Alan Reeves paid tribute to the commitment shown by his development squad after a highly successful season that included winning the league and players stepping up to the first-team.
For those who missed the extensive interview with Alan in the Oldham programme all about developing talent produced by our academy, it is reproduced in full below.
Ending the 2016/17 campaign as Champions of the combined Central League South West and South East was an added bonus to the number one priority of nurturing talent capable of stepping up to Neal Ardley’s squad.
Joe McDonnell, Seth Owens, Toby Sibbick, Jayden Antwi, and Alfie Egan all stepped up from development football to make first-team appearances this season, but Alan was quick to acknowledge the contribution of everyone in his squad.
“They have given me everything they’ve got, which is what I demand off them,” said Alan. “We’ve had the occasional blip, but over the whole season they have been very consistent. The work-rate has been excellent on a game by game basis and they have got the rewards for it. We played Cheltenham the other week and they had a young side, but we’ve also faced teams like Southend, who have fielded players who were on the first-team bench just a few days earlier. Our U-18s have been taking on senior players with 300/400 league games under their belts and that’s been a great experience for them.
“More often than not, the mentality of the lads who have been here since the age of eight or nine years of age, has been excellent. That has been instilled in them in their years with the academy. Sometimes it’s difficult keeping players motivated who have been in the Under-21s for two or three years. They want to be playing in the first-team and they can go a bit stale. But that’s my job – to keep them motivated. Apart from two or three games this season, they have given me everything. That will stand them in good stead, whatever level of football they end up playing in the future. If you have a lad who gives everything and you can hang your hat on him, he will be on the team-sheet every week.”
Whatever the futures of players in the development squad, whether it’s here or elsewhere, Alan says they have to show the right character to make a career in the game.
“I did not turn professional until I was nearly 21 after Norwich City spotted me playing for Heswall FC. You need that bit of luck of being in the right place at the right time. Sometimes you can be in the right place, but at the wrong time. If the first-team have got cover in a certain position, a young player may leave because the manager cannot really see him getting into his squad for the next season. There may be too many obstacles in front of that player and it’s probably better to take one step back and two forward.
“I always say to players that a lot of young lads get let go and have to bounce back from it. I got a free transfer from Chester City and three years later I was playing for Wimbledon in the Premier League. Players can look at it and either say, ‘I’ve been rejected and I am rubbish’ or ‘I know I am all right and I’m going to give it another go’. The best way is to roll your sleeves up and go for it as you may regret it.”
Now at the end of his third season as Senior Professional Development Coach, Alan feels a good youth structure has been put in place to develop players for the first-team.
“Academy football is technique-based and that’s what we want. You have to be a technically good player to make it, but when they come to me I have to help them develop other qualities. For example, if they are a defender I will work on different aspects of the game, including heading, positioning, and where you put your body to head it. You cannot give them everything at 16 and they learn different things with me from what they learned in academy football.
“Heading is a unique art, particularly in this day and age. In Under-18s football it is all about possession and playing out from the back, but in League 1 and League 2 a centre-back has to adjust and develop. Ryan Sweeney was a good footballing centre-back, but he did not want to head it when I first got him! Early on with the Under-21s he broke his nose. I said to him, ‘did it hurt that much?’ He said, ‘not really’ and I told him that would be the worst thing that would happen to him. We worked a lot on his heading.
“When players from my squad step-up to the first-team they play against men so they have to be ready for it. Toby Sibbick and Paul Kalambayi have done really well in the last two years. They have impressed in the FA Youth Cup and have been playing for the Under-21s since they were 16. They are getting better week by week. At their age, they are still developing physically and mentally. We have high hopes for a lot of the young lads. There are loads underneath the Under-21s who are coming through too.
“When the younger lads come up against senior pros for the first time, it is strength and technique that they come up against in games. It can be difficult to adapt. Without the development structure we’ve put in place here, it would have been very tough to get players into the first-team. When they get to Under-18s, the manager would have to look and say, ‘is he going to be in my first-team next year?’ There are not many 18 or 19 year olds playing League One football. They need another year or two to develop mentally and physically. Also, socially because they are around the first-team set-up a lot more. Alfie Egan is still only 19 years of age and he is developing all aspects of his game, including his physique. You can see the benefits of that.”
As a player, Alan joined Wimbledon in 1994 during a golden age for the Dons of developing young talent with manager Neal Ardley among a crop of players having progressed through the ranks.
While Alan accepts it is tougher these days to do something similar, he is confident that developing young talent for the first-team on a consistent basis remains achievable.
“I was 26 when I signed for Wimbledon and the manager was one of seven or eight who had progressed from the youth set-up. Players like Chris Perry and Jason Euell made their names for the reserve team, before getting a chance in the first-team. That was in the Premier League, but I still think it’s doable at our level. If you get a chance, you have to take it, that’s the same in any era.
“It is tougher now because there are a lot more foreign players at the top level and the talent filters down the divisions. These days, players can make a good living though from playing in League One. As a club, we have got promoted so we are looking for better players. That makes it more difficult for players to come through, but young players have to raise their game. They have to really stand up and want that first-team shirt, ahead of first-team players. I have a great relationship with the manager, who I have known for 20 odd years. We have frank discussions and he knows that if he asks me a question about a player, I will give him an honest answer. I will give an honest answer even if I know he’s not going to like it!"