Big interview: Ipswich Town have given up on Category One status for now, but Steve McGavin says academy can compete with ‘Premier League monster’
- Credit: Archant
Ipswich Town may have a small first team budget, but there is some exciting talent being produced within. STUART WATSON spoke to the club’s head of academy recruitment, Steve McGavin, about looking local, prodigies being poached and how the Blues can compete with the Premier League ‘monster’.
Steve McGavin may have the word ‘God’ emblazoned on his office door, but it’s the Premier League which has omnipotence when it comes to academy football.
Now four years into the role as Ipswich Town’s head of academy recruitment, his job entails scouting and contact-building, but, perhaps above all else, he is a salesman.
Top-flight clubs forced through the controversial Elite Player Performance Plan in 2011 and top-tier academy status is being made a closed shop.
Blues owner Marcus Evans has spent millions on improving facilities and staff at Playford Road, but, with the bar for required investment continually being raised, the club – who were denied Category One status after falling short by a ridiculous 0.3% in a complicated audit back in 2014 – has decided to stick at Category Two level.
It means that the vultures can circle. Fifteen-year-old forward Harry Clarke was tempted to Arsenal in 2015, while 16-year-old striker Charlie Brown switched to Chelsea last month. Six-figure compensation fees will be paid, judged by a tribunal panel, but it suddenly leaves McGavin with new players to find.
“Unfortunately, with the Premier League, we’ve created a monster,” says McGavin. “It’s like a runaway train that no-one knows how to stop. The money at the top end, as we all know, is huge and it’s filtered down into the Premier League academies.
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“The next EPPP audit is taking place this season and we’ll be audited for Category Two. People say ‘if we were Category One we wouldn’t lose players’, but that’s not the truth. It doesn’t matter what category you’re in; if a big club wants to come and sign your players that’s what will happen.
“When EPPP was set out, one of the things they weren’t keen on was Cat One clubs taking players from each other. But there are actually probably more transfers between Cat One clubs than there is any other categories.
“I won’t say the clubs’ names, but one Premier League club recently took another Premier League club’s best Under-nine, Under-10, Under-11 and Under-12. The financial package that the Under-nine got was mind blowing.
“Now you have to ask yourself, if your son is playing for Tottenham and moves to Chelsea, to pick a random example, what is going to be the huge differences between those academies? There is only one difference... money.”
McGavin continues: “In recent times we’ve lost two boys. In both instances the players and the families wanted to move.
“One thing EPPP has brought in is that accessibility for clubs. If a club wants to sign a player and the player and his family want him to go then there is very little you can do about it.
“They go with our absolute best wishes and we hope they have all the success in the world because we would be rewarded financially very, very well if they do very, very well.
“We will lose players to other clubs because there might be a contract offer which is financially more rewarding, but that won’t change the way we work.”
So how does recruitment work at Ipswich Town’s academy and how can the Blues beat the system? Much like Mick McCarthy and the first team, it’s a case of spotting hidden gems and putting a great deal of stock in character.
“I do think, to reward players at young ages with lots and lots of money sometimes takes an edge off them,” said McGavin. “We want people that want to come and play for Ipswich Town – that’s the key. They’ve got to believe in what we are trying to do. The parents have got to feel like their son is going to get the best football education
“And I think the vast majority of parents we see get that. When people come to Ipswich they know what we’re about as a football club. If we’ve got a young player of 15/16 that we’re maybe trying to attract from Ireland, or wherever, then they would know that they would be able to gain contracts which would be more financially rewarding from other clubs.
“But they still come because they see that they are going to get a good football education and, if they turn out to be good enough, then they’ll get an opportunity.”
When looking to raise funds for the academy in 2013, Town boldly pledged to have half of the first team squad homegrown by 2017.
Tommy Smith and Luke Hyam are long established seniors now, with the likes of Teddy Bishop, Andre Dozzell, Josh Emmanuel and Myles Kenlock breaking through in the last two seasons and teenagers such as James Blanchfield, Ben Morris, Shane McLoughlin and Tristan Nydam on the periphery.
“The manager has a budget to work from, so he wants players progressing from the academy. And that’s what the owner wants – that’s why he’s invested into the academy,” said McGavin.
“If you’re 15, 16, 17 and you don’t see any academy players making the first team at your club, that must be demoralising. If I was a parent of a boy that would worry me.”
He adds: “We have a lot of boys in this academy that lots of clubs would like. We’ve lost one or two, and we might lose one or two more along the way.
“It creates that siege mentality with us. Maybe we won’t go for the Grade A player, we’ll go for the Grade B player that we see potential in. That’s the skill of recruitment.
“If you go and watch a youth match probably everyone could pick the best player out, but we’re looking for that one that’s maybe a little bit under the radar that we see potential in.
“We’ve still got lots of talented boys and we’ll keep finding talented boys.”
Steve McGavin is confident that Suffolk has talent.
The Blues’ head of academy recruitment spreads his net far and wide, but ultimately the club’s policy is to look nearer to home when it comes to finding the next big thing.
“In the past we would sign 10 scholars a year, but only one or two would come from Suffolk. The rest would come from the North East, Scotland, Wales, all over.
“We’re doing the absolute reverse of that now. We sign eight or nine locally and maybe one or two from further afield. It’s funny how that’s changed and it’s changed for the better because we want to give the local boys the opportunity.
“That is, historically, where we’ve produced players from. Look back at the homegrown success stories of this club – your Richard Wrights and Keiron Dyers – they were local boys. That’s what will always be our emphasis.
“We’re not a buying club, we’re not going to go and buy a young players from another academy, because we believe that there is enough talent here to not need to do that.”
McGavin does still supplement local lads with a few from further afield though.
“We have different sources,” he says. “Obviously we have scouts that we employ, then we would have agents recommending slightly older players and we work with private football academies who run their own soccer schools.
“To start with I had to be quite pro-active in finding players – which we still are – but it seems now that, on the back of getting players in the first team and getting players in England squads, people are coming to us now.
“Myles Kenlock and Declan Daniels came from people I knew professionally in private soccer schools, Declan having been playing at the Robbie Fowler Academy in Liverpool.
“There are always players moving into the area. I had a phone call from a guy this morning whose family are relocating from Spain and his son plays for Villarreal. There are always things like that which happen.
“Ireland has always been a place we’ve gone to for players, while this year we went to a tournament in France this year and, as a result of that, have created a link with a youth club in Paris and taken on a few French boys on trial.”
Things have gone full circle for Steve McGavin.
Once released by Ipswich Town boss Bobby Ferguson as an 18-year-old, he is now the one having to deliver bad news to teenagers at Playford Road.
“When I look back on my own experience it was the right decision for Ipswich to let me go because I probably wasn’t ready to play first team football,” he says.
“At that time, the club was probably in a different situation. They certainly didn’t give the players the same time to develop physically and stuff like that. I think we do now.
“A year, 18 months later I was ready and I came back that way.”
Striker McGavin started out in non-league and reached the FA Vase final with Sudbury Town before moving to Colchester United in a £100k deal. He went on to make more than 300 appearances during a solid career in the lower leagues, including spells with Birmingham, Wycombe, Southend and Dagenham & Redbridge.
“I was devastated at the time Ipswich released me, but it probably gave me a good kick up the backside, which is what I needed. I wanted to prove them wrong.
“I now have that situation all the time where I’m sitting in front of a young person and their family saying ‘it’s a no for now’, but I’m comfortable with that because I’ve been in their situation.
“I always say ‘nothing would give me greater pleasure in seeing you do really well and prove me wrong’.
“No-one really knows how young people are going develop. For some young people it takes a knock back to give them that little bit of fire in their belly.”
McGavin’s son, Brett, has recently been taken on a first-year scholar at Town.
“It’s difficult with me working here, but I’ve said to him what I say to all young players – if he’s going to be a success only five per cent will be down to the coaches and his support network, while the other 95% is down to himself.
“As much as I can I try and leave him alone because ultimately he needs to make his own decisions. That’s the advice I try and give the parents. The main reason you are there is to support them. If things aren’t going right, which happens to all young players at some point, your role is to be there for them. And if things are going well you are there to keep them grounded.”
Ipswich Town’s new simplified academy system provides a clear pathway for young players to progress.
From Under-7s to Under-16s, the club now has only three teams in each age group – the main academy group, a shadow ‘elite’ group behind them and then the entry level ‘Player Development Programme’.
New sites have been opened in Newmarket, Sudbury and Chelmsford as the club spreads its net further in the search for Suffolk and Essex talent, with the up-and-coming trials invite only to begin with.
“We’ve tried to simplify it so there are just three rungs, while we’ve streamlined it so it’s all under the guise of the club now,” explained McGavin.
“Teddy Bishop started out at an entry level programme at Bottisham (near Cambridge) at the age of eight and is now playing in the first team. We’re hoping, through this programme, there will players that follow that same pathway.”
Players will continually be assessed and can move up or down the three levels of squad. The ‘elite’ squad players will represent AFC Sudbury in the Eastern Junior Alliance from Under-13 to Under-16 level.
Those that don’t quite make it at Town could then move into non-league football with AFC Sudbury and combine that with further education.
“All the coaches at these centres are employed by the academy and have the same philosophies as to what we’re doing here at Playford Road,” said McGavin. “They will play games and have the opportunity to progress into the elite squads and ultimately into the main academy.
“The aim is to reach players we haven’t reached before and give them the opportunity to fulfil their potential.”