Academy manager Dan Harris writes:
With us now three months into the new season, I wanted to take this opportunity to update supporters, parents and players on all that has been happening behind the scenes as we continue to navigate the landscape of Academy Football in these Covid times.
In my 21 years involved in Professional Football this has, without doubt, been the most challenging period I have ever experienced.
As an Academy we have needed to be agile enough to adapt to, amongst other things, financial challenges, uncertain schedules, staff departures, restricted access to players and facilities and the very real physical and emotional toll that Lockdown has taken on many people across our programme.
As we look at the wider landscape, we see that at least six clubs have already made the decision to downgrade their Academy statuses and the likelihood is that these will be followed by others over the weeks and months ahead. It is credit to the board and ownership here at Oxford United that the club remains committed to supporting our young players at our current Category Three level.
It is my firm belief that the clubs that continue to invest in developing their own, homegrown players through their Academies, will be better placed to navigate the next few years of salary caps, squad lists and reduced finances across the game. The blend of developing Academy Graduates alongside a successful player trading model in the recruitment windows has been proven to be a sustainable model at a number of clubs in League One, the Championship and even into the Premier League - it will certainly be interesting to see how clubs across the Leagues approach the next twelve months…
On the grass, our PDP programme (players ages 16-21) sees smaller numbers this year but it has been positive to see our new U18s groups starting the season with four wins out of four with some strong individual performances. A number of our U21s players have had the opportunity to train with the 1st team group over the last few weeks and we are now beginning to send some of these young men out on loan to expose them to Senior Football as part of their development pathway.
As part of our strategic plan to expose young players to appropriate challenges at key times, we have made the decision to go younger across our top end age groups this year. Already we have seen eleven 15 & 16 year olds feature for our U18s group this season whilst our small U21s cohort is also made up almost exclusively of teenagers. Going younger across the board means we will need to be patient with our youngsters and the programme as a whole but this approach will, without doubt, better equip these youngsters for the demands of First Team football for the years ahead.
In our younger age groups, a huge amount of hard work from numerous people across the club has seen our programme now almost fully re-established at a time when many clubs are still struggling to operate at pre-Covid levels. There was a quiet sense of pride in early September when we were able to play our first set of fixtures as we welcomed Premier League side Crystal Palace to the training ground and seeing our young players smiling again playing the game they love went some way to offsetting the many challenging days during lockdown!
There’s no getting away from the fact that this season is going to have its fair share of hurdles – plans we had for developing the programme may have to be delayed for a time as we consolidate and protect the progress that we have made over the last three years. We’ll approach these challenges head on, with a foundation of integrity and hard work and will keep building for a bright future ahead.
Stay up to date with all things Academy by following the club’s official youth development twitter feed - @AcademyOUFC.