Aldershot Town’s Under 9 squad sampled the rarefied atmosphere of Manchester City’s Etihad Academy training campus on Sunday, as The Shots faced some of the best players of their age in the country.
Playing on one of the 17 pitches at the heart of the 80-acre, £200 million complex, adjacent to the main Etihad Stadium, the squad followed up recent matches against other Premier League clubs in Chelsea, Swansea City and Southampton, and acquitted themselves superbly.
The campus is home to City’s first-team, academy and women’s squads, with state-of-the-art medical, sports science and analysis facilities, plus four-star accommodation for players, a 7000-capacity all-seater Academy stadium, and a main training pitch which is climate-controlled to replicate the likely playing conditions in City’s next fixture, from Moscow to Abu Dhabi.
A sight-seeing tour, however, it most definitely wasn’t. “We wanted to go up there and be as professional as possible, and show that we belong there” said Assistant Head of Youth, Steve Mills. “We’re striving to play at this level every week, and the boys did exceptionally well. They did everything we expected of them and they should be proud of themselves.
“We demand a lot from everybody, and although we’ve come away really pleased, we’re also disappointed, because we want more. When you compete in this environment it does set a precedent. The important thing now is that we don’t rest – we have to think ‘how can we improve?’”
Such a mantra applies to both coaches and players, who know that for all of the Etihad’s resources it is good coaching, pure and simple, which creates good players.
“City can spend so many millions of pounds on facilities but the way we try to do things will be similar to the methods they use,” explains Under 9 coach Ryan Nevard, who led his players in two concurrent matches, played over four twenty-minute quarters.
At the final whistle, The Shots were immediately given an invitation to return to the campus later in the year, with City also keen to establish a partnership which will benefit the player recruitment of both clubs.
“We can’t compete with Manchester City in what we can offer the players, in terms of facilities,” agrees Mills, “but what we can offer is a programme that is the best it possibly can be at our level. These matches show that the programme we have in place is good enough and is giving the kids what they need.
“If they can compete at that level, week in week out, that is exceptional for Aldershot Town. That will only help the programme to grow, and then hopefully we’ll get more and more players that want to be involved.”
All Shots youth teams are given a set of targets before each game – to encourage them to play a high-tempo, passing-and-pressing style – with each player asked to create their own individual targets within that ethos.
“We don’t tell them what to write – the responsibility is on the players,” explains Nevard. “Team targets are based on the topics we cover in training, trying to get them to think about how they are going to use those skills in a game. Individual targets are then set around the team objectives on how they can improve and also how they can help the team.”
Crucially, those targets never touch upon the final score which, at Under 9 level, is not recorded. “At that age, the results aren’t important,” says Nevard, who took as much pleasure from the smiles on his players’ faces as the goals they scored. “Everyone likes to win but that isn’t the main focus. If the boys can achieve their targets, that’s success, rather than whether we won or lost. If they play the way we expect, from the back and through each third of the pitch, that’s what is important.”
As Mills highlights, the youth department’s style mirrors that of Gary Waddock’s first-team – “we want to create players that are comfortable on the ball and play possession football, but also have the confidence to attack” – as part of a plan to build as many homegrown players as possible.
“This is a ten-year development programme, and we hope that the players we took to the Etihad will develop into first-team players. They are the first players who can be at this Club for 10 years and go on to play for the first-team. That’s where the real success will come, to get players going through the entire system.”
In the shorter-term, though, Nevard recognises the value of days like Sunday. “It’s about creating memories that they’ll never forget,” he smiles, knowing that applies equally to the coaching staff. “We need to create players who want to stay here. We want our players to be capable of playing at the highest level but we also want to create something here that is so special that they don’t want to leave.”