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Making the academy pay off

16 February 2016

Erik's programme notes from the Chelsea game

Chief Executive Erik Samuelson talked extensively about investment in the AFC Wimbledon academy set-up paying off in his programme notes for the FA Youth Cup tie against Chelsea.

.For those supporters who may have missed it, this article is reproduced in full below

I will start by congratulating the team and coach Mark Robinson on their success in getting further in the FA Youth Cup than ever before. I’m delighted that fans can see such visible evidence of the increasing success of our academy. I suspect that most fans don’t know a lot about how our academy operates, so I’m taking this chance to explain some of its key features. First, a little bit of history. Shortly after the club was formed, Nigel Higgs, then a board member of the Dons Trust, had the foresight to push hard for the establishment of a youth section. So he instigated what you see here tonight.

Fast forward a few years. Our initial youth set-up became a Centre of Excellence when we were promoted to the Football League in 2011, and then, following the creation of the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) by the Premier League, we won academy status in July 2014. The EPPP is described by the Premier League as a long-term strategy designed to take youth development to the next level. It is the result of consultation between the Premier League and its clubs, representatives of the Football League, the Football Association and other key football stakeholders.

Having overseen all this development, Nigel stepped down from his role on the Football Club Board in 2014 (direct responsibility for the youth development programme had transferred from the Dons Trust to the club fairly early in its life), and he was subsequently re-elected to the Dons Trust Board. The Academy Manager, Jeremy Sauer, now reports directly to me.

There are four categories of academy. Ours is Category 3, with Category 1 being the highest. To achieve our medium-term ambition of becoming a Category 2 academy, we will need substantial investment in facilities and to increase the number of full-time staff.

I think the sheer scale of the academy will surprise some fans. For example, taking into account full- and part-time roles, there are over 30 staff, over 20 volunteer staff, 11 teams and about 150 boys. These numbers include the youngest (pre-academy) boys, up to the age of 8, and the U-21s.

In keeping with everything else we do, the academy has to be sustainable. The budgeted spending for the current year is over £650,000 (Category 1 academies typically spend many times that amount), which is a substantial chunk of money for a club like us. How do we fund it? The Premier League contributes £275,000 on the understanding that we will spend £1 for every £2 they give us (if only we could do it that cheaply!) and various other central grants and support funds give us a further £56,000. After taking into account some other sources of funds, the net cost to us is about £250,000.

Some clubs have concluded that this is either something they can’t afford or that they’d rather spend that sort of money (about 20 per cent of the average annual wage bill in League Two) directly on their first team. We don’t agree with that. We think that in the long term we will be better off, on and off the pitch, by investing in our own boys – “Homegrown and Hungry”, as their strapline says – and we are committed to that. And also, bringing through young players is the Wimbledon way and has been for a very long time.

The next obvious question is, how can we keep the boys? The complexities of this merit a separate page on the subject (probably later this season), but the main reason boys will stay with AFC Wimbledon is that they can see a pathway through to the first team. We have spent years building the academy, and now the benefits are starting to show. Last season and this we’ve had four academy graduates start a first-team game, and two of them won the Man of the Match award. Two more boys have had game time from the bench. We are pretty confident that this compares well with any of the other 91 clubs, and we are aiming for it to get even better.

So Nigel started it, Jeremy does a fantastic job balancing our need to watch the pennies while achieving high standards, and Mark has developed tonight’s team. Whatever the result, we’ve a lot to be proud about.

   The picture above shows (left to right) Academy Manager Jeremy Sauer, Under-15 player Reuben Collins and Under-18 manager Mark Robinson. 

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