Aldershot Town’s new youth department begin their 2016-17 season this weekend, and will be presented to the fans at half-time in Saturday’s National League match against Chester.
The culmination of eight months’ work, Head of Youth Sam Waters now leads 270 players across eight age groups from under 9 to under 16 into their first campaign to face some of the best young players in the south of England.
“It’s been a very busy and successful summer, and we’re really pleased with the calibre of the kids that we’ve recruited,” says Sam of a rigorous recruitment process based on an ethos of quality over quantity. “It was quite a task to whittle numbers down from 700 triallists to 270 players, and once we’ve included the under 7 and under 8 teams that will grow to over 300 players.
“47% of players have previously been involved at other Football League or Premier League clubs, at Category 1 – 3 Academies, so we have a good pedigree of players – and potentially some future first-team players.”
The new set-up has created two tiers in each age-group: an elite Academy squad which will play friendlies against professional clubs including Southampton, Norwich City, Reading, Bristol City, Oxford United, Swindon Town, Charlton Athletic and Southend United, plus local non-league clubs and other independent academies; whilst the Shadow Squad will join the NERF Junior Premier League, featuring clubs from across the Midlands, Southern and South-West England.
“Even in the shadow teams, there are genuinely children who have the potential to progress,” explains Sam, who has already promoted some players into the Academy squads. “They may be slightly later developers than the children in the Academy teams, so we have to help them flourish. The JPL is a tough league and they will benefit from training three times a week, and playing in a higher calibre of games. That will push them on and drive them forward. The door is definitely open if they work hard enough and make the progress required.”
With this summer’s victorious trip to Barcelona’s Nou Camp still fresh in the memory, plans are already in place to compete in tournaments in Madrid and Berlin during the first half of 2017.
“The important thing for us is to provide enough variety and as many experiences for the children as possible, not just in the calibre of fixtures but also in the tournaments they play and to give them opportunities in small-sided games or futsal,” he continues, with over 200 players already signed-up to play in Madrid across two weekends in June. “That way we stand them in better stead for the future, to be capable of dealing with different environments, different pitches and different pressures.”
With a 100% home record to defend, the players will this weekend make another visit to the EBB Stadium to support The Shots, and Waters knows his players have ambitions to emulate Gary Waddock’s first-team – a dream he fully endorses.
“They’ve really bought into it – the whole of the Community Stand was on its feet after Will Evans’ volley! It was great to see that we’ve already got new supporters there, and the number of children and families that want to come this weekend is great. The quality of football has certainy helped in attracting the kids, and it’s been a positive start for everybody.”
Whilst many would view the poaching of players by Football League and Premier League clubs as a negative, Sam sees the positive impact that could have for the long-term prosperity of the department and Aldershot Town as a whole.
“We want bigger clubs knocking on our door, asking to take these kids on trial – that will be a big success, and will speak volumes for what we’re trying to achieve here.
“A lot of people are quite protective of their players but I definitely see it as a positive – if these clubs are interested in our players, we must be doing something right both in terms of our recruitment and our development of these players. We put a great emphasis on how we treat our players and the relationships we build with them and their families. We’ll do everything to the very best of our ability and you’d hope that when bigger clubs come along our players won’t want to leave, because they see that their path to the first-team is better here. It’s more realistic here, almost within touching distance.
“We want to produce players who can play above and beyond the level of the first-team, but let’s get them into the first-team first, and then they can start their careers here.”
With young players such as Bernard Mensah, Cheye Alexander, Shamir Fenelon and Liam Bellamy all bouncing back from initial rejection by Championship and Premier League clubs, Waters feels that these role models can have a major influence on the next generation of Shots stars growing under his tutelage.
“We’ve got a lot of kids who have come out of bigger academies, and for some it was their choice but for others it wasn’t, and for those kids this is a chance to really prove a point – a bit like some first-team players who are maybe proving a point that clubs have made a wrong decision.
“When you start at a lower level, every step you take you’re constantly moving forward,” he highlights, suggesting that remaining at Aldershot Town may have greater long-term benefit than joining a Premier League club at such a young age. “We say to our kids that they’re going to gradually build their confidence here, whereas it can be difficult if you’ve been released from a bigger club and have to start again. Always working your way up, as the likes of Jamie Vardy and Chris Smalling have done, can be a big help to a player with their mentality and their attitude.
Having become one of the lucky 270 players chosen to represent Aldershot Town, Waters insists: “It’s probably easier to get into the department than it is to stay there. There are hundreds if not thousands of kids who would like to have this opportunity.
“I’m a bit of a perfectionist, we’re certainly not going to rest on our laurels,” he stresses, backed by a training regime which he admits is deiberately tough. “We want to be able to push the kids forward. We want those in the shadow academy to be knocking on the door of the academy teams, and the challenge for the academy players is to stay at that level.”
As with any team, the anticipation for the start of a new season – and for the strong challenges which lie ahead from both opposition and management – is palpable. Beginning on Saturday, with their half-time parade around the EBB Stadium.
“It’s incredible, the excitement amongst the staff and players is building,” concludes Sam. “The success of the first-team, and with them seeing the excitement at the home games, has only heightened the expectation. They can’t wait to get started and we’re all proud to be able to represent the Club.”