Chester FC Youth Academy – The story so far…

Blossoming Youth Academy has come a long way in a short time

IN a little over four years since the reformation of Chester FC, the club has seen a remarkable rise in the world of football. Numerous titles and cups have been won over the past seasons, with the rising youth academy adding more to the cabinet.

Both Chester Youth and Chester Colts won their respective league titles and league trophies last season, with the young Blues showing how the club has a bright future in bringing on the next generation of players.

Speaking of how it was set up, Head of Academy Recruitment, Mark Howell, said: “The idea was Bernard Concannon’s originally. We were old friends and I knew very well his work in setting up Newton Athletic, so when he called to discuss whether a youth team at Chester was viable, I bit his hand off.

“We met with Steve Jones and Tim Hunt who were both involved at NAYFC and it grew from there. We then put forward an initial offer of two years to set up a youth section at the newly-formed supporter-owned club to the CFU board of the time, which was met with open arms.

Following the agreement to set up a youth section at the club, the process began to bring in players and coaches.

“We recruited a group of under 18 boys from the local area and quickly brought in Paul Kelly to help”, said Mark.

“Paul remains as Head of the Youth section within the Academy today and was one of the best signings we ever made. We soon added an under 8s side with other Newton coaches, Nick Jones and Joe Flynn. They were joined by an under 10s side run by Jason Bowdler and Calum McIntyre from Christleton New Scene. Out of all of these, only Tim has left us due to the pressure of running his own business.”

With teams set up, as well as coaches and players in place, the sides were ready to play in a competitive league. This came in the form of the NWYA Premier Division, where the Youth side played Altrincham Youth.

“The game was played away at the old British Airways club, now the Hale Sports Club, on August 14th 2011. The lads played in an inherited white MBNA away kit from the first team” explained Mark.

“They missed a penalty, hit the bar and were beaten 3-0. A couple of the boys from that first squad (Joe Ormrod, Carl Pleavin, Connor Kendrick, Owen Crawford amongst them) went on to represent the first team in friendlies, with Joe playing in the EvoStik League and scoring the winner in the Supporters Direct Cup against FC United.”

This was to be the building block for the expansion of the Academy, with the squads consisting of coaches with an extensive knowledge of the local footballing scene.

“We soon moved to holding trials for all age groups, whereby as many coaches from the section are asked to attend. All opinions and points were then weighed up and boys were then invited back. We moved to keep our squads leaner as we have developed and through this we were consistently moving the bar up by introducing scouted players and trialists.

“We operate in a very tough marketplace and have done well in ensuring that what we have done is done right. We work very hard to provide the best pitches, kit, equipment etc that our budgets can afford and because of this our reputation has continued to grow.”

Grow is exactly what the youth section has done, with more plans in place to expand the successful Academy for the following season.

“We have gradually added age groups and filled gaps. The 2014/15 season will be the first time the club has had full age groups from under9s to under18s since its reformation. This has been matched with an increase in standards within the structure behind the scenes. The journey of four years has culminated in some forty plus volunteers managing, coaching, offering therapy, administering and fundraising, as well as supporting some 190 plus young aspiring footballers aged eight to eighteen years. These have come from all over the Chester, North West and North Wales area under the Chester FC umbrella for next year and the bar continues to be raised.”

The Academy has also worked with the Club’s Junior Blues by creating the Mini Kicker sessions. “The setting up of the Mini Kickers sessions by Calum McIntyre and Ashley Field was a great success”, expressed Mark.

“The programme run for a year and generated funds to enable us to offer a couple of our youth graduates time in the first team squad. This was handed over to the Community Trust last December and at the time, 60 children a week turned up between the ages of four and seven and were receiving fun football sessions in a safe, friendly environment.

“We have also developed towards raising a lot of the monies needed by the Academy ourselves. We hold several fundraising nights a season and have some very generous sponsors from within the area. Our appointment of an Academy Fundraising Officer this summer will also help immensely with this. The vast majority of our expense is on facilities for training and playing matches.

“The club has benefitted in many ways from the inception of the Academy, as many players, parents and families have become CFU members and Chester FC fans. We find that the parents really buy into the “Our City, Our Community, Our Club” ethos that all members of the Academy staff promote. This was shown at the last Chester FC game of last season against Salisbury City, with the amount of children taking part on the lap of honour. The lap of honour by all of the Academy age groups has become a last game tradition and was a very proud moment for all involved. It was of great credit to the club’s fans who gave them the applause they all deserved.”

With the success of the first team and Academy being known throughout the non-league pyramid, teams from much higher up in the leagues are recognising the hard work that goes on at the club. “Our age groups are now being invited to play and are competing against top Premiership and Football League academies”, continued Mark.

“This is due to the professionalism and ability of the managers, coaches, medical staff and players, and the respect and behaviour of our parents. We have built up a very good reputation in the game in our four years.

“We have also started to see results on the field following the hard work over the past couple of seasons. We are looking harder and harder for players and are constantly lifting the bar. We have won three leagues and three cups in two seasons, but more importantly have had half a dozen boys involved in the first team. One of our graduates has been out on loan in the Northern Premier League who scored a flurry of goals, whilst another two have signed senior contracts at Chester FC.

“This is our task from under 9s to under 18s and we drill it into our coaches and managers. The Academy is here to develop players for Chester Football Club, not build squads to win trophies. When we started, the initial goal was to produce as many potential players for the first team and the development of aspiring players, managers and coaches, and that remains the case to this day.”

With the aspirations for the Academy to continue to develop first team players for the future, the set up would also like to see the young Blues progress in the FA Youth Cup.

“The Academy’s aim is to continue to develop players that are potentially good enough to make a career in football, with a Chester team full of them being the aim. We like to see our coaches get picked up and offered paid roles at other clubs, as this is a real sign of us doing things correctly too. As for a future aim, nurturing a full international one day and hopefully earning the club a fortune in the process. Also, getting into the second round of the FA Youth Cup having lost twice to Football League academies in the First Round proper the last two years, once on penalties, would be nice.”

Speaking overall, Mark ended: “The rise of the Academy at Chester FC is testament to the hard work and dedication of a lot of volunteers and parents. The children are a pleasure to be around, they are respectful and polite, but are skilful and competitive when they cross that line. To have been continually involved with a group of talented children and watch them develop into a group of extremely talented, but level headed, polite young men from eight to18, is a honour. The club and its owners should be extremely proud of them.”

Bernard Concannon, Head of Youth Development at the Academy added: “Having volunteered for four years since the inception of the Chester FC Academy, it is really satisfying to see players developed and produced by the managers and coaches, making the journey into the first team squad worthwhile. The initial meeting with Mark to discuss the proposal seems such a long time ago but the journey has been a really enjoyable and rewarding one seeing so many aspiring young people developing so well in their own fields.”

(Article for chesterfc.com)

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