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Charlton's Academy Keeps Producing Young Players Who Make the Grade

Charlton's Academy Keeps Producing Young Players Who Make the Grade

Saturday, 3 August, 2019 - 07:45
Ezri Konsa, Karlan Grant, Joe Gomez and Ademola Lookman all played together at Charlton in the 2014-15 season. Photograph: Composite: Shutterstock/Getty/PA
London- Gavin Willacy
When Ademola Lookman joined RB Leipzig from Everton for £22.5m last week, the transfer fees spent on four former Charlton youth teammates hit £50m. Aston Villa signed England Under-21 defender Ezri Konsa from Brentford for £12m in July, following Karlan Grant’s move to Huddersfield in January, Lookman’s £11m move to Everton in 2017, and Liverpool’s £3.5m deal for Joe Gomez in 2015. How does a club that has spent the last three seasons in the third tier produce so much talent – including four youngsters who all played together in their Under-18s five years ago?

I had the privilege of working with Charlton’s academy for seven years. In that time, they signed 72 apprentices (known in football as scholars). Twenty-nine of them (40%) are still playing professionally in the Premier League, Football League or top European leagues. Given that less than 15% of scholars become professionals, that is quite an achievement.

After earning promotion from League One through the play-offs, Lee Bowyer’s team will cross paths with several academy graduates in the Championship this season: Sheffield Wednesday defender Morgan Fox, West Brom’s goalscoring center-back Semi Ajayi and new Stoke midfielder Jordan Cousins are among six current professionals from the crop of 11 scholars who completed their apprenticeship at the club in 2012.

Despite having their belts tightened considerably under unpopular chairman Roland Duchâtelet – the redevelopment of their training ground in New Eltham was brought to a halt when they were relegated to the third tier, leaving them with two new 4G pitches alongside rapidly deteriorating facilities – Charlton have continued to fund a Category 2 academy.

They have to fish alongside five Category 1 academies in London (Arsenal, Chelsea, Fulham, Tottenham, and West Ham) as well as local Category 2 rivals Millwall and Crystal Palace, yet still bring through players who make the grade. There are a few reasons for their success. While Duchâtelet has employed 11 first-team managers in five years, the club’s academy has remained relatively stable.

Academy manager Steve Avory, a former teacher and England Schoolboys manager, has been full-time at the club for 18 years; and his avuncular colleague Joe Francis has been educating Charlton’s young players for even longer. Francis – in his own words “a failed footballer” having been released by Charlton at 18 – provides the daily enthusiasm, paternal guidance, realism, support, encouragement and, vitally, discipline, that teenage players need to make the most of their ability.

Francis and Avory have developed a culture in which young players are encouraged to pursue other interests. Francis is as proud of Alex Willis – who is making waves on a scholarship at Northern Kentucky University – as he is Lookman, Grant, Gomez, Konsa, or George Lapslie, the fifth current professional from that youth team, who is now playing in Charlton’s midfield and completing a coaching degree at Anglia Ruskin University.

The Under-18 and Under-23 players attend two 90-minute personal development workshops every week. “A young player’s journey to becoming a professional is always a rollercoaster,” says Francis. “There are peaks and troughs. They are stretched and tested in their training but we want to do that outside of the white lines. We felt we can build in some kind of personal growth workshops that will benefit their performances both in training and their day-to-day lives.”

These players come from all sorts of backgrounds. Lapslie grew up in Brentwood and joined the club as a nine-year-old; Grant was brought up by his Scottish mother a few minutes’ walk from The Valley; Konsa, who is fluent in the French and Portuguese spoken by his family, is from Silvertown; and Gomez grew up in Catford, the son of a Gambian father and an English mother who taught art in London’s prisons. Lookman, a quiet wizard from Camberwell, was an outlier: the academic son of a Nigerian solicitor, he impressed Avory so much while playing for his school that he was offered a scholarship almost immediately. He rose through the ranks at Charlton quickly, making his debut at 18 and being snapped up by Everton a year later for £11m.

Charlton are patient. They give players with long-term injuries years rather than months to recover and they give chances to players who are unwanted at smaller clubs. Toby Stevenson and Reeco Fairchild-Hackett were released by Conference clubs Leyton Orient and Dagenham & Redbridge, respectively, when they were 18. They were given trials at Charlton, earned contracts and worked their way into the first-team.

The Addicks are proving there are diamonds to be found everywhere if you look closely and treat them kindly.

Fantasy football
Pre-season is an annual reminder of how reserve football used to be. Star names, youth players and forgotten senior pros are all teammates for one strange month. Arsenal’s tour of the US is a classic example. Unai Emery gave plenty of minutes to their young attacking talents Bukayo Saka and Eddie Nketiah, and also took Tyreece John-Jules, Robbie Burton, James Olayinka, Dominic Thompson and keeper Matt Macey. Saka, in particular, did his prospects no harm whatsoever, by all accounts.

Remember me?
Danny Drinkwater may have played his last game for Chelsea. The 29-year-old, who joined the club for £35m in 2017, played the first half at Reading last Sunday. It was Drinkwater’s fourth appearance in pre-season but Frank Lampard has not given him more than 45 minutes and is likely to sell the midfielder.

It’s is incredible to think that Drinkwater, a Premier League-winner and owner of three England caps, has not played for Chelsea since coming on as a substitute in the Community Shield last summer and has only made 12 league appearances for the club.

Next man up
Sometimes a player just needs the right stage. Preston fans frustrated by the deliberating displays of the talented but lackadaisical on-loan forward Lukas Nmecha last season will have been amazed to see him leading Manchester City’s frontline in pre-season.

Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjær has given roles of responsibility to Angel Gomes and Mason Greenwood in Asia, while Tottenham took several Under-23 regulars to the US, with Cyprus midfielder Anthony Georgiou and 20-year-old center-back Japhet Tanganga both given game time. Keep an eye out for striker Troy Parrott: the Dubliner is just 17 but Mauricio Pochettino trusted him to start against Juventus.

This week in 2003
With most Premier League clubs now heading to Asia or the US for lucrative pre-season tours, it seems rather quaint that Swedish club Bodens BK used to host a top-flight club near the Arctic circle each July. Lakeside campers would be greeted by Premier League stars on the wide open Bjorknasvallen stadium next door.

“Tottenham Hotspurs” (as they were billed on the posters), Charlton, Southampton, Aston Villa and Leeds all visited. Tourists flocked in from the campsite, with crowds hitting 5,000. Once a top-flight club, Bodens now attract just a few hundred fans as they struggle to stay in the third tier at their smart new stadium on the edge of the small Baltic town, where it never goes completely dark in summer.

(The Guardian)

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