Steve Avory: “football clubs should be serving their communities with a youth development programme”

On Thursday 16th February CAST were delighted to host Steve Avory, Jason Pearce, Daniel Kanu and Zach Mitchell in a webinar Q&A on the subject of Charlton's highly successful Academy.

It was a very entertaining and informative evening. Steve was his usual insightful self. Jason was open and honest about the transition from player to coach. Daniel and Zach demonstrated an impressive combination of confidence and humility. All four spoke with real passion for the club and the Academy. The future is in good hands.

We are grateful to Heather McKinlay who chaired the webinar; Richard Wiseman who managed the questions; Paul Breen who provided live Tweets, and Lauren Kreamer who wrote this impressive report of the evening. Here is how it went:

Heather asked Steve about funding of the Academy moving forwards, depending on the ownership. Steve said that the future of the Academy should always be secure, and that one only has to look at the productivity statistics which shows that we are consistently in the top ten academies in the country for producing players at first-team level. He said that he was reading a piece of research from Switzerland showing Charlton was ranked 20th in Europe, just behind Barcelona, for producing Premier League players in the 2020/21 season. The usual suspects were at the top of the table, but it shows how well Charlton’s academies does at getting players into our first team and then onto the top level. Steve said that it was something that should always be a financial priority at the club and that while it isn’t something he thinks about every day, it is an excellent return on any investment.

Heather asked about clubs like Brentford who don’t have an academy, and whether that’s a feasible alternative model. Steve said that he strongly disagrees with that model and that even Brentford is starting its academy back up. By 2025, all PL clubs will have to have a Category 1 academy. “Football clubs should be serving their communities with a youth development programme with players who, in the main, come from that community,” said Steve.

Daniel was asked about his journey, through the U11s and making his first team debut last year. “It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions,” said Daniel. He explained that he first joined at the beginning of the U11s season in June 2015. From there, he began to work with various coaches, including Steve, Anthony Hayes, and now Jason Pearce and Reece Williams, the Head of Coaching. In the U13s season, they reached the final and lost 1-0 to Liverpool (“to this day, I still think we should have won!”) and Daniel said that he has created so many fantastic memories. In 2019, they lost in the final to Rangers in the Northern Ireland Super Cup, but beat some amazing teams along the way. He said that that experience was thanks for Valley Gold. “I’m now starting to see the benefits of all of my hard work, and all of the hard work of the coaches I’ve worked with over the years. Last year I scored 41 goals, which was amazing. Overall, it’s been a very, very worthwhile and exciting journey,” he explained. Daniel also said that despite injuries, having such fantastic coaches have made it the best journey he could ever have had, especially as a very young player. Even stepping up to the first team level was fine (“I was not exactly short of confidence!”) because the team and coaches were all so welcoming. He said that he is now trying to establish a firm place in the first team.

Zach was then asked about his time at Charlton and his playing style, as well as about his older brother Billy, who plays for Millwall. Zach said he’d do his best to match Daniel’s excellent introduction! He thinks of himself as a ball-playing centre-back with some extra tenacity and versatility added in, to go into the midfield position, and he has switched between those positions throughout his time at Charlton. He said that having extra awareness of the midfield role has helped him when dropping back into the centre-back position. “Centre-back would probably be my preferred position, where I see myself developing, but having the midfield experience has been very useful”. He said that he models himself on his brother, even though he is Millwall, and looks up to him in terms of his work ethic and professionalism. “Thiago Silva is someone I watch quite a lot and model myself on,” he said. Heather reminded him that he hadn’t mentioned Jason Pearce, and Zach said that he still needs to develop his game before he can put himself in the same league as Pearcey!

Heather asked Jason about the transition from playing through to coaching, including as part of the first team. “It’s been different,” said Jason, “with much longer days. Once I had made the decision, I have put everything into it.” He explained that he had options to continue to play, but didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity when Steve offered him the chance to come into the Academy set up. He has learned a lot from Hamza and Danny Sender, and is now leading the U18s, which he “certainly didn’t expect to happen so quickly.” But he is absolutely loving the role and wanted to remain part of the club, and help the next generation to come through. “It’s really exciting times for me and for the club.” Heather asked him about the cup, and Jason said that they have drawn Aston Villa, so would want to nick Zach and Daniel from Steve for that fixture!

Steve was asked whether there have been financial cuts to the Academy. He said that the budget has not changed, though he does have to be very careful with spending. It’s a very similar budget to last season. “Despite some of the publicity and some of the wrong things I’ve read around that, I’ve maintained the same number of staff in various positions. We’ve had one or two staff leave, of course, and I’ve had to be creative around how I fill those roles.” Steve explained that Hamza unfortunately resigned before Christmas because he had a life-changing opportunity to go to Abu Dhabi, which was a disappointing loss. But it gave an opportunity to Jason, and he has made the best of that situation. “It has been a seamless transition, despite the disappointment of losing a valuable member of staff,” Steve explained. He said that he was looking to appoint another coach before the end of the season. Despite the many ownership and managerial changes over the years, “we just get our heads down and get on with it.”

Steve was also asked whether being in League One makes retaining staff more difficult. He acknowledged that they do get approached and that is tricky, but we have retained staff for a long time, typically, and that remains the case. Anthony Hayes shows that there is a path from the Academy to the first team at Charlton. Both he and Hamza had been at the Academy for six years. “I’m a strong believer in having longevity – I know I’m an extreme example!”

Richard mentioned that Zach and Daniel are examples of having a very successful Academy from an early age, but that The Academy also excels in spotting talent a bit later, for example Ademola Lookman, Nick Pope and now Lucas Ness. Steve said that tells you that every age is important, and the Academy is from age 9 to 21. “As proud as we are to have players coming through from the age of 9 to 11, we have people focused on recruitment at every level. Bert Dawkins (Academy Recruitment Manager) is an unsung hero who focuses on the local area and the community that the Academy serves, as well as further into London and Kent. That’s where you get the likes of Nick Pope, Ademola Lookman, Anfernee Dijksteel etc.”

The semi-professional scene is an important part of the football pyramid which Steve said that we follow very closely.

There was a question about whether it is surprising that Ademola Lookman is doing so well in Italy. Steve said that he is an absolutely exceptional player. “In my two years with him, you just had to nurture him and drip feed certain bits of information, but not take away any of that fabulous individual talent he has.” Steve said that he is not surprised that he’s playing at the level he’s played at, though he is surprised that he has played in two other countries. “One thing any young player would learn from Ademola is that you don’t give up. Likewise from Lucas Ness, Joe Aribo and Nick Pope.” He explained that Ademola had not previously been at a formal academy, and we picked him up at a London FA game. “It took five minutes to recognise him, and all of my staff claim the credit!”

Zach and Daniel were asked about what it’s like training with the first team. Daniel said that he trains with the first team relatively regularly. He said that making his first team debut was “a feeling you can’t really describe.” He said that having been at the club for so long and finally making it to the first team means even more. “It was and remains the proudest moment and best day of my life, even though we lost.” Zach said that there are lots of opportunity to train with the first team, particularly if you’re doing well with the U21s. More recently, there have been 11 v 11 sessions, where the first team will need extra players, so that’s a really good experience and “gives you an insight into the intensity at that level.” Zach said that his debut was also an amazing moment. He remembers, a few weeks prior to making that debut, sitting in the stands with a few of the boys from the U18s watching the Gillingham game in the Papa Johns Trophy, thinking “I hope this is going to be me soon; it goes to show that it can happen very quickly, because I was fortunately able to go and play against Brighton U21s one or two games later.” Zach agreed with Daniel that having been at Charlton for so long definitely heightens that experience and feeling, and makes it that little bit more special.

Richard asked Daniel about his sensational assist for Miles Leaburn’s goal against Peterborough. Daniel said that it was really good movement from Miles and that they know one another so well because they’ve been playing together for two years. “I’m not going to take away credit from my cross, though, because it was a really, really good cross! I put it into the area where the defender couldn’t reach it and Miles could.” He said that his first league goal is definitely the next aim.

Jason was asked whether he would advise his three boys to become professional footballers. “I wouldn’t advise, them, no. I just want them to give their best in anything they do.” He said that, having been a footballer himself, they have been around it a lot and seen him play. They do love football, but he said that he wouldn’t necessarily push them towards it because he knows how ruthless it can be and how hard it is to get into. The older two do play and as long as they enjoy it, that’s great.

Steve was asked to talk a little more about Valley Gold and the sorts of things that the Academy has been able to do and achieve as a result of Valley Gold's contributions.  How does he approach deciding how and where to spend their support? “Where do I start with Valley Gold,” said Steve. He explained that during the worst times at the club from a financial perspective, particularly in 2009, they kept the Academy afloat. “I’m saying thank you to each and every Valley Gold member, past and present, for the experiences they’ve given every single player in attending tours and tournaments, at home and abroad, year on year.” Steve said that he goes to the committee and asks Valley Gold if they will support the Academy in tournament trips and pre-season trips, and they have provided incredible support. The U18s have been to the Northern Ireland Super Cup. The U14s have been to a fantastic tournament, playing the likes of Real Madrid. The U11s are going on a tour to the North East at Easter, playing the likes of Middlesborough and Sunderland. The Academy is hosting its own invitational tournament in May of this year where the final is played at the Valley. That’s what’s happened in the past year alone. One of the high-profile ones, he continued, was to Argentina, which was about four years ago, with the famous Newell's Old Boys, which has produced a certain Lionel Messi and Marcello Bielsa.

Steve said that there have been other resources provided by Valley Gold, including the two minibuses and trailer, which have been vital to the Academy. Some of the basic things, like the five sets of dugouts, have also been funded by Valley Gold. “There’s so much that the supporters have contributed over so many years,” he said. “Please join Valley Gold.”

Zach and Daniel also shared their memories of trips and tours. Zach said that he is also very grateful for everything that Valley Gold does, “on behalf of everyone in our team and in the Academy.” He said that the Argentina tour was the standout, which Daniel missed out on, but that the experience of every tour, seeing different playing styles and learning about different cultures, is incredibly valuable. Getting to the final of the Northern Ireland tournament was another fantastic moment. He said that the bonding is another real positive of those types of tours. “I’m very grateful for everything that they do,” he said.

Daniel said that he is slightly older, which is why he didn’t go on the Argentina tour! The UDAAN tour, in Sheffield, is another one Daniel wanted to mention. He went aged 12 and 13, with the latter being a much better tournament, with Charlton getting to the final and losing to the Seattle Sounders. “That’s an experience I really treasure, because it’s probably the first time I’d gone away with my team mates and we really bonded, as well as getting to know the coaches much better.” Daniel echoed Steve and Zach’s thanks to Valley Gold for all of those experiences. “It has made us into the players that we are today. Please join – it not only benefits us, but it can only benefit the club as well.”

Suzy asked whether young players should stay and develop at the club when bigger clubs come knocking or grab the opportunity when it arises. Jason said that it is really difficult, with the money in the game, to turn down those opportunities when they arise, but at a club like Charlton you get so many opportunities in the first team, meaning that at times it’s better to stay at the club you’re at. He mentioned Lucas Ness and Ezri Konsa as examples of players who have made a name for themselves at Charlton, and that inevitably leads to big names coming knocking. It’s a really tough one, especially with agents who whisper in younger players’ ears. “For me, it’s difficult with the money, but for their development, I think that the pathway is here, and they can develop and become really good players at the club they’re at.”

Neil asked who in the first team at the moment would make a good coach. Jason said that Ryan Innis is doing a little bit of a coaching and is really good in terms of his communication. He knows the game well and is very welcoming with the young players, so would make a very good coach.

Sam asked Steve whether there is any joint training with the young women’s team. Steve said that there is no joint training, but the women are on site. The site is huge and investment has been put into developing the women’s training facility. “What we do come across is the women come down to the canteen, so that facility is shared, as well as the gym facilities.” Steve said that he has been getting to know Karen Hills more over the past year or so.

Zach was asked about the amount of banter between him and his brother because Charlton and Millwall are such big rivals. Zach said that they get on very well, but there is inevitably a level of banter. “He’s probably got the bragging rights, in a sense, because he can always tell me that they are in the Championship, so I should settle down!” He said that whenever we play them in the Academy and get a big win, he can give it back a little. He said that they get on so well that it doesn’t lead to any serious arguments.

Alison asked Steve how it is decided who to keep on and bring in at U21 level. Are there discussions with the first team so that paths aren’t blocked by transfers? Steve said that there are regular meetings between him and his Academy staff, but there is also a Technical Review Board, at which Steve has to give updates about the Academy generally but also the players and their progress. “I would be disappointed after so long in the job if my recommendations for the U21 squad and player contracts and scholarships were not taken.”

Richard asked whether any players who have been sold by the club maintain contact with the club and come back to the Academy. “It’s great, really, that players do maintain contact,” Steve said. Sometimes it’s texts and phone calls, and other times you just come across the players, including the less well-known ones. “I just love that, when they come up to you for a chat, or send an email saying they’d love to come and visit the Academy.” Steve said that Scott Wagstaff came to the Academy the other day, just for a visit, as did Callum Harriott, because his son was on trial. Jordan Zamora, who we released at 19 and has gone on to play for Bournemouth, was here not long ago because his young brothers were here on trial. Steve said that some come back to him seeking advice, and some of them, because he’s been at Charlton so long, want advice about their coaching career.

Jason was asked about his view of the skills of Deji Elerewe, Lucas Ness and Zach, comparing them with each other. Jason said that Deji came up quite raw and used to go down the back of the strikers’ ankles in training, which they still complain about! He said that he tried to work with him a lot when they played together. “He’s a really good size, though for his size I’d like to see him improve his heading, but I was pleased to see him stay and sign a contract, because he’ll do well in the game.” Jason moved onto Lucas, who he said he felt, when he first saw him, that he was a bit stiff, but has made a fantastic improvement. Watching him now in the first team, playing regularly, is a credit to how hard he’s worked, particularly coming into the system so late. “He’s got a lot of attributes which mean he could go and play a lot higher.” Moving onto Zach, Jason said that he’s a real talent. “For me, he’s got a great future ahead of him, not only in terms of how he is as a player, but how he is as a person.” Jason said that he speaks a lot to the U18s about having the whole package, meaning not just your talent on the ball but what you do outside of football – being committed, having respect, having manners. “In terms of the whole package, these two on the call have got that.” Jason said that Zach is really comfortable on the ball and is continuing to improve, and he knows Zach will do well because of who he is as a person.

Heather asked Zach whether he looks up to those players himself. Zach said that it shows him that there is a pathway there, and he looks up to both of them, in terms of the way they have moved up to the first team environment and stayed there. “We’re all quite good friends as well, so whenever we’re training together, we do try to help each other and work on our development areas. There’s a really positive relationship between us three.”

Andrew asked about heading ability and the issues around whether heading should be phased out for the younger age groups. Steve said that he’d be interested to know what Jason’s thoughts are, as someone who must have headed a ball fifty thousand times times. There is a lot of education around it at the moment, he explained, and Charlton has looked into it, too, under FA guidance. It could well be that at foundation level, it is something that will be taken away from that game. He said that there is not a great deal of heading that goes on at that stage in any event, mainly due to the playing philosophy at academy level. “Surely heading can’t be taken away from the game entirely,” Steve concluded. Jason agreed that he had done a lot of heading in his career, though the game has changed a lot since he started. He agreed with Steve that heading is a fundamental part of the game, and there has to be a place for it. Heading isn’t a big part of training, but players do have to know how to head the ball. If they’re not learning that in training, they won’t be able to do it during games. “There has to be a way to bring it into the schedule but limiting the extent to which the lads do it. I remember once asking a coach at the end of training to smash balls at me, and he probably smashed fifty balls into my head. You probably wouldn’t do that now.” Jason said that he is part of a study and had a brain scan the other day, along with a one-hour memory test, so it is being monitored and studied.

Richard asked Jason about what separates our Academy from other clubs. Jason mentioned having come up at Portsmouth, and definitely notices differences at Charlton. We have culture days, which are really important in terms of bringing the players together. He said that the pathway at Charlton really speaks for itself, in terms of players coming through. “The coaches are really good as well. I looked at Hamza when I first came in, and the amount of people he’s kept in contact with is amazing. You build real relationships. They create real bonds. That’s certainly something that, having been a player myself, I know makes the best long-term relationships.” Jason said that that is something he feels is part of his own coaching style. “What Steve has implemented gives the players a rounded view of the game,” Jason continued. He said that one thing that’s really important is the education side. Lots of players don’t make it, and the way that the club structures the educational side, putting it alongside the football in terms of importance, is really important for the players. They have to learn things other than football. They get a rounded education of the game and away from the game.

Steve said that he has reflected in the past four or five years on what makes the Charlton Academy so successful. You have to get the recruitment and the coaching right, but what we do very well is promoting values and beliefs. “This is a hard-working environment, and it can be cruel at times, for sure, but the players will see that they can succeed here if they put in the hard work,” Steve said. He said that the Academy is also good at empowerment and giving players strong personal responsibility and spending a lot of time with the players and their parents off the pitch. He explained that the Academy wants to be approachable for the parents. There is a lot going on in terms of a multi-disciplinary support network. “Strong work ethic is something that I’m very big on, and having people who are structured and organised, and can contribute to this wonderful environment that we’ve got and have built over many years.”

Ian asked how the coaches are developed. Steve said that there is a strong in-service programme, across all disciplines, including coaching, sports science, medical and education. There are in-service evenings every couple of months, including guest speakers and practitioners. He said that coaches do like to go and visit other environments, which they are allowed to do. The senior performance analyst has gone to an FA training camp this weekend for the experience of observation. “We have to be creative about how we can support our staff, both to attend courses but also to go on visits to other football and wider sporting environments.”

Richard asked Zach and Daniel who their most difficult opponents are. Daniel said when he first started training with the first team aged seventeen, the combination of Jason Pearce and Ryan Innis together was something he had never experienced in his life before. “At that point in time, it was like going against a wall!” It wasn’t even for that long, he said, perhaps just for fifteen minutes, and “it was a horrid time!” Zach said that he and Daniel have a lot of good battles, but when you come up against big strikers at first team level is tough. Playing with the likes of Jayden Stockley, who is such an aerial threat, is a challenge. Another one was Cosgrove for Plymouth, who was another big aerial threat, and those kinds of players are very physical and use their bodies so well. “When you come up against those big, physical strikers who have that ability to match you, it’s definitely a real test.”

Jason said that he remembers the young lads coming up and training and said that he was very welcoming to them but made sure that they knew he was there when it came to the training itself. “It’s so important that you train properly when the young lads come up, because that’s what it’s all about,” Jason explained. He said that learning to play against men, who may be stronger than you, teaches you to use your body in a different way. He said that when he was coming towards the end, Daniel nicked the ball from him, and he couldn’t get it back. “That might have been the reason I retired, to be honest!”

There were a couple of questions for Steve about Category 1 status and in particular about the threat posed by the Crystal Palace academy now that it is Category 1. Steve said that it is undeniably a threat, but that is has always been competitive. “We were all disappointed not to move to Category 1,” Steve said. We were audited for four days, and a lot of hard work went into that audit. The feedback Steve was given from that audit was very positive, and he honestly thought we had succeeded. It wasn’t a case of lack of investment, Steve said, because Thomas Sandgaard was interviewed as part of the process and there was a commitment there. “You start to think that there is a political edge to it, and maybe a League One club isn’t welcome. It does hurt me. I’ve got no doubt that we’re competitive against any academy in the country. Why wouldn’t the Premier League want at the top table one of the highest-producing academies in the country?” He said that all the ingredients were there and there had been investment, such that the training ground is now better, in terms of facilities, than it has ever been during his time there. Should we get to the Championship, he hopes that we will have a better chance.

Steve is really looking forward to the next five years. “We set ourselves targets of percentage of Academy/League minutes,” he said. “It was 12% last season, and I have set a target of increasing that by 8% every year.” He said that we are already up to 24% this season, so have exceeded that 8% target. During the promotion season, the figure was 31%, with the likes of Chris Solly, George Lapslie, Dillon Phillips, Anfernee Dijksteel and Joe Aribo. “This has been a great season so far, and I’m really proud of everyone who has contributed to those statistics looking so strong this season.”

David asked Steve how much longer he thinks he’ll continue. Steve said that he’s got no intentions of stepping down from a role he enjoys so much and, even if he did, he hopes that he could still be of some use somewhere, perhaps giving an opinion on Jason Pearce’s coaching sessions or mentoring Zach or Daniel!

Steve was asked whether there are any players who got away. Steve said that Bradley Dack, who is at Blackburn and doing very well in the Championship, was released at 14, and that was one regret. Steve said that he remembers meeting Bradley at the EFL Awards, when he won Championship Player of the Season. “He gave me a little wink!”

Heather asked Jason about Henry Rylah, a recent recipient of the Steve Clarke Award, and any other names that we should be looking out for. Jason said that it’s a special group this season. A lot of the group, including Zach and Daniel, have gone up to the higher levels. “I remember when Henry Rylah won the award last season, and his application is second-to-none. His application every single day is excellent. He’s always wanting to learn.” Jason said that they ask the players to clip out parts of their own performances, and he’s always one of the first to do so. “I see him going from stride to stride and continuing to move up.” Jason explained that he’s got things still to learn and improvements still to make, but Henry is one to look out for. Another one is Patrick Casey, who is looking to chase down DK’s record this season! Jason said that he had the opportunity to work with both Pat and DK for the West Brom quarter final and they work really well together. He’s a natural goal scorer, like DK. Jason said that there are a couple of centre-halves, including Josh Laqeretabua and Keenan Gough, who have also stood out, but there are so many others. “The next couple of years are going to be really special for the club.”

Steve said that across the age group of 17 to 21, a five-year age category, the group is the strongest we’ve been in Steve’s time here. “I’d love to think that we can hit those targets I’ve mentioned with most of these players coming through and establishing themselves.” Heather said that that is one of the things the supporters have enjoyed the most, and we very much hope we’ll be seeing more of Zach and Daniel in the first team in the coming years.

Heather thanked the panel for providing such an interesting evening, which just reaffirmed the importance and value of the Academy. She wished the U18s all the best in the cup, which Steve mentioned would be open for Valley Gold members to attend. Steve wrapped up by reminding Jason that the treble is still on for the U18s, so no pressure!


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