular stream of future talent. The Category One status will allow us to give our boys an even more extensive programme by providing increased contact time for our players and coaches. With the success of our Coombe School programme in recent years, we are already in a good place in that sense, but I think we all know how important it is to give players more time with a ball and there will now be up to 12 hours of on-pitch coaching time per week for these players. The award will also demonstrate to our players and their parents that we have the best standards possible at Fulham and with the Category One licence granted for the next three years it is a chance to push on and do even better.
As part of the classification, there will also be a new Under-21 league which will be introduced to provide a competitive element within the new categories.
With the introduction of the EPPP, the creation of an Under-21 Barclays Premier Development League is just one of a number of changes that have been put into place ahead of the 2012/13 season. In essence it’s designed to bring together the country’s best young players in a competitive format – and for me, that was an important step. I think many clubs felt that the old reserve team system just wasn’t working. The Under-21 matches will mirror those of our Under-18s and Under-16s, which bring cohesion to the process. It’s a national programme and provisionally we will be in a group of seven which includes Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool, Middlesbrough, Crystal Palace and Wolves. Each team will be able to field three overage players as well, and an overage goalkeeper. It’s about providing a competitive environment and one that will hopefully provide a stepping stone to our First Team.
Can you tell us a bit more about the restructure in the coaching staff, with Kit Symons now overseeing our Under-21 group and Steve Wigley coming in as Head of Coaching and taking charge of the Under-18s.
Steve has come in to replace Ray Lewington who has of course joined the England national set-up. He will be the Club’s Head of Coaching, a job which includes overseeing the Under-18s. Ray was looking after the Development Squad, which in essence is now the Under-21s, and that responsibility now lies with Kit. As we all know, Kit has been vital to the Academy’s progress in recent years and together we have enjoyed much success. But we continue to strive for more and, at the end of the day, it’s all about getting players up and into the First Team setup – and that’s something I’m confident both Kit and Steve will help with.
A number of very talented young players move up from the Under-18s and into the Under-21 squad – individuals which Kit has worked very closely with over the past two or three years. How important could that continuity be?
Continuity can be the key and if you look around at some of the most successful clubs, more often than not they will have that. In working with young players, it has proved to be a very effective system. Kit has certainly played his part in the success of the Academy and many of his Under-21 squad will have played for him in the Under-18s – the same players that helped win two consecutive Academy league titles and the national final last season. That can only be a good thing, and he will continue to bring out the best in them while also developing our older boys. I know that Martin Jol wanted this to happen and continuity is something that the Club likes to promote. We hope that as a result, our boys can make it a smooth transition and in time move further up and into the Manager’s First Team squad.
You worked with Steve Wigley at Southampton and he is, of course, one of the most respected coaches around. With his expertise in youth football, you must be pleased to welcome him to the Academy team?
Steve is an exciting appointment to say the least, because he has so much experience in the game, at senior and academy level. Steve and I go back a long way from our days at Southampton together – in his time at the club he oversaw the Under-18s, reserves and the first team as manager. He’s also worked at Manchester City, Bolton, Hull City, Nottingham Forest and Bristol City, and is currently involved in the England Under-21 setup. I have great faith that he will continue the good work that has already taken place and I’m sure the boys will learn from his experience. Although he has worked with senior players, he has a speciality in developing young players.
It has been another busy summer for the Academy in terms of recruitment as well hasn’t it, with the Club further demonstrating their ability to compete and bring in some of the best young players?
It has been yes, as it has in previous years. Of course, as I have said before, London is our heartland in terms of recruitment but sometimes you have to look further afield and that is another benefit of being a Category One academy. We have a very strong schoolboy programme, which is Under-15 and down, but felt that we needed to plug some gaps further up. As a result, this season’s Under-18s are an interesting group because they have been put together from a wide variety of locations. In fact, our recruitment team had to work extremely hard in bringing them to the Club as a result of competition from rival teams. Jordan Evans has come in from Wrexham, while Liam Donnelly and Dean O’Halloran have joined from Dungannon Swifts and Waterford respectively. George Williams of MK Dons has been signed too, as has a young French Under-16 international striker from Paris Saint Germain called Moussa Dembele – who for obvious reasons will generate a lot of interest. There’s one or two more that could well come in, and we believe, added to the boys we already have, that we can emulate some of the success of last season.
That success makes the Academy an exciting place to be for sure, but due to the nature of youth football, in many ways the cycle starts once more doesn’t it?
Of course, every year group has moved up and, as I have mentioned, we have high hopes for a number of our schoolboy players so it will be interesting to see how they develop. It’s a big opportunity for our first year scholars too, and they now have to overcome the test of full-time football - that is the challenge, but thankfully they look like they have taken to it. It’s an opportunity for the second years to take more responsibility and lead by example and build on the progress that they have made. For older boys like Charles Banya and Ronny Minkwitz, they need to push on with the Under-21s and show that they are capable of playing well and consistently at a higher level. It’s a big year too for the likes of Jack Grimmer, Lasse Vigen Christensen and Ryan Williams; players that came in during the second half of last season and did well – but they will now be looking at establishing themselves fully and showing that they can make the next step, which is obviously the hardest. With the changes that have been made, a number of new challenges will arise I’m sure, but it’s an exciting prospect. It will be fascinating to look back in 12 months time to see the level of progress that these players and our Academy has made.