Southend United’s Academy Manager, Ricky Duncan, believes that the club’s youth department is in a healthy position as he looks forward to Academy Day on Saturday.
Speaking ahead of the occasion, which will see the work of the Academy showcased before the match and at half-time of the League Two fixture against Shrewsbury Town, Duncan said that Blues have received plenty of positive feedback since gaining Category Three status under the Elite Player Performance Plan.
“I think we’ve got a really strong Academy. We’ve got a label of Category Three but we should be Category Two. The Football League have come back with some fantastic reports and they say that we’re up there as a top Category Three Academy in the country,” he declared.
“It’s got a strong base now and we’ve got boys coming through every year. We’re getting clubs coming up and approaching us, which will always happen, because if you’re a strong Academy you’ll have boys going into your first-team, you’ll have more boys coming through and then you’ll have boys that other clubs will be interested in.
“If you’ve got all that happening at once, how can you not be a good Academy? At the moment, we’re ticking all the boxes every year, and that’s through the effort of a lot of full- and part-time staff and also a lot of commitment from the football club."
Duncan, who returned to Boots & Laces in 2005 following a successful spell at Cambridge United, also took time to detail the level of work that goes into developing a professional footballer such as Daniel Bentley, Jack Payne or Jack Bridge.
“It takes hours of commitment from themselves, from their parents and from the coaching staff. If you look at Daniel Bentley, he’s come through now, but he had hours on the training ground when he was 16 getting coached. There have been hours put in with Jack Payne and the same with Jack Bridge.
“Jack Bridge has probably had six or seven coaches during his time at the football club that have all given him some knowledge that he’s taken on. Then there are the fitness coaches, the physiotherapists and the treatment that he’s had, and then all the education underneath it. All of that goes into giving him the opportunity to go and play in our first-team, which hopefully will come one day for him.
“He started at U9s and he’s now a first-year pro at our football club; that’s a massive amount of commitment and over ten years of work to get there. That’s two or three nights a week, plus Saturdays or Sundays; the commitment from the parents and the players to play here is unbelievable, let alone what we put into them.
“Parents have given up a massive amount of time to develop their sons, and it would be nice to see some fans get in touch, come down to the training ground and see what we do. I want an open house and for fans to come and engage and be a part of it in whatever way they can, not just financially. Be a part of what we do and see what we do,” he added.
And, when those individuals do make it into the first-team, Duncan revealed that there is a real sense of pride amongst the Academy set-up: “If you’re an U9s player who’s just come to the club and you see Jack Payne scoring, your dream is then to be Jack Payne.”
“When Jack scored at home against Oxford United, he ran directly to where the youth team were sitting because they’re the boys that have come through with him and grown up with him. He made a beeline for them, which was fantastic.
“I think with any boy that comes through, every coach he’s had will text me to say he’s starting or he’s on the bench when it happens because everyone feels that they’ve had a part to play in his development and they feel that they’re part of the football club through his appearance.
“To get him on that pitch is their only goal. The U9s coach works to start off his development and through each phase it’s all about working to progress him to get to that stage where eventually the manager says that he thinks he can do a job for the first-team.
“So, when a player steps on the pitch for the first-team, it’s not just me, it’s everybody in the Academy, right down to the administration staff who put hours in and the catering people, everyone has played a part in that boy making it. Every time a boy steps on that pitch, there are a lot of people behind him who have smiles on their faces.”