Despite the turmoil at the club, there’s a bright future for the Nottingham Forest Academy. Grant Nelson reviews the current set-up and looks ahead to a positive future with a change to the league structures and the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP).

This past season we saw three first team debuts in Kieron Freeman, Jamaal Lascelles and Patrick Bamford, with Karl Darlow the season before. Considering the interest in the Academy it’s certainly progress in comparison to recent years. However, while the Academy staff do all they can to develop young players once they get pro-contracts, or become a graduate and train with the first team, they’re in the hands of the first team manager who needs to give them to opportunity to impress.

It was a difficult season in terms of results in the FA Academy Premier League but there was a good run in the FA Youth Cup. Things may have been different that night as well if Bamford had still been with us, but even without him we should have won and, possibly, gone on to win the competition. Tactical errors and unfortunately two bad mistakes by a talented keeper didn’t help matters. Results in the league haven’t concerned Academy director Nick Marshall as he’s been happy with the individual development as a number of players have been playing more reserve football than normal at such a young age.

Going into this season there was always the possibility that results may not have been the most comforting to Forest supporters who just look at the results. This was due to the drive to back younger players and have younger teams representing us at reserve team, Under-18 and even in the Under-16 team, who were largely Under-15s along with Under-14s getting called up at the end of the season. But in youth football, especially at an Academy like ours that doesn’t have huge financial clout, players are often played out of position — at times we didn’t have a proper right-back and our right side of midfield hasn’t been strong either. Lascelles and Bamford also moved on from Academy football and, to make matters even more difficult, we had seven international call-ups with the Under-18 group at different stages during the season.

In the second half of the season we saw better results and performances due to our players’ increased development and less outside influences. But I genuinely do believe that youth team coach Eoin Jess made a number of tactical errors this season and, with the lack of squad rotation, it’s no coincidence that results improved when he left. But in his time here we did have relative success by winning our league — coming runners-up overall in the Academy Premier League — and then coming second in our league the following season. More importantly he helped in the development of a number of players but this season was one too many for him and he seemed to have lost his enthusiasm and has now left to pursue first team coaching elsewhere.

There will be an Academy shake-up for next season due to both Jess leaving and also the advent of EPPP. Gary Brazil has joined the staff with over a decade’s involvement in youth football. At the end of his playing days at Fulham he was already working with the club’s Under-16s and his first major job was as the director of Notts County’s Centre of Excellence in 1998 where he had relative success. After being the stand-in first team manager on a couple of occasions for the Magpies he eventually moved on.

Later hired as the Premier League’s scholarships officer, he visited all the academies in the country to evaluate whether they met the stipulated criteria. In the 2006-07 season he returned to Fulham as academy coach and helped lay the foundations for the success of their relatively unheralded academy — last season Fulham won the Academy Premier League and were runners-up the season before. He left Fulham in 2010 to join the Premier League again to assume his old role but two years on he has been persuaded to leave again and join Forest’s Academy.

At the end of last season former Red Steve Chettle stepped up from head of youth development and Under-18s assistant coach to becoming the head coach for the Under-18s. Brazil will assume the role as assistant to Chettle with the youth teams (Under-18s and the new Under-21s) as coach but also assistant to Marshall. Brazil will monitor the progress of the younger age groups as well, particularly the Under-15 and Under-16 level.

New developments

The catch phrase for EPPP is ‘more staff, more training time and more opportunities for our young players’. So while we will be going for Category 2 status, the only thing stopping us from being a Category 1 academy is finance. We’ll match 75-80% of the Category 1 club’s academy models (age of recruiting, etc.) and it opens up opportunities to widen our network of attracting players as well. There should be no fear about whether Category 2 is far behind Category 1 at all and in actual fact it will improve our Academy as it currently stands.

Brazil will not be the only addition to the staff and there will be a few more like a sports scientist and other areas so that no stone will be left unturned; the club will receive funding for the additional staff from the solidarity payments. Marshall submitted our EPPP report to the Football League at the end of April and there will be an effort between now and the end of the summer to get the Academy in place to meet our submission with regards to facilities and staff; the auditors will arrive at the beginning of next season to evaluate us.

A change to the league structures will also happen. In the past there were four groups of 10 academies separated by area. Now the difference in leagues will be by the category status so that clubs play academies of their level more often. There will remain the possibility of playing inter-category matches like the inter-group matches in the previous system.

The reserve league will be replaced by an Under-21 league. So from next season we will be having an Under-18 and an Under-21 team entering into national leagues. The aim now for the Academy staff is to build a development squad for players ranging between the ages of 18 and 21 moving forwards. This obviously has many positives in that we will be keeping players with the necessary talent who possibly need more time for development or physical growth. At the same time they will be playing a full-time national schedule in the Under-21 league as opposed to infrequent matches in a non-national reserve league with only seven teams in it as we did this season. So when their opportunity arises for the first team they are match fit and ready to fit into the system.

Next season our player resources may be tested at academy level due to the changes in league structures. For example we don’t have any Under-20s at the club anymore and Freeman is our only Under-21 player left and he may be involved with the first team more regularly. So our Under-21 team will be mainly made up of Under-19s and a few Under-18s who will step up ahead of their age group. That will then affect the Under-18s as the remainder of the Under-18s combined with our small Under-17 in-take will be involved with the Under-18 team. This combined with the possibility of injuries will possibly see schoolboys from next year’s talented Under-16 group involved with the Under-18s again.

So much like last season this could have a detrimental effect on results but while some supporters may look at that and think something is wrong, the Academy staff see this as a great opportunity to get game time to all our kids and push our better players up to a higher standard earlier. There is the possibility that over-age players from the seniors may be used in the Under-21 league. Up to five over-age players can be used but I wouldn’t think that Forest would regularly use that option much. With regards to the Under-18 league, no more over-age players will be allowed to play in that league as of next season where previously up to three were allowed.

The Academy can be quite pleased with the strides it has made in recent seasons. If you include Karlton Watson, who was born in 1992, we have had a player represent England youth teams every year since, apart from 1996. To be more precise 1992 (Watson), 1993 (Lascelles and Bamford), 1994 (Ben Osborn and new signing Matty Regan from Liverpool), 1995 (Kieran Wallace and Lawrence Gorman) and the latest could be Oliver Burke (1997) from this year’s Under-15 side who has been with the Under-16s this season. He has been called up to the England Under-16 training squad in the summer with the possibility of making the Victory Shield team. With the exception of Regan and Watson those players have been coached and moulded by the Nottingham Forest Academy from between the ages of 8 and 10. I highly doubt many other football league academies and even some Premier League academies can match that representation. At Forest the option of scouting overseas talent is also not neglected so a good combination of coaching and scouting sees the club in a good position for the years to come.

For Forest to attract young talent — and keep hold of them — there needs to be proof that we are a club willing to give an opportunity at first team level. We still need to be patient though but hopefully a steady filtering of players getting opportunities will arise in the future and then they are able to claim regular spots in the first team squad. I think it’s crucial that Frank Clark buys into a long-term vision involving the Academy but Steve Cotterill is the man who makes the final decision and while he has formed a good relationship with Marshall — and shown an interest — a lot will be answered for when we see if he involves some of the young talent come pre-season.

Grant regularly posts on the Vital Forest forum as ‘The Garabaldi’ or follow him on Twitter: @Grantnffc1

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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