Birkirkara FC's Strategy for the Youth Academy

by Mark Bondin - 9th October 2017

A coach once told me that in Malta, “we always think about the rest, and we forget the best”. It only took me a moment to realise how true this was. We are always focused on including everyone, without taking into consideration the level of the players we have, and at which level of competition we want to participate. In other words, we always choose quantity over quality.

One may argue that this is not so bad of a strategy, and I tend to agree, since after all we are talking about children. However, a counter argument may be that this has led us nowhere on the international level. The number of talented players we are producing is very low. This makes it impossible for our football clubs to advance in European competitions, or for the National Team to make any real progress.

During my 18 years of involvement in youth football, I read and heard people insisting that for our players to improve they need to play abroad. Others argue that for our game to improve we need less clubs. Others claim that that we need a culture change, because the problems most commonly stem from parents attitude. All these arguments come from passionate people who love the game, but who are not really helping the game through these comments. For the game to improve, we need to start thinking outside the box, move away from our comfort zone and start challenging the status quo with innovative ideas. For example, it is useless saying that we need players to play abroad, if we do not produce good enough players to pass trials and be selected by foreign clubs. I strongly believe that what is needed is a custom-made strategy drafted by Maltese for Maltese Football.

Our plan at Birkirkara FC Youth Academy has challenged the status quo for the past three years, and will continue to challenge this during season 2017-18. We have stuck to a long-term project which is now in its fourth year. Our project started with a football nursery, like many of its kind on the island. However, it is now evolving into a new concept for Malta, that of a football academy where players need to pass a trial before they can register with the club.

Before we started, we took stock of the situation. We looked at the coaches' profile and the number and quality of the players in every age group we had in our ranks. We have gradually but steadily changed most of our coaching staff to fit our strategy. This meant enrolling qualified PE teachers, who are also qualified football coaches to coach the younger age groups. When coming to older ages, we hired young and highly motivated coaches with a minimum UEFA B license to coach children between U10 and U13, and minimum UEFA A coaches for the competitive ages namely from the U15 to the U19. This took us almost 2 – 3 years to complete. During Season 2015/16, we had no less than seven coaches who obtained their UEFA B coaching licence. In the meantime, we ran a campaign to increase the number of children in the younger ages. The number of children in the U5 to the U9 increased by almost 60% over three years.

The academy Administration, has backed this strategy by introducing many policies, which were challenged by many people in the Club, who were used to the traditional way of doing things. Today, the majority of these policies have been widely accepted, as they bore fruit. An example of one of these policies is that parents are not allowed to attend training sessions at Savio College in Dingli. This was done to create an environment where the coach is allowed to teach the players in an environment without distractions and interference, very much like what happens in classroom in the academic school. Unfortunately, we cannot do the same at our own training grounds, since they are exposed to a public road.

Another policy, which at first was met with some resistance, was that parents cannot directly speak to the coach, if not through written messages. Anytime a parent needs a clarification he can do so by scheduling a meeting with the academy administration and the technical staff will be present. The rationale here was that there were instances of “he said, she said”, or over-familiarity, which were counter-productive. Structured meetings are more productive, and any problems are addressed round a table. We have at the same time provided parents with clear communication lines. Part of our philosophy is that we need parents to help us develop their child into a better player. Without their help, we are unlikely to succeed. Many of these policies seem to be working, and today we are facing very few problems in this regard.

We also embarked on a two years project with Dingli FC. This was heavily supported by the Council of the Youth Football Association (YFA). One of our principles is that players should experience competition when aged 14 and older. By competition we mean, healthy competition within the same team, where players compete against each other for a place in the first eleven during the weekend match. Therefore, we loaned our U14 players to Dingli, who did not have enough players to form a team. But we did not stop there, as we also sent our U14 coach with them, and they could take part in the U15. This project was extremely successful. Other clubs have since followed suit, and embarked on similar projects.

Last year we introduced a ‘numerus clausus' of 18 players and 2 goalkeepers for our teams from U10 upwards. After evaluating the season with our coaches, we have decided to lower the number to 14 players and two goalkeepers. We want to focus on quality, rather than quantity. There are several reasons why we have decided to go down to sixteen player, as follows:

1.To focus on the best players, we need to lower the number of players per team. All well respected academic schools in Malta, have a ‘numerus clausus'. Elite players are pushed to their limits, by playing and training with children in the same level.

2. From U10 upwards we play 8 vs 8. With 16 players this allows us to have exactly two teams, both for matches and training.

3. This will allow the most talented players from lower ages to be transferred for training and games with older ages. For example, an U10 player can be promoted to play with the U11 team. When the numbers were high, this was never logistically possible.

4. When these teams go to the competitive age groups, and they start playing 11 vs 11, the number of players will be 32 per team. This is because in the competitive age groups of U15, U17 and U19, we can involve players from two age groups, example U16 and U17 in the U17 team. In this case we will make a competitive squad for 18 players and 2 goalkeepers to play in YFA competitions. In U15 will repeat the same project we did with Dingli FC.

All this meant moving out of our comfort zone. We believe that besides helping us concentrate on the best players, this will help the less talented players to move on and play for other teams which are a better fit for their level, and help them improve their game. We do not see players as numbers, or fees. It helps nobody by keeping players who are not at the required level in our ranks, just to take their fee. This also meant challenging the status quo, and facing a lot of criticism, at times even from within the club itself. However, the Academy's administration took on the challenge, and made an effort to explain the concept to both the Club and the parents. Some parents, who might be passionate Club supporters find this hard to accept. It is not our pleasure to turn away players, but we believe in all honesty, that in the long run it is in their best interest.

There can be many arguments and criticism against our policies and philosophy. This is understandable, as no philosophy is perfect, or to everybody's taste. However, one will appreciate that we are not just criticising the status quo, but we are trying to do something about it. We are aware that there are risks, and bumps on the road, but we believe that it will be fruitful those that matter most to us: our young players.

Mark Bondin is the Director of Youth Coaching at Birkirkara FC Youth Academy.

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