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Harry strikes for young Dons

12 February 2014

Winger starts and finishes fine move

Harry Cooksley struck a fine goal for Wimbledon Under-21s yesterday in a useful work-out for Shaun North’s side at the St George’s National Football Centre in Burton.

Cooksley (pictured above) finished off a well-worked short corner routine after combining with Chace Jacquart, but the Dons were pegged back and had to settle for a 1-1 draw against the Nike Academy.

With the Nike Academy having recently beaten Bristol Rovers Under-21s and only narrowly lost to Arsenal, it was never going to be easy for Wimbledon. Shaun North fielded four 16-year-old players in his squad, including Egli Kaja, who has impressed recently after stepping up from the Under-18s. Billy Bishop, who had only recently turned 17, was in goal for the Dons.

Shaun North concluded that it was a good experience for his young squad to utilise top-class facilities at Burton.

“We got looked after brilliantly by the Nike Academy and I can’t thank them enough,” he said. “Though the pitch was difficult due to the weather, the facilities were very good. It was a competitive game with both sides having an equal amount of possession. We had chances to have won it, but it was an even game.”

If you missed our in-depth programme interview with Shaun North in Saturday’s Rochdale programme about the Under-21 development squad and his coaching methods, then this is reproduced below.

Shaun North’s ultimate goal is to guide AFC Wimbledon’s brightest young talents towards the first-team via an Under-21 set-up formed last summer and the 52-year-old says he’s learning new coaching methods all the time in his quest to help them along.

football – six months before he was appointed as the club’s Under-21 Development Coach in July. Despite drawing on almost a quarter of a century of coaching experience, Shaun is far from resting on his laurels and he started his UEFA Pro licence – the highest level managerial qualification in

That came after almost a quarter of a century in professional football as Shaun started as a coach with Portsmouth when Jim Smith was in charge at Pompey in the early 1990s.

However, Shaun’s appointment at Wimbledon provided him with a new lease of life after filling senior coaching roles at Oxford United, Torquay United and Bristol Rovers.

When I first came in Mark Robinson (Academy Manager) provided me with a lot of information on all the boys and he was a big help in recommending those that should step-up. We have two or three second years from the Under-18s, including George Oakley, who have stepped up and four or five third years. Last week against Gillingham we had five first year Under-18s and it was good to give apprentices at the club a taste of it. “It has been really enjoyable so far,” said Shaun when we spoke to him earlier this week. “I think they have improved with the type of work that we’ve done. It’s not just about working with the young professionals such as Chace Jacquart, Tom Beere and Charlie Fayers.

“We have a young squad, but it gives us an opportunity to see if they can cope mentally. It would have been a very young group if we had played against Cray Wanderers in the London Senior Cup (match was postponed), but that would have been a good test for them against senior players. The Under-21 group will often join in with the first-team for training, but when they are travelling to games or taking a second-day recovery after matches we will train in our own group. I’ve had a group of 14 players today (Monday) and I’ve worked with them this morning relative to what we’re going to do in a game. We have played 19 games so far this season. It’s not about over-working them because football is all about playing games on a regular basis. You can coach or teach as much as you want, but it’s all about players producing in game situations.”

Shaun has been keen to implement new ideas in his training sessions that he has picked up while studying for his UEFA Pro licence, an 18-month course based at the St George’s National Football Centre in Burton.

“It is more about management and leadership than anything else. Roy Hodgson came in and did a practical session for everyone on the course with a Q & A. It has opened my eyes, but you also learn so much from talking to football people on the course. 

“I went out to Turkey for the Under-21 Cup in the summer and I talked to someone who had watched Borussia Dortmund in training before their Champions League final against Bayern Munich. He gave me a couple of ideas, which I have tried since in my own training sessions and they are absolutely brilliant. For example, when Dortmund are working on patterns of play the day before a game they do their set-pieces in terms of defence and attack within a game situation. I also went to an LMA Manager’s Dinner and heard about how Neil Lennon prepared his players before Celtic beat Barcelona. Some of the things they did were unbelievable.

“During the course I’ve had to film myself coaching a training session and present it to the group. The task was to get a match report on the opposition and identify their strengths or weaknesses. Then you had to put on a coaching session that showed good practice and make a presentation on that. But there are also things outside football that you can bring into your management and coaching. Between now and May I have got to do a placement at somewhere outside football. I’m planning to go to the Royal Marines and do three or four days with them.

“People think it’s easy to get into the Army, but it’s not. It will be interesting to see how they recruit from candidates in terms of mental and physical attributes. I don’t think you can teach mental toughness so it will be good to find out how they recruit. You never know completely how people are going to react under pressure.”

That also applies in football because making that important step from being a promising youth player to first-team level is widely viewed as the toughest progression in the game. Thankfully, Shaun has plenty of experience in this department. Having got his big coaching break during his late 20s at Portsmouth, Shaun became Academy Manager at the club’s Centre of Excellence and he guided a host of players towards the Premier Leagued during 14 years in the post.

“Asmir Begovic, Gary O’Neill, Matt Ritchie, Joel Ward and Marc Wilson have all gone onto play in the Premier League or the Championship after starting at Portsmouth while I was there. Hard work was the key because we had poor training facilities even when the club was in the Premier League. We trained at a local school, but we trained four nights a week and played matches on Saturdays and Sundays. Jim Smith was my first manager when I was in charge of the academy and he was brilliant.

“I got my coaching badges early. I did my level two preliminary award as it was then when I was 28 and I got my A licence when I was 29. I lived on the Isle of Wight at the time and I was the first person there to get the A licence. I played at non league level, but I did not quite make it as a professional footballer so I thought that if I started my coaching badges early then I would have a chance of doing that. I managed to get a part-time coaching job at Portsmouth and then I worked my way up to running the academy when it was a school of excellence.”

Following his 14-year stint on the South Coast, Shaun has filled senior coaching roles with assistant manager jobs at both Torquay United and Bristol Rovers, where he was briefly caretaker manager, and as reserve team boss at Oxford United.

Shaun’s passion though is working with young footballers and that’s what made him apply when the position for an Under-21s coach became available at AFC Wimbledon. But with so many foreign players now in the game and managers under even more pressure to deliver instant results, is it harder for young players to come through?

“I’m not sure that’s true at this club because Neal Ardley is a manager who really believes in youth. If the players are good enough then he will give them an opportunity to come through. Certainly in the Premier League now, it’s very difficult for young players to come through. There’s so much pressure in terms of the financial aspect. If managers play kids and then lose two or three games then their jobs are under threat. Paul Lambert at Aston Villa is a manager who has given youth a chance, but he has been ridiculed at times. I just hope that he can see it out and then in a couple of years’ time the club will have young players with over 100 Premier League appearances.

They can hopefully pick-up the good qualities they see from the experienced professionals. We are all in this together as a club from the academy to the development squad and the first-team. If the first-team are doing well then it helps us. Neal was a big reason why the club wanted an Under-21 set-up and it’s his enthusiasm that stands out. “At this club, Neal very much wants to promote young players. He has had youngsters on the bench for the first-team this season and that has provided great experience for them to be in and around it.

“If I have a chance of arranging a game and I think it will be of benefit to the young lads then he says go ahead and do it. For example, we are now playing a game at St George’s Park next Tuesday against the Nike Academy. It’s the place to be in English football at the moment because they have top-class facilities there.”

After hearing Shaun talk passionately about the game during a 20-minute interview, it’s clear that Wimbledon’s current crop of young footballers will be given every opportunity to make the grade.

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