Andy Ollerenshaw, author of the excellent From Wick to Wembley and the FSF’s photographer of the year, David Bauckham, headed down to Redhill at the weekend to see the good that ex-England Manager Glenn Hoddle is doing for the game today.
Rejection. One of the most soul-destroying and confidence-sapping experiences in life. That awful feeling of not being wanted, of being surplus to requirements. For a young footballer, rejection can be doubly painful with the consequences just as difficult to cope with. Hundreds of teenagers every year have their dreams inflated and then burst into a million fragments as they are ‘released’ by their club. Boys, from an impossibly young age, train in the colours of their idols at top clubs such as Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool or Manchester United. They have their hopes shared, fuelled and fanned by delighted friends, excited families and proud parents. But for the majority, the “we are going to have to let you go” bad news loiters just around the corner. Football is a cruel game, and the numbers of youngsters who actually make it all the way to the top represent just the tiniest tip of an immense iceberg.
But one ex-England player and manager is trying to help some youngsters deal with the rejection. Glenn Hoddle believes that many who are discarded at an early age, if nurtured and developed appropriately, could still have much to offer the game. It was exactly for this reason that in 2008 he set up his Glenn Hoddle Academy (GHA) to help kids who have been prematurely spewed out of the football production line. Hoddle saw a niche in the market whilst footballs’ so called ‘custodians’ (insert here any permutation of The FA, The Premier League, The Football League, etc.) have failed to show any concern for the welfare of players cast to one side at such an early stage in their careers. Central to his vision was the belief that many teenagers released by professional or semi-professional clubs could still go on and play at a decent level.
At Redhill FC on the last Saturday in July, I witnessed some of the fruits of Hoddle’s labour. The Sussex League Division One club played host to a GHA squad and in doing so were taught a footballing lesson. By the end of a stiflingly hot day, the visitors had strolled to an impressively stylish 6-1 victory, enthralling everyone inside the fuller than usual Kiln Brow ground with their immaculate brand of one-touch, give-and-go football. Even GHA’s sporting of a look-a-like Brazil kit failed to smack of pretension; they wore it well.
Ahead of the game, I spoke with Graham Rix (ex-Arsenal & England) who is one of the GHA coaches, who works alongside Dave Beasant (ex-Wimbledon, Chelsea, Nottingham Forest & England) and Nigel Spackman (ex-Chelsea & Rangers). After many years of experience, Rix is still surprised how quickly professional clubs release young players saying that “they have no need to be patient and develop them” as the wealthy clubs find it far too easy to dispense of young players, preferring to flex their financial muscle to meet their short term goals. The result is that “a lot of talent is slipping out of the game”.
It is the clubs’ lack of desire to hang onto young players for a few years longer and make a more considered judgement on a player’s potential that triggers a downward spiral for many. “For example,” explained Rix “a lad gets released from a Premiership club. He’s a small, skilful, technical player and from there [the Premiership club] he goes to a lower league club where there might be a slightly different style that they play. So he can’t influence the game and he ends up not playing for that team, and so drifts a little lower. A lot of lads leave good clubs, and because of the devastating blow they’ve had, a few years later end up playing park football”. Hoddle’s academy aims to reinstate previously rejected youngsters back into the game, firmly believing that with the correct rehabilitation and coaching it is possible to halt the negative trend. For Rix the rehabilitation is vitally important, it’s not only about good coaching, and added “the first two or three months are [about] working on their confidence and telling them what good players they are”.
GHA was originally based in Jerez, Spain, and for a few seasons fielded a team made up of mainly English teenagers in the fourth tier of Spanish football. It was little surprise that they quickly acquired the nickname Los Ingleses. Following problems with the financial arrangements with the Andalusian club, Hoddle has now moved his academy back to England and is based at Bisham Abbey.
The Redhill game was one of a sequence of summer games played by GHA who still have a ‘pre-season’ of sorts, albeit all their games are in essence friendlies. Rix said that “people want to play us all the time” using it as an opportunity to scout young players at the academy. Prior to the Redhill match, GHA played in a four team tournament at Bournemouth, drawing with the hosts and beating a strong Locomotiv Moscow development side 3-0. Midweek GHA drew 1-1 with a strong Kingstonian side.
Following the 6-1 win at Redhill, the host’s manager Simon Colbran was sanguine about the result. I questioned whether his players had learnt anything from the game and he was quick to stress the positives, despite the fact that his team saw little of the ball. “It’s what we expected. They train twice a day, six days a week and they are players looking to get into top clubs all over Europe. We’ve learnt a lot from today, I’ve seen which players are capable of going up another level, and I can look at their fitness, their attitude and commitment”. The First Team Assistant at Redhill, John Suter, was more forthright saying that the Redhill players “have seen some real quality today, probably the best opposition they’ve ever seen” and that his players will recognise their own limitations.
The level of financial investment made by Hoddle into the academy has been open to debate, but the amount of personal investment is apparent; it was set up in memory of his brother Carl, who died of a brain aneurism at the age of 40 and Hoddle spends much time and energy on the project. Hoddle, Rix, et al take great delight when their players get deals with professional clubs. GHA have strong connections with development set-ups around the country (and abroad), something that Rix sees as a vitally important part of a process that puts their young players in the shop window; whether its with non-League sides such as Hyde United (Conference North) or with the bigger clubs such as Reading, Fulham or Chelsea. Rix talked proudly about two of the current squad that are out on trial at Burton Albion (Dan Spence and Matt Richards) and about three players who have recently returned from Hull City, and although not given a contract “didn’t look out of place”. Former academy players are now playing at Port Vale (Ben Williamson and Ryan Burge) and two youngsters have recently signed for Spanish clubs Cadiz and Grenada. Probably the most notable success for the academy came when Ikechi Anya joined Sevilla in 2009.
Although the academy is only three years old, it is already bearing fruit. It offers a viable alternative to the current professional club system. Rix summed up the philosophy of the academy quite succinctly: “if we get one back [into the game] we are delighted, we are pleased for him. It’s a job that I love. We have shown that this can be done”. And long may it continue.
More pictures from the game can be found here.