As he prepares for Wednesday evening’s Hampshire Midweek Floodlit Cup semi-final against Salisbury City, Shots Academy Manager Lee Collier reflects on what has already been a positive season.
“If someone had told me that we’d finish third in the Ryman League, runners-up in the Conference and in a semi-final, I’d have taken that,” he begins, before considering the disappointment of ‘only’ finishing second to Southampton Sparsholt after last week’s 2-2 draw between the two sides. “We should have won that game quite comfortably and taken it to the final day – we started it really well but needed that second goal to kill them off a little bit.
“But overall we’ve made great strides and I’m really happy with our progress. Our season isn’t dead, we’re into the Conference Youth League Play-Offs and potentially another final,” he explains, with a quarter-final against Brentford or Histon scheduled, the winners of which would face a semi-final versus Dover Athletic or Guiseley. There always remains, of course, a bigger picture.
“My overall job is about player development. I’ve seen these boys since July, and where they are now is a great improvement, their knowledge of the game is better. The next thing for us is to try to get a player into the first-team. It’s not going to happen overnight, but I’m not looking at the short-term – I’m always looking at how we can help the Academy to grow.”
His focus this week, though, is on the Salisbury semi-final, which kicks-off at the Raymond McEnhill Stadium at 7.45pm. “We want to win every competition we play in and we’re taking this very seriously. A semi-final is a great opportunity for the players, there’ll be scouts there watching, and these opportunities don’t come along very often. Now they have to take it, with a final to be played at the EBB Stadium if we get through.”
Despite a fiercely competitive catchment area, Collier feels that The Shots can offer players something more attractive than supposedly bigger clubs in the region. “If certain players aren’t successful at Brentford or Fulham or Chelsea, we want them to come to us. I will make sure that we have one of the best Academies outside of the Football League, but we want to build the foundations first. We want players that are right for this Club, on and off the pitch. We’re building human beings with the necessary life skills.”
Premier League scouts have watched several recent Shots Academy matches, and one player leading the way is striker Ben House, enjoying a prolific season which has seen him invited for a trial by the Queen’s Park Rangers Academy. “The strides he’s made have been brilliant and we’re proud of what he’s done. I know he’s on Barry Smith’s radar, and he thinks highly of Ben, but it’s small steps – we can’t expect the jump to the first-team at the moment, but Barry is very keen on keeping Ben at the Club.”
Despite 2015-16 still being very much alive, plans are already in place for next season and beyond, with trials scheduled for next month to ensure the standards continue to rise. “We speak to the players and their parents, to make sure that our recruitment is right,” stresses Lee. “They’ll be working hard for two years, and be ready to listen and learn.
“The standard in our trials has been very good, and if we can be successful, and push players through to the first-team, it’s shows that we’re doing the right things, and players will see that and want to join. Players are wanting to come to Aldershot Town now because they can see there’s a pathway.”