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Ally Begg on Aberdeen’s Youth Academy

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As I crawled into bed late last Friday night after Aberdeen’s dismal performance against St Johnstone I wondered what if any positives I could take from that game.

It was by far the worst performance I have seen from the lads under Derek McInnes, absolutely baffling. To be honest as ridiculous as this sounds I lost sleep over it – bloody football!

As I read the various match reports the next morning it dawned on me that we had a match-day squad full of Youth Academy players, six to be exact ranging from the age of 16 to 21. There’s my positive right there in black and white.

21-year-old centre-half Michael Rose made his full debut on Friday night and showed glimpses of why he is held in such high esteem, such a shame he had to go off at half-time due to a hamstring injury. Also making his debut on Friday was 16-year-old Connor McLennan who came on as a second-half substitute and showed fantastic energy in the short time he played.

Dolly LogoIt appeared to me he was only one of a few who actually wanted the ball and attempt to make something happen. Hopefully, this young man has a very bright future ahead of him.

I have been quite blessed throughout my career to spend time with Academy players and coaches from Manchester United and Arsenal to Celtic and Aberdeen. The facilities at United’s training ground Carrington are as impressive as I have ever seen. Arsenal’s training center is simply stunning with natural air and light encapsulating the entire complex. All staff have to remove their shoes at the main reception to be replaced by flip-flops, it’s the cleanest complex I am ever likely to see.

During my time with Setanta Sports and Celtic TV I spent many an hour with Academy coaches Willie McStay, Joe McBride and the truly wonderful Tommy Burns. Their guidance, attitude, coaching and personality helped shape many a player from the youth team at that time, most have gone on to have very decent careers, albeit away from Celtic.

Before Lennoxtown was built the young lads changed in the away dressing room at Celtic Park and made their way down to Barrowfield by car. Not exactly rock & roll is it?

I was once told when Lou Macari was appointed manager he made the first-team jog to Barrowfield which was met with bemusement by most. When quizzed by a well-known striker at the time on his decision Macari’s response was “if it’s good enough for the Lisbon Lions, it’s good enough for you.”

Nothing wrong with a touch of humbleness now and then right?

I have to say though as much as facilities are nice and pretty it’s the work that’s done on the training ground which matters and counts for everything and that’s why I believe the work done at Pittodrie is right up there with the best in Europe.

Many moons ago an old friend of mine asked for my advice – his teenage son at the time was being touted by a number of different clubs in both Scotland and England and he wanted to know where I believed his boy should go. I told him without hesitation Aberdeen.

Here were my reasons why:

Pittodrie was just down the road from my friend and I had no doubts in my mind his son would receive the very best coaching on offer and given the club’s financial position. By the laws of average, he would have had a better chance of coming through the ranks and “making it” than at the other clubs chasing him.

As we all know the Dons are in no financial position to go out and buy top end players so the club relies on developing youth, they always have done. The development of the players is surely the deciding factor not winning Youth or Under 20’s titles.

I appreciate it’s good for players to have a winning mentality and receive silverware for their hard work but all this counts for nothing if a career in the game does not materialize.

Currently, the club’s Academy Head is former midfielder Neil Simpson. There is nobody better placed than Neil for this role having come through the youth ranks himself under Lenny Taylor and former Aberdeen stopper Bobby Clark.

Neil with the help of his staff devised identified four key points in a programme designed to enhance the ability of all involved with the Academy:

1. Identify and recruit the most talented young players and coaches by attracting them to AFC’s Elite Youth Academy programme while encouraging integration.

2. Train and develop players and staff to ensure the consistent delivery of the highest achievable levels of coaching and playing standards.

3. Inspire and reward all members of the Youth Academy family to ensure high levels of player and staff retention.

4. Provide a visible player pathway from Youth Academy level to First Team football.

It’s obvious for all to see that Aberdeen’s Academy is working and operating successfully, Neil told me recently: “I think we are so successful because of number four in our aims, we provide a visible pathway to the first team.

“So many players who go to the so-called bigger teams get lost in the amount of players they have to get through, even to train with the first team. When young lads come in full time at Aberdeen they are one pitch away from stepping up and this gives every one of them an incentive to develop at a quicker rate.

“Collectively everyone who works in the Youth Academy has played a huge part in the players development couldn’t single out one person.”

I have every confidence that the Academy will continue to breed players who will become the life-blood of the club. Everything is in place for those that are hungry enough to make it all the way.

A club like Aberdeen needs and arguably deserves a state-of-the-art training facility, the plans are in place and no doubt discussions will continue but I have one wish and it’s a simple one – if the dream becomes a reality I sincerely hope they name the Academy after club legend Teddy Scott.

If asked again by friends in the future I will not hesitate to recommend the Pittodrie side’s youth setup.

Ally Begg’s column is sponsored by Dolly Digital, a freelance Graphic and New Media Design Studio based in Aberdeen. Check out their Aberdeen FC-related products now.

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About Author

scotzine

Andy Muirhead is the Editor of Scotzine and the Scottish Football fanzine FITBA. He is the Scottish Football columnist for The Morning Star and has written for a number of other publications including ESPN, Huffington Post UK, BT Life's a Pitch and has had his work featured in the Daily Record, The Scotsman and the Daily Mail.

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