Second city academies up and running again

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Only three out of the 101 players to have been called up to an England squad ahead of a major tournament since 2000 were born in Birmingham before Gareth Southgate named his 26-man EURO 2020 squad.

Here, every spare inch is dedicated to a sport indebted to the city’s trailblazers whose influence on the nation’s game is vast. Exported to the gritty, sweltering tarmac surfaces suffocated by the tight confines between shanty enclaves in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Birmingham’s football scene – like Mumbai’s cricket devoted streets – has never dwindled nor decayed.

England’s second city football buzz might be built off the foundations of a unique history, full of success and failure in equal measure, but while its longevity cannot be understated, since the turn of the millennium, Birmingham has failed the hopes and dreams of the many youngsters who were destined to put the city back on the footballing map.

This summer, England will embark on their 19th major tournament since Bobby Moore raised aloft the World Cup trophy at the original Wembley Stadium in 1966. Over 54 years have passed since the nation celebrated its greatest sporting success, but with only seven Birmingham-born footballers included out of the 217 players named in England’s major tournament squads since then, the country’s second city has failed in its duty to assist the Three Lions for decades now.

Clubs around the city understand that reversing this damning trend is paramount if Birmingham’s proud football clubs are to fulfil the potentials of youngsters from Bournville to Bordesley Green, Harborne and Handsworth.

Jack Grealish and Jude Bellingham have of course bucked the trend having been selected to represent England at EURO 2020, and their inclusions signify overdue change.

Birmingham-based football academies are intent on supplying England with a new generation of talent with players developing at Bodymoor Heath, Wast Hills and the West Bromwich Albion Academy from around Birmingham’s borders, which are brimming with exceptionally talented young footballers.

While Aston Villa’s academy was previously neglected after falling victim to other priorities at Villa Park, the club’s academy has a bright future ahead after receiving significant investment from their owners Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens.

At Bodymoor Heath, a brand new £14million academy site was completed last year, with a 500-seater stand, match pitch and other facilities also built to mimic matchday at Villa Park. The Premier League club has also successfully lodged an application with the city council to develop a brand new state-of-the-art inner-city training complex near Witton train station.

Across the city and at Wast Hills, Birmingham have had their Category One academy status accepted after operating as close to a Category One Academy as possible for the last three years having handed out 10 first-team debuts last season and after securing a £25million fee for academy product, Bellingham last summer.

An academy programme represents the backbone of a football club’s structure and since January, Birmingham have undergone wholesale changes after announcing the restructuring of their Under-23 and Under-18 player pathway in a bid to earn Category One status.

The club will use a B team and C team model to replace their Under-23 and Under-18 teams next season in a renovation that the club hopes will breed the England internationals and Champions League stars of the future.

Five miles west from St. Andrew’s and West Bromwich Albion’s academy production line has recently stuttered in providing homegrown academy talent for the first-team, with Saido Berahino the only player to make over 50 league appearances for the club having come through the academy since the Premier League’s inception.

With over 4,500 grassroots clubs listed in the Birmingham County FA directory, it’s not only the professional academies within the Birmingham vicinity that need to take a long, hard look in the mirror.

While West Brom now offers support in the form of exit routes and Birmingham City boast a proud record of player retention, it’s Aston Villa Academy’s Under-14 lead coach, Sam Manoochehri who is promoting professional standards in the grassroots game which had previously been discarded as infertile, with deep-rooted problems lying in these parts for some time.

Manoochehri – who played a key role in Bellingham’s development at Birmingham – coaches at Midland Football League club, Solihull United on a part-time basis and helps recycle released academy talent, while also providing a pathway for Birmingham City University players. Located in South Birmingham, five of Solihull United’s players have been signed by professional clubs in the past 18 months.

Simply put, these attitudes at the Non-League level were non-existent only five years ago across Birmingham.

Despite claiming European glory at youth level on Lake Como as Villa’s Under-19s beat Chelsea in the 2013 NextGen Series Final seven years ago to follow in the footsteps of Inter Milan’s age-group side, who defeated Ajax in the 2012 edition, Villa’s success was not taken advantage of.

While many Inter, Ajax and Chelsea youth stars went on to represent their respective nations at senior level following their appearances in the re-branded UEFA Youth League, only Grealish and Callum Robinson have made over 10 Premier League appearances since Villa’s all-conquering youth team completely disbanded.

In fact, 11 of the 17 players who helped Villa reach the pinnacle of the youth game are now either playing in Non-League football or have fallen out of the game altogether, only seven years on from their historic triumph.

Gareth Southgate - The England manager

In England’s most recent major tournament, the 2018 Russia World Cup, all but three of the players named in Gareth Southgate’s 23-man squad had spent part of their career development in the Football League before becoming stars on the international stage.

Joe Hart, Chris Smalling, Jamie Vardy and Nick Pope – who had all been picked at least once in England’s two previous major tournament squads – were each exposed to a Non-League grounding in their developmental years.

Youngsters, Birmingham born and bred have so often been overlooked for national team duty, discarded from clubs as scholars and the wasted potentials in Dan Crowley, Easah Suliman, and Mitch Hancox were nothing new, but Birmingham is now seeking to rectify the mistakes of yesteryear and provide a degree of provision to ensure the Jack Grealish’s and Jude Bellingham’s of today are the inspirations of tomorrow.

Replicating the success stories which have been few and far between

With bare calves flashing, a slicked back undercut and number ten hanging off his back, Grealish’s unique style has become commonplace at Villa Park and now heads are turning around the globe at the prospect of more second city stars breaking through at local academies.

Grealish’s former academy coach, Sean Verity has spent the best part of 27 years at Bodymoor Heath after starting as a volunteer coach for his first six months in an academy looking to bring through the likes of Darius Vassell and Lee Hendrie. The former, one of only three Birmingham born players to gain major tournament experience with England since 2000, and the latter an inspiration for Villa’s present-day talisman.

Verity himself has worked under several academy managers, 14 different permanent first-team managers and four ownership regimes since joining the club in 1994 and Grealish is arguably the best talent to have developed under his stewardship. Verity will continue to develop the next generation of Villa stars.

Villa’s Under-18s recently won the FA Youth Cup for the first time in 19 years as the club’s academy continues to improve on and off the pitch. Only Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal have won the competition more times than Villa’s academy now.

Verity’s side which beat Liverpool in the final included six players who also took on Jürgen Klopp’s first team in the 4-1 FA Cup defeat in January after a Covid-19 outbreak had ruled out the club’s senior players.

When 17-year-old Louie Barry wheeled away in sheer delight after scoring his first goal for the senior side, with incredibly his first shot for Villa – who’d have thought that a schoolboy with claret and blue coursing through his veins, scoring in a 4-1 defeat would be the release many of us needed, only one week into 2021.

But while the former Barcelona teenager wouldn’t score in the cup final, Brad Young grabbed his 21st goal from the 27 starts he made across Villa’s youth teams last campaign.

Both boyhood Villa fans have enjoyed sensational seasons, as did Carney Chukwuemeka. After making his first-team debut in an away victory against Tottenham Hotspur, Chukwuemeka made a successive substitute appearance in the Premier League against Chelsea at Villa Park, all in the week he also starred in Villa’s FA Youth Cup final win.

While Villa continues to scoop up the very best young talent from across the second city, former West Brom youngster, Chisom Afoka joined Villa in 2020 and was a surprise inclusion in Villa’s starting line-up against Burton Albion in the fifth round of the FA Youth Cup. Played at Villa Park, Verity’s side produced a dominant display to beat Burton 9-0 and advance to the quarter-finals of the cup.

In 2018, Afoka also caught the eye with England, as he was called up to the Under-15s squad alongside former West Brom teammate Rico Richards. Albion have had a long line of success stories of players out of their academy, but as Villa swooped in to sign Afoka last year, he’s now plying his trade at Bodymoor Heath.

In similar circumstances to that of Barry – who scored a hat-trick in the win over Burton -, Afoka left the Hawthorns for Bodymoor Heath with his development now in the hands of Mark Delaney, George Boateng, Verity and Liam Bramley. Even renowned talent spotter Stephen Hopcroft and new Villa Academy Manager Mark Harrison made the switch across the city in recent years.

At the time of Afoka’s England U15 call-up squad, Harrison said: “some of those names are players the rest of the country would love to have taken from us [West Brom].

“They’re the Izzy Browns of this world, we’ve got similar there.”

Brown was a hotly-tipped Albion youngster who Chelsea snapped up at the age of 16 in 2013 and now the Baggies are fighting a losing battle to retain their prized academy assets with Villa in particular keen to sniff out promising talent across the city.

During the international break in which Afoka impressed, current Villa starlet Barry continued a fine run of goal-scoring form for England’s U15s at a 2018 tournament in Italy.

The 17-year-old, who hails from Sutton Coldfield and was on West Brom’s books as early as six years of age, scored ten goals in five England games before signing for Barcelona in 2019. Barry scored once against Japan, twice against the United Arab Emirates, four against the Czech Republic, one against Italy, and twice against Austria.

Louie Barry coming through Black Country ranks, Barcelona and Bodymoor Heath

At one corner of the Camp Nou, jammed in between the northern end of the stadium and the maternity hospital, stands the former 18th-century farmhouse, La Masia, dwarfed by surrounding Catalonia architecture.

FC Barcelona’s vast amount of success is largely due to its academy, that there can be no doubt. La Masia leaves the Barcelona DNA forever imprinted on its students with a philosophy as attractive and simplistic as it is effective; to pressure, to keep possession and attack.

The famous farmhouse is no longer in use as the club favours a modernised, tall and shiny building characterised by functionality at a cost of almost €10million. Long gone are the days that the famous residential farmhouse would help nurture the likes of Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernández, Carles Puyol, Andrés Iniesta and the rest of the tiki-taka brigade.

Dimly lit, lecture-like rooms are scattered across the modern La Masia’s five-storey complex about three miles east of Camp Nou. It is the central nervous system of the FC Barcelona behemoth despite lying adjacent, about the width of a football pitch away, from an Aldi supermarket.

Louie Barry in his Barcelona days

This was about as homely as it got for Barry who swapped the Black Country for Catalonia in the summer of 2019 in a move away from West Brom’s academy that enhanced his growing reputation. A 16-year-old Englishman joining the Spanish giants was as exciting as it sounds.

The striker left West Brom after 10 years at their academy, though domestic rules prevented the club handing Barry a professional deal until his 17th birthday, despite international regulations allowing him to negotiate with overseas clubs in the meantime.

Barry spoke at length to French giants Paris Saint-Germain before signing for Barcelona, but after just six months in Spain, a homesick Barry made his way back to the West Midlands to join Villa in a deal worth up to around £700,000 upfront and rising to £3million.

When Barry’s six-month excursion to the Mediterranean ended, West Brom were far from pleased and even less so when the teenager joined Midlands rivals Villa. For Barry, it was a homecoming to the club his family supports.

Despite his time at Barcelona coming to a premature end, Barry learnt an awful lot at La Masia. He trained with his Barcelona U19A teammates for the five months leading up to his move to Villa in a state of the art Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper training complex.

Rooms at the new La Masia are distributed over five floors rather than two at the heart of the Ciutat Esportiva with a capacity for 83 youngsters, giving players optimal conditions to succeed. The complex includes ‘unbeatable installations that were exclusively designed to optimise the intellectual, personal, and social development of young sportspeople’.

No longer 600 square metres, but the complex stretches over an impressive 5,000 square metres to hone the next generation of La Masia alumni. Barcelona are never too far off finding the next Pep Guardiola, Tito Vilanova or Luis Enrique, and even Barry’s short time on the Iberian Peninsula has equipped the young forward with the technical and tactical competencies to develop into a superstar at Bodymoor Heath.

One famous requirement of any Barcelona coach is to field a team with a 4-3-3 formation – that’s about as far a qualification a coach needs at La Masia; cementing the club’s identity which Ajax and Sporting Lisbon, two of the most successful football academies in world football, have also deployed.

Carles Folguera, La Masia director said: ”We’re always looking for a type of player who’s not physical but a very good thinker, who’s ready to take decisions, who has talent, technique and agility. Physical strength is not important.”

For Barry – a striker that holds plenty of physical efficiencies in his own right – is a bright forward, who for a number of years has plied his trade in England youth and academy sides as he made a name for himself as a potent number nine.

During pre-season last season, Barry was playing alongside Ansu Fati, the latest youngster to take the Camp Nou by storm. Barry was unable to play in competitive youth fixtures however as he had to wait over ten weeks to receive clearance from FIFA to be able to play.

Changes with internal staff further limited his opportunities – but despite his lack of actual playing time, the youngster was learning a lot in training, ‘coming on leaps and bounds and improving in confidence’. He was considered good enough to succeed at Barcelona, but wasn’t given the opportunity to do so – and joined Villa’s ambitious academy project for a fee of around £3,000,000 just six months after joining Barcelona.

A move to Barcelona was quite understandably too tempting to resist for Barry – then a 16-year-old with the world at his feet. But as Villa came knocking with the youngster’s former academy coach Mark Harrison leading the pursuit, Barry returned to Sutton Coldfield to continue his development back home.

Villa had tried to land him several times during his decade at Albion, according to reports, but each time he remained loyal to the club who he joined at six years of age. Barry has now joined on an initial figure much lower than Villa would have been ordered to pay by a tribunal had the forward joined directly from Albion without the Barcelona debacle.

Villa find themselves in the best position on the pitch than what they have done in the top-flight for over a decade, but in particular, off the field, with the ambitions and deep pockets of Sawiris and Edens, the thought of Barry taking to the first team in the years to come is no pipe dream.

The fact that Barry himself supports Villa draws comparisons with the remarkable journey Grealish has made, but only time will tell if this prodigy can replicate such heights.

Villa CEO Christian Purslow said: “the signing of Louie Barry from Barcelona was… sometimes in business and in sport, sometimes you need a marquee development to signal to the rest of the marketplace that we’re back in business,” Purslow said.

“We wanted to signal to 14, 15 and 16-year-olds and their parents that Aston Villa is deadly serious about youth football. So we take the only British 16-year-old to ever be transferred to Spain.

“I’m very grateful to Barcelona who acted incredibly professionally to basically facilitate Louie coming to Aston Villa. In a world of England youth football, they all know Louie because he’s the best 16-year-old in the country – and he’s just gone to Aston Villa.

“Imagine what that does for our recruitment potential. It was a statement of intent, I’m very proud of it, but judge my actions in another year’s time.”

Structures in place to help the city’s youngsters reach the top

While Barry is destined for a bright future with England on the international stage, Birmingham City’s academy product and current Borussia Dortmund midfielder, Bellingham is already making a name for himself at the age of 17.

He might not be old enough to drive yet, but Bellingham is on the road to stardom. Having scored in Dortmund’s Champions League quarter-final second-leg against Manchester City in April, the Birmingham born youngster has the world at his feet.

12 months before England were embarrassed at the 2014 Brazil World Cup by finishing bottom of Group D, a fresh-faced kid with hopes of one day becoming a shining light in the national side took the St. Andrew’s pitch as Birmingham’s Under-16s were already 3-0 down to Tottenham Hotspur.

13-year-old Bellingham would only need 40 minutes to turn the game on its head by scoring or assisting in all four of Birmingham’s goals after his second-half introduction to win the game 4-3.

There is no secret to Bellingham’s rise from a 15-year-old academy prospect to an England and Champions League midfielder in the space of three years and at an age so young that he can’t vote or buy a lottery ticket, it would seem Birmingham hit the jackpot when Jude’s father offered his son up to Birmingham’s academy chiefs in 2011.

Once unable to lean on previous experiences of working with the talent of players such as Grealish and Bellingham, academy coaches from the Birmingham area can now refer to what a top one looks like. Verity and Manoochehri, who now both coach at Villa, have expense in developing two of the city’s finest academy products.

For every Nathan Redmond, there’s a Demarai Gray and while role models play a crucial part in the psyche of young footballers, only then could Bellingham realise the best version of himself in following up on the former successes of academy graduates.

For coaches across Birmingham it works both ways. Verity’s work with Hendrie has only improved Grealish’s game with that understanding of how to approach a player with such a gifted natural ability.

While small changes at Birmingham’s Wast Hills Training Ground will help the club meet the elite academy criteria with the installation of floodlights set to ‘transform’ the Under-9 to Under-16 academy programme in the coming weeks, it’s the long-term future of the academy that is of paramount importance.

The model proposed by the club is one that Southampton, Brentford and Huddersfield Town have all used with great success in recent years. The Saints Academy – which has produced only one fewer England international to have then featured in a major tournament since 2000 than in any other academy across Birmingham – gained promotion to the Premier League 2 Division 1 in 2019 using a similar B team model.

Birmingham’s first-team assistant coach Craig Gardner – who made 125 appearances for the club during his playing days – is also tasked in providing a link of communication between the academy and Lee Bowyer’s senior team.

Across the city and at the club Gardner made his professional debut for, over 15 years ago, Villa’s approach to academy operations has changed quite drastically and current Under-18 coach, Verity has seen it all.

The club’s forward-thinking Sporting Director, Johan Lange has overseen first-team and academy operations for little over a year since joining the club in August 2020. The Dane covers the whole club and works between first-team and academy operations to fill a void that has been lacking for years at Villa Park.

Villa’s focus on their academy players has helped hand local lads Barry, Kaine Kesler, Jacob Ramsey and Aaron Ramsey the chance to represent their country on training camps this season to join West Brom’s past and present scholars Morgan Rogers and Josh Griffiths too.

Attitudes are beginning to change in a city that was bound to do more. It has been too easy to say that the future looks bright in the past, but without any substance, so many youngsters have fallen through the net – only now are Birmingham-based academies realising their responsibility to supply talent to the England national team for generations to come.

Some of the world’s most gifted young footballers have recently come through academies up and down the country and now it’s time for this proud footballing city to live up to the legacy handed down by its ancestors and become the envied powerhouses of academy football once more.

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