Notes from Neil – EFL Youth Development Week | Plymouth Argyle


Argyle Director of Football Neil Dewsnip is writing to supporters to provide an update on several aspects involving the Argyle Academy, including goals, coaching, development and plans for the future…

As it is EFL Youth Development Week, now seems a very appropriate time to write to you again, with a focus on the positive things happening at Academy level in Argyle.

I would like to start by congratulating Darren Way and the Under-18 team on their 3-0 win over Cheltenham Town in the FA Youth Cup on Wednesday night.

I was lucky enough to be part of an FA Youth Cup winning team, when Everton beat Blackburn Rovers to win the competition in 1998. It is considered the premier football youth cup competition in our country. The matches are usually played in the main stadiums of the clubs, which gives them a different flavor.

For young players, at the start of their career, it is their FA Cup. It’s really exciting for them. Going through a few rounds breeds more positivity, around those players and within the club. It’s a win-win.

Our academy occupies a very important place in the overall strategy of the football club.

We have very specific objectives. For example, every season we look for an academy product to make their first-team debut in the league, FA Cup or Carabao Cup. Will Jenkins Davies did it against Grimsby Town when he started the game, so that’s already a goal achieved for this season.

It is not, however, just a checked box. We would never play a player in a game like this if we didn’t think he was ready. Will won this opportunity, so congratulations to him.

If we can continue to do that every year, it’s a huge sign that we have talent that the first-team manager can use. Ultimately, that’s what it’s all about. It’s a first-team player production line. We don’t want to do this once in a blue moon – we want to do this every season.

Another goal to note is that every time our first team inserts a team sheet, we strive to have a minimum of four Academy products on that team sheet. We’ve averaged above that so far this season, which is great.

These are challenges that, as director of football, I lay at the feet of academy director Phil Stokes and his team. We continually discuss who these actors can be to achieve our goals. I believe Phil is doing a great job, and the facts are there to prove it.

We often talk about recruiting young players, but recruiting our Academy staff members is also extremely important.

Our staff is handpicked. Phil, Kevin Nancekivell and I spend a lot of time discussing potential candidates. Our players are so valuable to us; we don’t want the wrong kind of coach involved because the players won’t develop in the right way.

Plymouth Argyle must be a safe environment for young people to play and enjoy their football, and for them to grow and develop as talents and people.

The Academy’s football staff is more qualified than ever. They are specialists; their qualifications relate to the development of young players, as opposed to football in general. There are more players involved, so there are more coaches involved.

We scour grassroots football in Devon and Cornwall, looking for the right people. We feel like we want to stick with local coaches because we think it adds to Argyle’s DNA.

We are looking for people who can show their dedication, not only with formal qualifications, which we support, but also internal workshops for continuous professional development. A big part of my role is to lead on that.

I recently did a session at MarJon, with all of our coaches from under 9 to under 12. Steven Schumacher and Mark Hughes arrived and couldn’t resist joining us. It’s a sign of the motivation of the Argyle staff to become better coaches.

I think a coach should be able to coach the youngsters, as well as the first team. Obviously, all coaches will have specialist areas, but they should be able to contribute across the spectrum.

I am a big proponent of developing technical skills. This develops skills like juggling, receiving techniques, turns, dribbling, etc. We have a program that our coaches deliver with these technical skills at the core. I believe this is one of the main reasons why our players, of all ages, are improving technically.

We don’t want our coaches to be identical; we don’t want to produce robots. It’s good for players as they move through the system to work with a variety of coaches.

However, we want them to adhere to the principles that Plymouth Argyle stands for. We are, by definition, a possession-based football club. We want the players to be in possession of the ball. Steven, this season, has the first team playing mostly with a 3-4-3 system. Last year, he played 3-5-2.

We don’t insist that young players play in a certain form, but we want them to experience a methodology similar to that of the first team. When they come to the Under-18 team, we want them to play in a system similar to our first team. If, for example, we have a situation like Will Jenkins Davies and Caleb Roberts starring for the first team at Grimsby, they already have an understanding of their roles and positions within the squad.

When I was a 14-year-old – at Liverpool, can you believe? – that was the age where you could become what they called an associate schoolboy. It was the first beacon of your journey. Now, the first registration is at nine years old.

As a former PE teacher, I wish schools were playing plenty like they used to when I was a schoolboy in the 1970s. The reality is that school teams are playing far fewer games now.

The academies are now taking over. Young players benefit from good educational provisions in football from an early age.

We do not say to children of this age: “You will become a professional footballer”. You might say that would be too optimistic a statement to make to them at 14 or 15 as well. At this point, the focus is simply on improving them. It is only when they enter a full-time youth program that the goal of our Academy would be for players to land professional contracts.

It doesn’t have to be in Plymouth Argyle, by the way. Obviously we want to produce an abundance of talented players to augment our first team, but a player playing for another club would always be a success for our Academy.

A big change in recent years, at academies across the country, has been the improvement of facilities. We are working very hard at Argyle to update ours.

Our CEO Andrew Parkinson, Phil Stokes and I are in constant dialogue and working very hard to improve our facilities to match others across the country., There are steps underway to do so. It is an ongoing discussion at the highest level of our football club.

Due to our geography, our dating list is somewhat contested. When I was at Everton, we could play about ten clubs that were less than half an hour away. Our young players from Argyle have to travel huge distances to achieve sufficient match quality.

We are trying to develop a program that allows our youngsters to play regularly against category 1 teams from the academy. We try to be creative about it; maybe we meet them halfway and play in a neutral venue. Everything is under discussion.

Our program is very good, but if we want to maintain the momentum, especially from around 13, we have to find a way to improve our schedule to play regularly with these teams.

In previous jobs, when 100% of my time was devoted to developing young players, it was the best job in the world. The excitement, the buzz you get working with a youngster running for the first team – there’s no better feeling.

Sometimes, like Michael Cooper did, you can get on the team early and stay on the team. Sometimes you go down the Adam Randell route of getting first-team experience here, then loaning out because you’re not quite ready, then coming back and staying in the team. No two journeys are identical.

That’s what’s so fascinating about being involved in the development of young players. We are tasked with looking at our best young players and determining what their journey will look like. Some are easier than others.

Wayne Rooney’s plan was probably the easiest plan I and the rest of the Everton staff have ever put in place because he was so obviously talented.

If I went to see our Under-9s next week and someone said to me, “Neil, which one of them is going to make it?” I would have no idea. I could tell you who I liked, who I thought had a chance of being in the program in three or four years, but there are so many variables to consider that it’s impossible to really predict.

In fact, it gets easier as they get older, as they get closer to the end goal, which is to turn professional. And then another journey begins. It might be the end of the Academy’s contribution to a player, but it’s only the beginning for the first team. It never ends.


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