This is a fuller version of a piece I wrote for the Daily Telegraph back in October. You can read that piece, here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/football/2016/10/29/how-manchester-city-are-revolutionising-the-entire-football-acad/
Thank you to Manchester City for providing the access, and to Mark Allen for showing me around their wonderful facilities.
Jump on the Metrolink tram at Manchester Piccadilly for four stops and you’ll arrive at Manchester City’s grand complex, the City Football Academy.
Opening in 2014 at a cost of £150m to construct, club executives gained inspiration from over 70 different sporting facilities in Europe, USA and Australia.
“I think the main question is: what are you trying to do in an academy?” Mark Allen, Manchester City’s academy director, asks. “If you look at the design of the building and the way it’s laid out it’s an aspirational one, clearly mapping out how you get from place to place.”
Step onto balcony of Allen’s office, in the heart of the academy premises, and you can see what he is referring to. To your right, you have various training pitches where the club’s young stars are being developed. Look left and you have the academy stadium, while beyond that is the Etihad Stadium. The stadia are linked by the 190-metre-long SuisseGas footpath, providing a literal representation of the bridge between the academy and the first team.
“The changing rooms are also designed in a way that’s progressive,” Allen adds. “At the top end you get a better changing room than when you’re starting out.”
Welsh-born Allen’s route to being the club’s academy director is somewhat unconventional. A former professional footballer with Swindon Town, he studied in America before a career in broadcasting lead to him working at MTV for 14 years. He joined City in 2009, initially as Head of academy business and operations.
“The clubs short term strategy [in 2009] is that we needed to get winning stuff and getting City on the map”
“But the overriding goal was to build a team from within. My initial reaction to that was we need to create a philosophy in the way play.
The name ‘Etihad campus’ for which the CFA is part of, is not a gimmick. The environment geared towards the young player’s education on and off the pitch.
Walk around the building and there is a school-like feel. There are quotes on the walls, while there is the odd plasma screen broadcasting videos of recent academy matches. Allen even refers to the players’ programme as a “syllabus”.
In addition to the in-house facilities, the academy’s partnership with nearby school, St Bedes, is also productive. They currently boast a 74% pass-rate at GCSE level, some 7% above the national average. For the youngsters, its school in the morning, football in the afternoon.
Physical education is also part of the “syllabus” too, with players often participating in yoga and pilates sessions, to rock-climbing and even taekwondo.
Attention to detail is evident when it comes to player recruitment too, a process that has seen them bring in the likes of Patrick Roberts (Fulham), Jadon Sancho (Watford) and Ian Carlo Poveda (Brentford) to the club, as well as talents from around Manchester.
“We have a very clear profiling system and a very distinct style of play which goes throughout the academy. It’s easy when we’re dealing with the scouting department because we know what we’re looking for in a number two, to a number seven or nine. We have to then look assess if they will fit in the Manchester City way.”
So often it was the United way. So often it was United’s way. But now it is City who are the dominant force.
The fruits of Allen’s labour are showcased on the wall in his office. Every trophy won at academy level sits proudly, including last season’s U18 Premier League in addition to the national competitions won by their U15s, U13s and U11s. A fortnight ago, the U15s won the Premier league international tournament too, steamrollering the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea on their way to beating Swansea 2-0 in the final.
Often is the gripe that youth football is not competitive in England, but as Allen states, “winning is part of development and we can’t take away from that. But we’ve got to manage that in the right way that it doesn’t become win at all costs.”
Another thing is that their academy is mainly full of homegrown players. For every Brahim Diaz there is a Phil Foden, for every Lorenz Gonzalez there is a Jadon Sancho, for example.
This local approach is already paying dividends for the England youth sides. Five City players were in the U17 squad who thrashed Germany 8-1 last autumn. Eight started for the various England youth sides overall during that international break.
For Allen, though, there is a more important beneficiary: Pep Guardiola. Up to eight members of the youth team currently training with first team squad, with the likes of Brahim and Tosin Adarabioyo already getting first team opportunities.
“He wants to know about the youngsters and he studies their clips. He’s fantastic in that respect and it’s a big lift for the players when they see him watching them.
“He’s got an enthusiasm, a passion and a track record of coming from a youth development environment, so for academy staff, players, personnel it’s the perfect fit.”