Rewind 21 years. The 19-year-old Rob Quinn watches, dumbfounded, as Steve Claridge’s shin sends the ball past Nigel Martyn and into the goal in the final minute of extra-time in the First Division play-off Final.
May 27, 1996 is a day he will never forget. On only his third start for Crystal Palace since progressing through the youth system, he was denied promotion to the top flight by Leicester’s last gasp winner.
But any hint of bitterness, of desperate disappointment quickly disappears. “That was amazing for me,” he recalls with fondness. “My debut was the last game of season against Norwich, then I played against Charlton in the play-offs which was a great experience – with the second leg at a packed Selhurst. It was nervy at Wembley in front of 73,000 people. I have good memories of playing in it. I can see that ball he shinned over our heads and over Nigel Martyn, I have very vivid memories of that.
For Quinn, it is important to look to the future, and not reflect too much on the past. He left Palace after making 28 appearances, going on to enjoy a successful career with Brentford, Oxford United and Bristol Rovers amongst other clubs. Now he is back at the club seeking to pass on his knowledge to today’s youngsters.
It is six years since he received the call from his former team-mate Dougie Freedman requesting his help with the youth team. He has progressed to oversee the Under 13 to Under 16 age groups at the south London club, as the lead Youth Development Phase coach. “I knew Dougie from playing with him, he and Gary Issott helped get me in the academy. It’s good that he’s back, he’s another person who cares about Palace.”
The modern world puts up many barriers to young footballers’ success, and to their well-being. Social media is chief among the concerns held by those who seek to safeguard youngsters. It is a far cry from Quinn’s days as a scholar. “I have to know every player within that age group, oversee the playing philosophy and the topics we deliver each week; making sure the coaches are sticking to that. There’s a lot of off-pitch stuff we have to deal with, with the players and the parents.”
Football is riddled with clichés and words eked out of players to fill their obligations to the media, but Quinn does not engage in meaningless soundbites. He cites the modus operandi of the academy as four simple words: “Honesty, Respect, Discipline, Resilience.” It is clear he aims to develop strong, rounded individuals. He is acutely aware that a significant proportion of boys will fall out of the system. “We’re trying to make sure we give them a good education. They develop physical, social and leadership skills, so when they leave us they’re better than when they came in.”
That holistic approach seems to be reaping rewards; four Palace youngsters have been called up to England U15s training camps. Fionn Mooney, the youngest, has only turned 14 this month and plays up with the Eagles’ U15 side alongside fellow Whitgift School pupil Jadan Raymond. Kevin Gonzalez and John-Kymani Gordon are regulars in the U16 side. “It’s brilliant for them and for the club because it shows we have very good players and we’ve got them at all ages. Since I started the club is getting more recognition on an international level. Before, the scouts wouldn’t come to watch our games as much but now the players are getting the rewards because they’re good enough.
“They’re lucky, Jadan and Fionn; we work closely with the parents. They’ve got good support networks, we’re working hard to keep them grounded. They are hard-working, with good mentalities and have a good education which is very important to them and their parents. I believe strongly in education as a small percentage of boys will still be here at 17 let alone 19.” Quinn refuses to hide harsh realities. “I tell the boys honestly that only a small fraction are going to succeed; your friends at 13 won’t be your friends at 16 as they won’t be in the system anymore.
“I don’t try to sugar coat anything with them as that is failing them and they won’t be ready for when things don’t go their way. We work hard to make sure that however long they’re in the academy system their experience is good.”
The past and future collide in the former Republic of Ireland U21 international’s world.
“We have a good relationship with Whitgift because my old manager – Mr [Steve] Kember – is there, and [former team-mate] Andy Martin is there, I speak to them regularly about how the boys are getting on.” A lot has changed in the past 20 years, and Quinn reflects on how he broke through; from cleaning the boots of Nigel Martyn, Dean Gordon and John Humphrey, to playing in the first-team.
“They would moan when I didn’t clean them properly,” he quips, tongue in cheek.
Rob Quinn played for Palace’s first-team between 1995-98
“I did my scholarship at Mitcham where it was rough and ready. The environment was brilliant, you had to stick up for yourselves. We trained and played with the older lads which made you sink or swim. We had good players to learn from – Richard Shaw [now Development Squad manager] was there – and we did a lot more of the horrible side of things than the boys have to nowadays. It was all good character building. We try to believe Palace is good at fighting against the odds being an underdog showing a good will to win.
“We were on one site, we interacted with the first-team, had the levels of respect and hunger to get where they were. You saw them in training, and you could talk with them. There was a sense of fear with some – Eric Young for example. You dared step into their changing room if you hadn’t been asked as you would soon be told to get out in no uncertain terms. If you showed them respect and worked hard then they’d treat you well.”
Palace’s academy train and play at rented facility Goals, across the road from the first-team base, and the facilities may not be pristine, but they compare favourably to those in the 90s. “It can be detrimental if they get too used to it at seven and they’re in system that long and get used to playing on carpets then when they get released they can’t mentally deal with it. They fall out of the system and can’t cope with the rigours of non-league football.
“They need to have ambition,” says the 40-year-old of today’s young players. “The plus side [of separate sites] is they have to work harder then get the reward of going with the first-team.” You certainly could not accuse the former Palace midfielder of lacking ambition; it is evident he seeks to push players to fulfil their potential. His Under 15 side have just beaten local rivals Millwall 4-1, winning their group to qualify for the prestigious National Floodlit Cup, the U16s defeated QPR 6-1 and the U18s top the league, unbeaten in eight games after winning 2-1 at QPR.
“By the end of this season I’ve targeted two of my lads to play for the 18s. They can see a pathway through. These boys realistically could be two years away from playing in the first-team. We have very good players here.
“We’ve got the cup games coming up which will add pressure, playing under floodlights against good opposition. We’re going to learn a lot about the boys and the staff. I’ll learn a lot myself. These are the games they want to play in and gain better experience.”
He models himself on current first-team assistant manager Ray Lewington, of whom he speaks highly. “I had Ray as my coach at Palace and Brentford. I like the way he dealt with players, his man-management was good, he had that trust.
“I want to create an environment where boys want to turn up, listen and work hard. It’s pleasing for me to see them get a bit of success. It is only a tiny bit of success, there’s a hell of a long way to go for them. Our club has always been known for giving young players a chance, but it’s tough. You need that person who has belief in you. They need to be given opportunities.”
Quinn stops short of deeming this current crop of youngsters a ‘Golden Generation’ but you sense he has high hopes for them.
“We have a really positive academy at the moment; there’s a really good feeling about it. The 18s are flying, the 16s have good boys, we have good boys. Even lower down I’m hearing positive thing. It’s a good place to be. We need to promote it, to celebrate it a bit more and get the message out there. There are good people here, good lads. It’s a good place to be.”