Tuesday, 28 October 2014

An Insight into Birmingham City Academy

Birmingham City's Academy are one of the leaders in innovation and methods in youth development in England
To gain a greater insight into the Academy The Whitehouse Address visited Birmingham’s trained ground Wast Hills this past week and sat down with two of the phase lead coaches to discuss the Academy and what they are doing which is producing such a talented crop of young players.

It has been a turbulent few years for Birmingham City football club. After the jubilation of defeating Arsenal and winning the League Cup in 2011 the club has been in crisis. The resulting relegation that season marred the cup success and since then Birmingham have been in serious trouble. The troubled ownership of Carson Yeung and his subsequent jailing for money laundering has left the club financially in ruin. After narrowly surviving relegation to League 1 last season the club avoided the serious threat of going into administration. Lee Clark remained in his role as manager and promised to move the club forward. 

However, after 12 games Clark was sacked for a poor start to the campaign and in the following two games the team would lose twice, 1-0 to Blackburn and a humiliating 8-0 home defeat to Bournemouth. Gary Rowett, an ex-player for the club who has done an impressive job with Burton Albion in League 2 has now been trusted with salvaging the season. It will not be an easy task. And yet for all the trouble at first team level, below, in the clubs Academy, there is some very impressive work going.

A need for a sustainable model 
Rowett’s willingness to embrace and promote youth was probably a big factor as to why he has been appointed at Blues. With the clubs financial situation it will need a manager/coach who is willing to embrace youth and succeed with it. This has become the model for many clubs in these tough financial times with Southampton a great example of what embracing youth can produce, both on and off the pitch. And with Blues Rowett is inheriting an Academy which is ‘succeeding’ in bringing through top youth talent.

In 1999 Trevor Francis re-opened the youth academy and brought in Brian Eastick to oversee the process. The club would produce a steady stream of talented players. Yet it was perhaps the influence of Terry Westley who put in place the impressive developments seen in recent years. Appointed in 2006 Westley would oversee the nurturing of talented players such as Nathan Redmond (who after impressing as young teenager would move to Norwich for a bargain cost of £2m), Jack Butland (progressed through academy to become one of the brightest goalkeeping talents in English football) and Jordon Mutch (Mutch would follow Westley from Derby to Birmingham). 

Westley would leave in 2011 (he is now West Ham’s Academy manager) and be replaced by Kristjaan Speakman who would seek to take the club to new levels under the new Academy guidelines in the EPPP (the Elite Player Performance Pathway). Speakman would continue the good work of Westley and oversee the progress of players such as Mitch Hancox (who joined at the age of 8 and who has played 33 games for Birmingham, Will Packwood (the defender joined at 14 years of age), Callum Riley (joined at age of 7 and who has played 50 games for Birmingham and represented Republic of Ireland U21), Reece Brown (joined academy at 10), Demarai Gray (the winger joined as an under 11), and the talented Koby Arthur, the Ghanian midfielder who progressed through Birmingham’s community department after being recruited at 16 years of age. 

So although Birmingham are struggling at first team level, their academy is thriving and doing a superb job of developing young talent for the professional game.

Before departing the club Lee Clark was a big supporter of pushing youth into the first team and was also a big fan of what was happening with the younger players (his own son was with the U10’s and he witnessed how impressive the talent the players at this age were). After seeing the work being done by Foundation Lead Phase Coach Karl Hooper Clark promoted him to the role of Under-21’s coach last season, a remarkable achievement for the then 25 year old (see article from Birmingham Mail here). There was a sense that Clark wanted to promote from within, to show that the club was developing not only talented players, but coaches too. As an indication of what the Academy are producing and what kind of style they are playing check out this goal from last season when the 21's faced Coventry City U21's.

The foundation phase - developing street footballers
This season Karl Hooper is back with the 9-11’s this season and as this blog has alluded to before, doing a truly fantastic job with the young players at his disposal. When asked about his methods and philosophy towards this age group and to gain a greater sense of why the players under his guidance are excelling more than perhaps any across the country his answer was simple, “It’s important we understand what each phase is there to do. We (Foundation phase) are seeking to create the archetypal street player. To produce a player with the mental skills; creative, resilient, craft in order to produce a talented individual player.” For Hooper it is important to create the right personality to move up to 12-16’s. And his players are certainly showing the confidence and expression in their play which Hooper is seeking to achieve.
Karl Hooper coaching the 21's last season
In contrast to other academies who appear more intent on coaching players to become part of the team Hooper’s want is to produce a street player. As this blog has argued previously, over-coaching can often lead to a degradation in the skills, expression and creativity in a young player. One cannot help but see a culture of over-coaching and skill restriction across the English game, at both grasroots and academy level. Which is why the work of Hooper is so refreshing and clearly working. In games so far this season the 9-12’s playing a range of 5v5/7v7/9v9 have scored 1058 goals, yes that is not an error. And conceded only 475. Effectively Blues are outscoring their opponents over 100%. Once more evidence of the impressive work happening at the Foundation level at Blues.

When asked about why other countries seem to be ahead of England in terms of developing players, Karl’s response was that foreign countries, “Understand the whole development of a boy from 7-21. Our lack of understanding and gearing of everything towards the older ages and first team hasn’t really allowed us to nurture talent from five to the top of end of the game. The holistic development of players will help us.”

Hooper explains that “we forget in this country I think, the player derives from the person.” When asked as to what type of player he looks for when spotting players for his 9-11’s he responds that he seeks to see in players “the love for the game, a genuine enthusiasm to get on the ball, to make mistakes, to better themselves. I look for a boy who has that care free attitude, who loves just playing football.”

He also speaks of the importance of resilience in a young player, he wants players "to make mistakes, to learn from mistakes, to respond from any potential failure. Enthusiasm and resilience key aspects for a young player.”

For Hooper our culture hasn’t allowed us to produce the right mentality in players; “I think our society has now allowed us to make far too many excuses as to why can’t improve, or why things can’t be bettered. Players need resilience, to deal with setbacks. Players need to be mentally tough.”

The elements of psychology ring out from the beliefs and approach of Hooper and the Birmingham Academy. In what is seen as one of the hardest professions to succeed in the Academy at Blues understand the importance of mindset and key attributes such as resilience and perseverance in pushing players to the top level. Speaking with Steve Spooner, Lead Professsional Development Coach as I was walking around the Academy he explained how the Academy is seeking to understand the psychology the players at the club more. His belief in developing the individual all the way up to 21’s is a key aspect of what Birmingham are now seeking to achieve. 

Developing decision makers 
As Mike Dodds, the Youth Development phase (12-16’s) lead coach explains, “We have got to develop decision makers. We want top, top footballers. But more importantly we want top decision makers.” He admits that although psychology is an important area of the Academy, it is “something which is still an evolving process here, but I think nationally also” 

Using the 5 C’s approach (Commitment, Communication, Concentration, Control and Confidence), a common psych-social periodization programme used across academies and the FA in England Blues are seeking to make sure psych-social aspects are prevalent in all sessions. As Dodds says, “If you came to watch one of our sessions, are they working on communication, on concentration. You should be able to see that element of the topic in the session.”

Dodds is one of  the most innovative coaches in English football
Dodds who was nominated for the 'Outstanding Contribution Award: Football League Youth Development Coach' category during the FA Licensed Coaches Club Awards last year is a coach who is seeking to develop players who can play at the very highest level. 

A keen believer in needing to improve standards he is a leading figure in seeking to bring the nation together to share ideas and methods to help push youth development in English further forward. Through Dodds Birmingham City will be hosting a gathering of all Academies in England along with the FA's 12-16 technical lead coach Dan Micciche. Dodds wishes to bring everyone together as he feels there is a culture in the English game where people don't like to share ideas. As a sign of what Blues are doing Dodds is seeking to change this.

With decision making a key area of focus for Dodds and his age groups 12-16, what were his thoughts on what players required to make the step from expressive young players at 12’s to accomplished players at 16’s who can move up to youth team and senior level. He believes that “the biggest issue for me is not the coaching but the scenarios we put our players in. The games programme is the issue, at 12-14’s the players turn up, they play, win/lose or draw, same situation. Then at 15-16’s coaches questioning the shortcomings of the players.” 

The problem for Dodds is that the players “haven’t been put in these situations. There is a failure to ‘deal with varied game demands’. The games programme is one of the major’s issue we have in the country. We don’t provide them different scenarios.” By this he points to the generic nature of the Academy system where the same happens each week. Players are put in to the same environment, 11v11 from 13’s upwards and play the same way, often through the thirds in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. 

However Dodds is of the opinion that the way the game is moving there is a real need for varied play, a need to be flexible and adaptable in a game which is now more fluid and changeable.  Dodds has therefore sought to instil a more varied games programme, alternating different formats(9v9/11v11) and changing the space of pitches to offer  different tempo’s and force different decisions. By offering different challenges to the players Dodds hopes that the players learn differences in approach which can prepare them for the future game.

In terms of training methods Dodds seeks to make sure all the 12-16’s sessions are based around decision making. He believes that as an Academy they must seek to develop excellent individuals, to further the work from the foundation phase.

The needs of the future player
I asked about the idea of universal players and both agreed that the movement in the game is heading towards this need for complete players, those with the skill-set to deal with different roles and styles. When posed the question regarding English football struggling to develop top defenders Hooper believes that “Defending has become one of the secondary things coached in academies. Heading has become a dying art with academy football.” Yet he believes that “Everything needs to be worked. What areas need to be coached? Every area. Every area needs to be honed.”

Mike agrees, stating that the Academies role is to develop every individual to their potential. For him it “comes down to the individual. Identifying their needs. And providing individual work/sessions.”

Blues syallbus allows them to focus on all areas of the game working in three week cycles. And it is perhaps their scope to improve all areas of a players game which is helping them produce such a talented crop of young players. Hooper talks of the tactical fluidity which Blues give their players in order to help the player’s skill-set and understanding of the game.
It is clear that Birmingham are one of the leading Academies in the country in developing the modern player. 

In both Hooper and Dodds Blues have two of the most innovative and enthusiastic youth coaches in the country. With Hooper building excellent foundations for players who could be playing in 8-10 years time, it is clear that the club has a great leader for their long term vision, as Blues certainly have one of the strongest foundations in the country. Along with the modern ideas and innovation which Mike Dodds is providing then it is evident why we are seeing a rising talent emerge from Birmingham. 

What is clear is that while Birmingham FC are struggling at this time, their long term future is in good hands. With the growing focus on sustainable development and a keener focus to develop academy players to help the team on the pitch as well as seek to produce players to sell the signs appear that this will only be furthered in the coming years as Blues seek to further this model.

Gary Rowett’s role will to be continue to nurture and take interest in these talents in the same way Lee Clark and Chris Hughton did. That is a key part of the pathway working, an Academy using modern methods and developing talented players allied with a need and want to produce and progress young players into the senior team, with a coach who believes in youth development. Blues predicament may causing fans some consternation yet as Southampton and Swansea have shown in recent years, if this model is implemented well it can lead to great success. What is for sure is that Blues are doing some fantastic work at youth level and are becoming a model for others to follow and learn from. 

To listen to the full interview with Karl Hooper & Mike Dodds click the link below

The Whitehouse Address @The_W_Address

Following up from the acclaimed The Way Forward | Solutions to England’s Football Failings Matthew Whitehouse brings you Universality | The Blueprint for Soccer’s New Era.
Looking at the evolving game and pointing to what the future game holds. 
In Universality Whitehouse looks at the past two decades of the game assessing the key changes in tactics, philosophies and positions. Whitehouse lays down his thoughts on where the future game is heading. For those with an interest in the game, especially coaches, this is a book you will not want to miss!
You can get your copy of Universality by clicking this link


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  2. Brilliant and insightful - thank you!

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  5. Good article.
    I would like to highlight an opinion that I have held for years. I have been involved with coaching and playing for team for over 20 years in inner city Birmingham (handsworth and Newtown men and children's age groups). I believe a big opportunity is being missed as there is a pool of extremely talented players who are being over looked. During my time coaching I had many talented players who I thought where at the level to be scouted. There was however a lack of involvement from the pro clubs in the area. In my time scouts never came to inner city areas to watch our players. This is a general point. I am 34 now and do not know 5 players to have come from inner city birmingham in my time. The most famous players from inner city birmingham to make are sturridge (from ladywood and I have always felt it was a shame that he had to leave the city to make it) and Berihino (went to School in Aston). I think to lack of inner city players becoming professional is due to lack of opportunity not talent. My main point is that I believe that clubs should invest more in coming to inner city deprived areas because the talent is amazing but it is not being seen. If you want street ballers get to know the local play areas in Newtown handsworth lozells etc. To have been involved in inner city football for so long and only see 2 players from inner city birmingham make it in my time is a same. I hope this changes.

    NB. My thoughts are specific to birmingham as I do not know what does on in other cities