About to celebrate their first anniversary, Aldershot Town’s Youth Department enter 2017 with broad horizons and lofty ambitions.
Last year the team played at Barcelona’s Nou Camp stadium and faced age group teams representing Chelsea, Southampton, Norwich City, Reading, Leicester City and Bristol City.
Now, a deliberately challenging schedule is already in place throughout 2017, for the 270-plus players across eight age groups from Under 9 to Under 16. This month alone they will face Manchester City, Swindon Town, Swansea City, Sheffield United and Oxford United – as well as making return visits to Chelsea and Southampton – before travelling to Lisbon to play at Benfica’s iconic Stadium of Light later in the year.
The Shots’ Under 9, Under 10 and Under 11 sides will face their Manchester City counterparts on Sunday 29 January at the £200 million Etihad Campus, built on 80 acres of land immediately adjacent to the Etihad Stadium. “It’s going to be an unbelievable experience for everyone,” smiles Assistant Head of Youth, Stephen Mills. “We’re excited as coaches, because it’s a chance not many people get. It’s taken a while to organise, because they don’t have many free dates, but Manchester City have been great with us.
“It’ll be great for our teams to face players from around the world. That’s the level that you want to be at – they will be playing against the best kids of their age in the world, and it will be tough, but that’s what it’s all about. When you go to Clubs like that they are always so open and willing to talk and help smaller clubs.
“If we can go there and play good football and show that we’re good coaches, it will open up more doors for the future as well. It shows that these clubs respect us and want to play our teams – clubs that have played some of our age groups are inviting us back.”
So, how has that first year been? “Busy. Very busy but very enjoyable,” admits Mills. “To go from nothing to over 270 players is a huge achievement, and we’re punching above our weight already. We’re already working hard for next year, and it never stops, but the enjoyment comes when you watch our teams play the bigger clubs. You can enjoy where we’re at and love those moments.
“But just to have 270 players sat in the Community Stand watching a game wearing their Aldershot Town kit is fantastic in itself.”
Before Christmas, The Shots participated in a tournament at Reading’s Madejski Dome, organised by Eldon Celtic. There, Mills and his coaches “let the kids take charge of their own teams and managed their own games. It was a really good experience for them and our teams did very well – they got to four finals.”
Four teams will also compete across various age-groups next weekend, in the latter stages of the Hampshire Cup. Soon, though, Lisbon will be the city on everybody’s lips. “These tours create lifelong memories. When players go on tour the friendships and bonds that they create are exceptional.”
Providing chances to “face some very good opposition, play in another country and work with Portuguese coaches,” Mills highlights how the tour will fulfil one of the cornerstones of the department’s philosophy. “It’s vital for us, becaue we realise that we’re developing people, not just players. The percentage that will go on to play professional football is minimal, but if we can develop them as people they can go on to get jobs in different environments and capacities.”
Competition for places, though, is key for any team, and these burgeoning connections with other Football League, Championship and even Premier League clubs – who are referring players to The Shots – ensures that standards are rising all the time.
“We’re seeing improvements week-on-week, really. This week we’ve had two new trialists who have just left higher academies,” reveals Mills. “We’ve just had our annual reviews with all the players and they know where they stand and how hard it will be to keep their place. Some players will sadly have to leave but the ultimate aim is to increase the overall quality.”
The challenge, says Mills, is for his coaches to ensure that they keep improving, to match the standards of the best players in their charge. “A lot of people forget that coaches need to develop too, the same as players, and especially at a club like Aldershot Town it should be all about development for everybody involved. Then we can attract even better players.
“But we’ve already had players from different clubs wanting to join us – they haven’t been released, they just want to join us. That’s the level that we’re trying to get to, when they want to play for Aldershot Town.”
They may still be learning themselves, just a year into the job, but are already finding that knowledge and expertise is a two-way process, and that The Shots have a lot to give.
“Clubs have been impressed by our approach and these matches are a chance to show them that we are Aldershot Town and this is the way we do things.”