CAST are very grateful to Steve Avory, Charlie Barker and Aaron Henry who gave up their time last Thursday evening to meet via Zoom with eighty CAST members and to answer their questions.
This is a summary of a very enjoyable and informative evening:
Heather McKinlay welcomed everyone to the meeting and thanked our three guests - in particular Charlie and Aaron who had played earlier on Thursday in an under 23 fixture against Watford (whose team included Dennis Bergkamp’s son)
Steve: “We missed out on two points, which the lads will be disappointed about. They will be disappointed because they’ll feel they should have won the game. In the first half we were very dominant. But it was nice to just get back on track today. With Jason Euell having left, Hamza took the team, and good for him to get something out of the game, but they’ll be slightly disappointed, because they’ve missed the chance to strengthen their position in the league.”
Those present at the meeting were asked to estimate how many players are in the Academy. Only 16% realised how many – there are 171 players from age 9 through to under 23. Steve commented that “that might change a little bit in the next few weeks, because we’re coming to that stage in the season where we make decisions about whether we’re retaining players.
Steve said he could only speak about life under Thomas Sandgaard in positive terms. “This time last year, we all knew the position the club was in, and now we have a bright future. He’s told us all about his vision to go to the Premier League, but what’s particularly interesting for me is the research Thomas has done into the academy and his belief that the academy can play a major part into the Premier League. I am delighted at his interest in the one club model, which is music to my ears”.
Charlie was asked if he could maybe tell us a little bit about making his first team debut earlier in the season, and what it was like to be involved in the squad?
Charlie: “It was a bit of a shock. It came a bit out of nowhere! I had played for the U18s the week before and came in on the Monday and got told I was training with the first team, so it came out of nowhere to find that I was actually in the team. I was just excited more than anything. It was a big opportunity, but I thought I’d just see what I could do, and do the best I could, and it went alright!”
Steve: “I remember his words to me at the time. It was typical Charlie. He said ‘I’ve just got to grab the opportunity’. As we all know, he did that.”
Charlie explained his back-story. “My dad was working at the club, so I came in to train aged fourteen just to get out of bed, really. Steve asked whether I could come in on trial, which I did for six weeks, and then I got signed after the six weeks.”
Aaron was asked about his style of play. He said that” I’m a central midfielder and like to be on the ball. I can create things with my passing range. From discussions I’ve had with Steve and the club, I could also add something to my game by playing higher up the pitch as a midfield player.
A Premier League player I’d like to model myself on is Declan Rice. I really like the way that he plays. He wasn’t the most athletic, but he’s added that athleticism to the game.”
Steve: “Aaron is the third youngest player to make his debut at the club, which was in an FA Cup game against WBA. Both of these lads have had that experience of playing against Premier League players, a fantastic learning curve “
Questions from the floor:
Q: How do you feel about the number of loan players at the club, and could this be something of a restrictive pathway for players trying to break through?
Steve: “I don’t think it’s hindered the pathway of our players getting through to the first team squad. It’s become part of the game, and we look to get our U23 players out on loan ourselves. It’s part of the development plan in the game. I don’t feel that it has been a hindrance for the academy graduates. You have to prove that you’re good enough when you get your opportunity.”
Q: Could you explain the role of Ged Roddy, and how his work fits in with yours and Nigel Adkins’?
Steve: “We hear about this job title of Technical Director and a lot of people might have thought that Ged would be focusing exclusively on the academy but he’s been tasked by Thomas with taking the club forward under the ‘one club’ model. The dialogue I’ve had with him thus far, and his interest in the youth academy, has been really positive. Ged has a responsibility that covers the first team, the academy and the women’s team, and it’s taking all departments of the club forward in structure, strategy, organisation and resource – sports science and medicine, recruitment and education. If we can achieve a “seamless alignment” all the way through the club it would be a real positive, the first steps are taking shape ”
Q: Aaron and Charlie what is your second favourite sport ?
Aaron: “Golf, without a doubt. I used to play when I was little with my dad, but really got into it over lockdown as a way to socialise with friends, not only within the club, but with mates outside of the club. It’s a good way to be outside and away from football. I really do enjoy golf”. When asked about his handicap, he said it is “currently 26, but was 18 over the summer.”
Charlie “Cricket. I grew up playing cricket more than football. I’ve played golf a few times with Aaron, but I was terrible!”
Q: How much notice do you take of comments on social media and how much of a problem is it for younger players?”
Charlie: “Especially when you’re playing in and around the first team, there are a lot of fans who have an opinion, and they have the right to their opinion. But after a bad game, you don’t want to look at it. I don’t think social media is that important. It’s something we all do because we have nothing else to do, especially at the moment. You do take it personally when something is said, but there has been loads of positive stuff said to both me and Aaron when we’ve been playing, which has been really nice to see.”
Aaron: “I think social media is a platform where you’re exposed to fans and the football world, and it’s an easy place for fans to access you. There are many, many positives, and I’ve experienced many positives from fans. I get daily messages from fans. I haven’t had many negatives so far. I’m sure I will as I hopefully get more into the first team. I agree with Charlie that it’s a positive platform for younger players to promote themselves, but as you get in and around the first team, it can be more difficult.”
Q: Charlie – are you a right-back or centre-half?
Charlie: “I’ve never played as a right-back until that first-team game! The coaching staff kept telling me I had, but I hadn’t! But I did enjoy it, and can see myself going to that in the future, because it’s always good to be able to play in multiple positions. If you can play in two positions, it’s like having two players in the squad.
Steve: How did you do against Lanzini?
Charlie “That was an unbelievable experience. It was a very good test against a good player, but you see the level you’re aspiring to, and what they do on the pitch. I’ll probably never play against someone as good as him again. It was a good day for me as an experience, though not a good result.”
Q: At Charlton, we aim to make the player, but also the person, so how do you go about doing that? And for Aaron and Charlie, how do you feel that has happened for you?
Steve: “I do want the lads to answer that. My passion is in the coaching arena, but so much more goes into developing a young player, and the club believes very much in the holistic approach to developing a footballer. We have the player care programme, led by Joe Francis, which is very important, and something the players do on a weekly basis with specific aims in the content. At the Academy we focus a great deal on getting to know the individuals, their families, their parents, how they behave and achieve at school – it all goes into how they develop as a young footballer. We’re very proud of that. It’s what you do off the pitch as well as on the pitch.”
Aaron: ”Both of us have been involved in the Player Care scheme and it’s a platform to get away from the pitch and deal with issues on and off the pitch, including how to keep your self control. I’ve been at Charlton since the age of ten, which is nearly half my lifetime. There have always been workshops where you also learn the fundamentals of growing up as well. It teaches you how to be professional in a working environment.
Charlie: “As a group of players and with the staff, it sometimes doesn’t feel like a working relationship. Me and Aaron don’t just play football together. We’re friends off the pitch, too. It’s a group of friends more than a football team, and I think that’s the same throughout the academy. When you spend so much time together, you become friends, and they’re friendships that will last a long time. The personal relationships are the same with the staff. They get to know you as people, as well as footballers. It’s not all about what goes on the pitch, and that matters. We spend a lot of time talking about how our week has gone. We might pick a topic each week, such as communicating, and talk about that. We all come out every week saying that we’ve learned something.”
Q: Steve, do you continue to take an interest in those lads that end up taking a path outside of football?
Steve: “Yes, I personally take a great deal of interest and maintain contact with lots of players who have left Charlton. One came back the other day – Aaron Barnes – to interview for a position. There is an exit strategy that we’re proud of in terms of helping the players to find other paths. I always take an interest in the opposition that we play, and notice how many players there are sprinkled around the country who have been through our academy at some time or another. The opposition will invariably have some ex-Charlton academy players in there. Those who don’t quite get to League Two often keep playing to a semi-professional standard and that is one of our objectives other than the main one of getting players through to our first team.
Q: Who are the academy players you’re most chuffed about as their career has progressed beyond Charlton?
Steve: “I find it unfair to name one player. Of course you’re always delighted when they play at the highest levels, as in Joe Gomez’s case at international level but I get as much satisfaction from players in other leagues, like Regan Charles-Cook playing for Ross County in the Scottish Premier League
(At this point we conducted a poll among those present at the meeting on which player they considered the best to emerge from the Charlton youth system. The winner with 42% of votes was Scott Parker.)
Q: Charlie - how did you find the step up from the U18s to the U23s to the first team?
Charlie: “The quality of everyone you play against is better. You go from playing against kids to playing against grown men. I’ve gone from being one of the bigger players in the U18s to playing against men. Everyone and everything is faster, so every movement you do has to be quicker. The difference at each stage is bigger and bigger. It’s building blocks that keep getting higher and higher.”
Q: Do you think you get targeted as the new boy coming through?
Charlie: “There’s the occasional goal kick or free kick where they put a big man next to me, and I know I’m in trouble early! But I don’t think I was targeted that much.”
Q: Steve - can you talk about the value of Valley Gold to the academy?
Steve: “I would start off by using one word: invaluable. I would have to go back to 2009/2010 when the club was at a low ebb and it looked grim, with various relegations having taken place. I’d been working at the academy for a number of years, and possibly the carpet was being pulled from under our feet. Valley Gold has always assisted and supported with resources, and continues to do so to this day, but it was invaluable at that time to allow the academy to survive. I probably realise the value of that even more now that I’ve become the club representative on the committee. I think what it’s made me appreciate more is just how much the supporters – including some on this call – really do value young players coming through. There’s nothing they like to see more than a home-grown product coming through. Valley Gold has always been there for young players and recently assisted in staging the Valley Gold Tournament, to funding minibuses, to getting dugouts on all of the pitches. More than anything, it’s recognising how much the supporters value young players coming through the academy and through the funding of resource contribute to the development of the young players.
Q: How is the balance between football and education maintained?
Aaron “Charlie and I are both doing BTECs, and it’s been difficult to find a balance. Wednesday is our day off, and we have to go to college in ordinary times, but it’s hard to do that from home. COVID has made it more difficult. Charlie agreed: “before COVID, everyone really enjoyed their education, and Wednesdays were a day away from the training ground. It has been difficult over Zoom, but the club has done everything they can to keep their education going. The boys have worked really hard to keep it up. We went back to college for the first time last week, and it was good. A lot of people look at footballers as a bit stupid, which some of them are, but a lot of them look at life after football, and take their education seriously.”
Q: What does it take for a young player to break through?
Steve: “One thing the lads will all have heard me say is that they’ve all got talent, which is why they’re here, but the club has to nurture it and develop it over many years. Aaron is an example of that, having been here since the U9s. But talent isn’t enough. That’s a message I’m even more keen to get across to the young pros. Just because they’re young pros does not mean they’ve made it. The talent alone is not enough. When I think about Shelvey, Lookman, Gomez, Aribo, Konsa – Aaron and Charlie come into this category, too – they all had a love, passion and dedication to the game. They want to be around football every day. They have to have that, alongside strong mental qualities, to succeed. If I were stressing one thing – Konsa, Shelvey and Gomez had that strong passion and desire for the game, and they never lost that. They were never difficult to coach. They had humility, which is important as well.”
Q: Aribo and Lookman, who were a little bit older when we found them, did they share that passion for the sport?
Steve: “You try to get a football off Ademola Lookman! They both bought into the values we have at the club, including discipline. You’ve got to have that, above all else. Whether they are a young nine-year-old like Aaron, who might drive you up the wall as 9 year olds can do !! or an older player, they have to want to learn. I don’t want it to become like a school, where you have to discipline players for not having the right approach, but you never had to do that with the players I’ve mentioned. Aaron and Charlie wouldn’t be learning off the academy staff if they didn’t have the discipline to listen and learn. Discipline in our environment is vital.
Q: Have you read the laws of association football?
Aaron: ”Never! That’s a good one. To be honest, I’ve been fined once for dissent, which I’m not proud of. But once only.”
Charlie: “My discipline record isn’t too bad. There’s worse. There’s definitely better, though.”
Steve: “If Charlie is going to get booked, it’s because he’s fouled somebody in an honest attempt to get the ball. The club won’t tolerate dissent. That’s the one booking that the lads could be fined for. I’m not a great believer in fines. We all make mistakes. But dissent is something that will not be tolerated.”
Q: What improvements has Thomas made to the training facilities and is there any idea as to the timescale for Category 1 status? And what is needed for Category 1?
Steve: “The training ground, at the moment, is a bit of a marquee/portacabin village. With COVID and the bubbles, the club has had to improve its resources and facilities along those lines. It wasn’t great when the lads first came back after COVID, including gazebos that could blow away. The academy exists in a bubble, and the academy players aren’t allowed into the main building, including the gym. Thank goodness for Thomas in that respect, because we’ve been able to get some high-class portacabins and marquees. We’ve had those during the winter months and good heating and lighting have been installed. We’ve been able to live and survive through the winter that way. The gym facilities and equipment has been challenging in the makeshift environment, but we are getting through and steadily improving. Most of the improvements wouldn’t have been possible had it not been for the new owner.”
“Moving onto the Category 1 side of things, it’s one of Thomas’s ambitions. It’s something we’ve aimed towards for a number of years, but haven’t quite achieved it. We do need to add a little bit more – a few more staff, because you have to fulfil certain criteria on staffing. We also need to improve some of the existing facilities. The plans we had for a new building are still there, but I am not sure on the timeline and I would think there will need to be some movement and firm timeline before the club can apply for Category 1. Category 1, for the players, will mean that the U18s and U23s will be competing on a week-to-week basis with the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal, West Ham and I’m convinced that we have players who can compete at that level, so understandably I have always been keen for us to get there “
Q: The fans were disappointed to see George Lapslie leave. What were your feelings on that?
Steve: “So was I, to be honest with you. A fantastic young man, by the way. We talk about a rounded person, and there couldn’t have been a better example there. We can talk a lot about someone like Joe Gomez (who was also a very humble individual) but Lapslie was someone who had to work very hard to progress. He was one of the fittest lads I’ve ever seen on a football pitch, and had a great love of the game. I’d have liked him to have had more of an opportunity but it got to a point where he needed more senior games, and needed to make his own decisions, and he’s now doing brilliantly at Mansfield. He’ll have a career in the game. George’s example for the dressing room would have come from the energy he put into each and every game, and every training session. He wouldn’t have been the loudest in the dressing room, but he was an example of how you go about your business each and every day and seek to improve “
Q: What is it like being around the senior professionals?
Charlie: “It is really valuable to be learning from the senior players. Even Akin, who is only a few years older than me, has been a big help. I’ve been speaking to him about how I can improve, and what he thinks of my game. The older players who play in your position, or even all of the older players, will try and do everything they can for you.”
Aaron “Last season as a first-year scholar, someone I looked up to was Josh Cullen. Seeing the intensity he trained at every single day showed why he was at a club like West Ham. He was great to be around in training. George Lapslie was a great player to play with. Pearcey did his coaching badges with our age group.The experienced pros have great knowledge of the game and are great to play with.”
Steve: “Charlie and Aaron have been great in the transition journey, from the U23s to the first team, but it has to be managed by the academy. Sometimes it jumps, and then it levels, perhaps because the first team squad becomes stronger, and the first team manager feels that it’s better for them to be back playing in the U23s. Going back down to the U18s is also tricky to manage, but both Aaron and Charlie have managed really well.”
Charlie: “I’ve really enjoyed it. Going back to the only coach I’d ever worked with, and spending time with our friends, who we see day in, and day out. People think that the U18 to U23 is a big leap, but the U18s are really talented. You can see from their league position that it’s a great group of players. Me and Aaron really enjoy playing with them.”
Aaron: “For me, that Sheffield team that beat us in the Youth Cup are an U18 team that had a game plan, and played the style of a men’s team. They were very direct and followed their game plan. They were the better team on the night and deserved the win. I don’t think we played badly, but I think we can play a lot better than we did on the night. It was disappointing, but going back to the transition, the U18s are our friends, and a great group. Our coach is fantastic for me and Charlie, and Steve as well.”
Q: What proportion of the older age group players have retained agents, and do you spend much time liaising with them?
Steve: “It’s inevitable that you’ll have these relationships and agents will call from time to time through the season, and ask about the players and how they’re progressing. They might give their thoughts if they’ve seen them playing, which I like, because it shows they’re making the effort. Agents are here to stay, and I think there are some very good ones. I’d like to think these two lads will think that about the ones they’ve got. Equally, there are some around that I don’t have a great deal of respect for. We had an evening for the schoolboys for U13s to U16s, where the club is trying to educate parents about the rules around players. They’re not allowed to sign with an agent until they’re sixteen. That doesn’t stop agents making contact before that, and you can’t always prove whether that’s happening or not, but it’s about trying to educate the parents.”
Charlie: “My dad was a player and he stayed in touch with his agent so I jumped in with him too". Aaron: “I had a bit of the experience Steve talked about, with various agents getting in touch with me and my family before the age of sixteen. You have to work out who suits you best. I don’t think you should get wound up with things they promise. You have to go off a relationship basis: who you feel you can talk to, and who can manage you, so I went with that basis.”
Q: Steve - during the recent dark times, did you ever seriously think about leaving?
Steve: “I don’t want to leave. I love the club. I love the academy. I’ve been here for so long and so much been part of the environment, I feel I know so much about how to develop young players and want to continue doing so here at Charlton, whether it’s on the grass – which I still love – or off the pitch in developing players and people. During the dark times my concern was for the survival of the academy, but now Thomas has come in. I have to say, too, that the players were fantastic. They don’t always take on board what’s going on in difficult times, they just want to come in and play football. They don’t think about what’s going on in the background “
Q: Any news on James Vennings?
Steve: “He has a long-term injury, which is longer-term than we first thought. He’s worked so hard at his rehab and had one or two setbacks along the way, but he’s close to it now. He’ll now be doing parts of sessions rather than full sessions, but he’s on the way back and trained with the first team this week.”
Q: What our chances are of getting into the play-offs this season ?
Charlie “if we continue on a run, we have a great chance”
Steve: “the league is congested, from 10th to 4th, but what I’ve noticed over the last couple of weeks is that the games in hand gap is narrowing, and we’re in there because we’ve got four points out of these last two games. I sense from talking to players around the training ground that the tough run-in is an advantage. Every game is a cup final, I heard one of them say this week, and they’re looking forward to it. They’ve got Nigel Adkins in, and there’s a real positivity about the place. I heard Ryan Inniss talk about the clear structure NA is putting in place, and that’s a positive. There’s a good understanding and a good vibe. The mood I detect at the moment is, ‘we’re going to give it a go’.”
(At this point we conducted a poll of those present on the club's play-off chances. The majority thought we would make the play-offs but not get promoted. NB - this was before the Sunderland game)
Q: Steve, what experience and skills from your time in education have helped you later in your career?
Steve: “when I came into football full-time twenty years ago, having done twenty years of teaching before that, I regarded it as a straightforward move in many respects because I still regarded myself as a teacher. In terms of what I’ve carried over, I felt I needed to bring the structure I had as a teacher, to be organised, to be a good communicator, and to have an ability to observe and diagnose some of the key faults and areas where you feel you can help players. I think I learned that in teaching. The one thing I definitely felt I had, which is important with young people, is an enthusiasm about myself that I carried over into my football coaching career. That was just something that came out because I love doing what I do.”
Q: Looking at the career that Harry Arter has had, was he the one that got away?
Steve: “I’d have to say he was. He was a player who was released, and fought his way back through the non-league system. Aaron might not want to hear me say this, but he’s the best two-footed player I’ve worked with. But when he was released, it was linked to the financial position at the Club and the limited number of young pros. Nowadays, there’s no way Harry would be released at 19. It’s always a tough decision to release players, anyway, but even tougher when you know it’s being controlled by the finances.”
The evening finished with a round of warm virtual applause for our guests who had spoken so openly and eloquently. They said that they had really enjoyed the opportunity. We look forward to the next time.