ACADEMY PROFILE: The future is White

Are you hasppy with the progress Wanderers are making in nuturing their own talent? Tell Us in the Comment box below

Are you hasppy with the progress Wanderers are making in nuturing their own talent? Tell Us in the Comment box below

First published in Sport by

CHRIS Sulley's mission statement is easy: 40 per cent of Wanderers' first team to be made up of homegrown players in five years.

The Bolton academy director wants nine out of the 24-man squad to be products of the Reebook conveyor belt by 2012.

Kevin Nolan, Nicky Hunt, Joey O'Brien and Ricardo Vaz Te have all established themselves as Whites stars during his reign, and with several more players on the verge of first-team action, including James Sinclair, Matt Cassidy, Robert Sissons and England Under-19 starlet Topi Obadeyi, Sulley's ambitious goal seems attainable.

And, despite Gary Megson's side's present struggles, with a new £3m academy and training centre planned on the former BAe site at the Lostock Industrial Estate, the club have every reason to be confident of a bright future.

Sulley, certainly, is happy with the progress the Wanderers academy is making, something he believes is absolutely vital to the Premier League outfit's long-term success.

"A club of our size has to look to the youth development as the way forward," said Sulley, in his seventh year as academy director.

We're never going to be able to compete with the bigger clubs financially, so we have to produce our own players to be successful

- Chris Sulley

"We're never going to be able to compete with the bigger clubs financially, so we have to produce our own players to be successful.

"The good thing about this club is, if they are good enough, the younger players will get a chance. We've seen that with Nolan, Hunt, O'Brien and Vaz Te coming through.

"And there are a lot of lads bubbling under the surface now who are waiting for their chance, though they will probably need to go out on loan somewhere first, like Joey O'Brien (Sheffield Wednesday) did, to toughen them up.

"We have made great progress given the constraints on finances and resources. We've got some good kids coming through - we've got four boys with England at different age groups - and we have the infrastructure in place - now we just need the facilities to match that.

"And I'm convinced when we get them we will be able to compete even better with the clubs around us - it will be a massive step forward for us."

The academy system was the brainchild of Howard Wilkinson, in his role of Football Association Technical Director, back in the mid-90s as part of his blueprint for the future of English football.

Wilkinson examined all aspects of youth development and drew heavily on the French system, based around nine national youth centres, the most famous of being Clairefontaine, which has produced a host of world-class stars including Nicolas Anelka, Wanderers' record signing, and Barcelona's Thierry Henry.

Sulley explained: "The FA looked at the lack of talent coming through and the reasons behind it. Socially, the kids weren't playing on the streets anymore; they were all playing on computers.

"Football basically was under threat from all the other sports vying for the kids' attentions and football had to do something to guarantee its future."

The Premier League had originally thought about 20 clubs would set up an academy, but there are now about 40 with the likes of Middlesbrough and Manchester City leading the way in the Premiership.

The amount of investment varies widely from club to club, typically from £1.5million a year to Manchester United's budget of £5m.

Sulley admits Wanderers, who have ploughed in £8m since the academy's inception, are on the "bottom rung" of that, but he feels investment on these shores pales into insignificance compared to overseas, where clubs in France and Holland will typically invest 10 per cent of their turnover, compared to two or three per cent over here.

But with 21 full and part-time coaches involved, as well as numerous physiotherapists, fitness and conditioning coaches, pyschologists and welfare officers, no one can doubt the club's commitment to the academy system.

Based primarily at Wanderers' first-team headquarters in Euxton, but using several sites across the town including Bolton Arena, Bolton School and St Josephs RC High School, the academy, in it's 10th year, continues its search for excellence.

More than 120 players at nine different age groups from under-9s to under-18s attend. The amount of time players are coached is dependent on their age: 9-11-year-olds will do three, two-hour sessions in the week and play on Sundays, while 16-year-olds will do two nights, train all day Wednesday and play Saturday morning.

Like every other club, Bolton have a catchment area they operate in, rules stipulate 9-12-year-olds must live within an hour of the club, and 13-16-year-olds no more than 90 minutes away.

With six other top-flight clubs based in the North-west alone, not to mention the likes of Crewe, Preston and Stockport who boast strong youth systems, competition is fierce.

But Wanderers work hard to offer something more in a bid to attract the best of the talent.

"We try and do somethings a little bit differently," added Sulley, who enjoyed a 17-year playing career including spells at Chelsea, Dundee United, Blackburn, Port Vale and Preston, where he started coaching at North End's centre of excellence in 1995. From there he moved to Blackburn and then on to the Reebok, originally as under-19s coach, in 1998.

"For example, we have development centres for five to eight-year-olds and have introduced shadow squads' for all academy age groups which means we can keep an eye on players we don't feel are quite ready for the academy."

Bolton are also proud of their education programme they run in conjunction with the playing side.

Premier League rules state players only have to attend 10 hours a week on a Sports Science NVQ course, but Wanderers feel youngsters should be given greater opportunities and are happy for scholars to study a variety of subjects at Preston College, a move which has seen young midfielder, Robert Sissons, recently gain three A-Levels.

While Sulley looks to attract the best of the homegrown players, they also cast the net far and wide in a bid to capture the cream of overseas talent.

Head of recruitment, Geoff McDougle, has contacts across Europe and further afield, and the club are working hard to promote themselves around the globe; holding soccer schools in South Africa, Malta, Spain, America and Egypt, which are attended by up to 200 players, and recently sending five coaches to Australia for three weeks.

But Sulley refutes the "myth" that academies are crammed full of foreign players. He added: "We have 21 scholars - aged between 16 and 19 years old - and only four are from abroad which is a good balance. We have two Australians, a Cypriot and a German "It's nice to have one or two foreign players because they bring something different to the game over here and it is good for our boys to see."

There has been criticisms of the academy system, not least from Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, who claimed they were "in danger of falling apart", while his Birmingham counterpart, Steve Bruce, insisted that they were not working.

Sir Trevor Brooking, the FA's director of football development, claims the future of the national team is under threat and has highlighted the danger of overseas footballers arriving at academies and then blocking up the Football League - but Sulley is a firm believer in the system.

He said: "If someone can show me a better way then fine, but I don't think there's one.

"Steve Bruce is unqualified to criticise and maybe a bit bitter after his son, Alex, failed at both Blackburn and United.

"And if they are so bad, why has he just spent £1m on Liam Ridgewell, a product of Aston Villa academy, and made him his captain.

"At Bolton, we've had 77 scholars in 10 years - 20 per cent of which are playing for Wanderers or elsewhere in the Football League.

"That's one out of five players who are making a career out of the game which is a pretty healthy return."

If Wanderers are to carry on being competitive in the top-flight, then Sulley and the club will hope that long continues.

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