An academy and an identity

David Sharpe: "Having a top-class Academy is something I’m so passionate about" Photo courtesy of Sky Sports.

David Sharpe: “Having a top-class Academy is something I’m so passionate about”
Photo courtesy of Sky Sports.

“We strive to keep the way of playing football recognizable; attractive, offensive-minded, creative, fast, fair and preferably far away from the own goal on the opponents’ half.”

One could only wish the statement applied to the Wigan Athletic of today. In these times of fightball, rather than football, it seems light years away. But there is no reason why the club could not take on such an identity in the future.

The statement actually comes from Ajax of Amsterdam. Together with a 4-3-3 formation it sets the direction for football at all levels of the club, from academy to first team.

The Ajax youth system produced great players of the past like Dennis Bergkamp, Johan Cruyff, Edgar Davids, Frank and Ronald de Boer, Patrick Kluivert, Frank Rijkaard and Clarence Seedorf. Its academy has continued to produce top class players and both the club and the Dutch national team reap the benefit. Brazil World Cup players Nigel de Jong, John Heitinga, Wesley Sneijder, Martin Stekelenberg, Gregory van der Wiel and Rafael van der Waart all came through the Ajax academy.

Johan Cruyff was one of the best players the world has known. Ex-Barcelona president Juan Laporta once said that: “As a player he turned football into an art form. Johan came along and revolutionised everything. The modern-day Barca started with him, he is the expression of our identity, he brought us a style of football we love.”

It was Cruyff who inspired Barca to develop a football academy to mirror that of Ajax. La Masia has since become the most famous football academy in the world. Its class of 1987 is its most famous, containing Cesc Fabregas, Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique  and Pedro Rodriguez. In 2010 it became the first academy to produce the three finalists for the award of the Ballon d’Or in Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi.

The original La Masia was an old Catalan farmhouse where Barcelona housed young players who came from outside Barcelona. The academy was actually moved to a purpose-built facility in Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper in 2011.  But the name La Masia remains synonymous with the Barcelona youth academy.

More than 500 young players have been housed at La Masia over the past 30 years. Lionel Messi was one of the three Argentinians who left his family for La Masia. He was 13 years old when he arrived. Although youngsters from Brazil, Cameroon and Senegal have come through La Masia, they were a minority. More than half have come from Catalonia, the rest from other parts of Spain.

La Masia costs around £5 million a year to run, most of the cost being the dormitory. Around 10% have made it into the first team. In 2000 coach Louis Van Gaal was laughed at for his dream of a Barcelona winning the Champions League with a team of La Masia players. But nine years later there were eight of them in the squad that was to win the trophy.

Operating a facility like those at Ajax or Barcelona is clearly way beyond the means of Wigan Athletic. But there are surely basic principles that can be applied in Wigan’s case.

On taking over from his grandfather David Sharpe commented:

Having a top-class Academy is something I’m so passionate about, we have to start making and creating our own players. We’ve only really produced two down the years in Leighton Baines and Callum McManaman, and the plan is to see more Wigan boys playing for Latics.”

The new facility at Charnock Richard remains in the future. We await further news from the club on when it will be completed. In the meantime reports suggest that Gregor Rioch and his team of coaches continue to make good progress in bringing up the level of the Academy. It is to be hoped that Rioch will not be poached by one of the big clubs and that he will continue to lead the youth programme.

The purchase of the golf club and its conversion into a football academy is a costly business, but a significant investment in the club’s future. The critics will say it should have happened years ago and question the ability of the club to finance it. However, the club has received funds from transfers that can help fund the capital investment required. It is the year to year operating costs that will be more of an issue, since a figure of £2 million per year would not be unrealistic. Much will depend on whether Latics will be scouring the country for young talent in addition to bringing in local youth or those from Manchester and Liverpool, as has been their wont in the past. Residence costs for those from outside the area, maybe also including overseas, will remain an expensive item.

However, no matter what the scale of the eventual academy at Charnock Richard there are lessons to be learned from both Ajax and Barcelona.

Both clubs have a well-defined style of play which permeates through all levels at the clubs. This helps players develop their roles and the skills that they need to be successful.

Wigan Athletic were approaching something like that in the Martinez era. The style of play was revolutionised during his time of the club. The Martinez style was not popular with all supporters. There were those who wanted a more direct style of play, which has become increasingly evident since he left. However, players at all levels of the club from academy to senior squad, knew what kind of football to strive to achieve. It was successful to the degree of winning the FA Cup on merit, overcoming an immensely talented Manchester City side with style and skill.

The tragic mistake that Dave Whelan made was in appointing a successor who was out of tune with tiki taca, more an adherent of the long ball. The Martinez legacy has since disappeared without trace over the course of the current season. Fightball has supplanted football.

In the meantime we can dream of a successful academy, underpinned by a shared vision of what constitutes good football. With coaches groomed for management from within, like Liverpool of the 1980s, when Bob Paisley and Roy Evans built success on the groundwork provided by Bill Shankly.

Look at what happened at Barcelona following Van Gaal’s dream of Champions League success with a team of players raised in La Masia.

Maybe David Sharpe’s dream of a top-class academy and Wigan boys playing for Latics is another which will become reality.

However, it is unlikely to do so unless the style of play that the club seeks is identified.

What a delight it would be to see Latics adopt a statement of intent similar to that of Ajax.

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2 responses

  1. Absolutely spot on JJ. I regularly go on the official website’s wall and see many folk clamouring for the Academy lads to be given a chance. Why? Because they get the results that we want to see in the first team, but also because they play a lovely style of football and are good players. Mackay has shown faith in them to some degree by putting some of them on the bench, which is a valuable experience, but they need to make the next step to the first team. There is also the issue of the style of football they will be brought in to. Going from the style they play for the youth team to Mackay’s style may not sit too well and they may find it difficult to adapt. But if Mackay changes to a better style of play (as Steve Evans has done, so it’s not impossible) that would benefit them. I dream of the day when the Academy youngsters come through to the first team, and they take the league by storm with their fearless, skilful, sublime football. Wigan Athletic save a ton of money and may make some money through transfers, we go up the leagues to the Premier League and become mainstays there, keeping the ethos of our football and development of youth and seeing many more of our young players flourish, just like the Southampton fairytale. But alas, one can only dream! At the very least I hope our young lads make it and become good footballers.

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