“There are no shortcuts. You’ve just got to give every element absolutely everything to get the best of your ability to give yourself the best chance. You have to give it everything, because it is the best job in the world. Do not waste a second. Believe in yourself. If you don’t believe in yourself, don’t expect others to. Back yourself, back yourself – and see where it takes you.”
Inspirational words delivered to more than 220 talented players aged 7 to 23 by Crystal Palace’s Academy Director Gary Issott, who has been an integral part of the Academy’s work developing footballers for more than 15 years.
Indeed, the south London Academy under Issott’s stewardship has become the envy of many a youth set-up - during his tenure, 34 players have come through the ranks to make a first team appearance for the Eagles – collectively making well over 1,000 appearances for the club. Countless others have made the grade elsewhere too.
The latest prospect to don the first team’s red and blue is centre-back Sam Woods, who earned his first senior start against Colchester United, joining an impressive graduate list that includes Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Wilfried Zaha, Victor Moses, Nathaniel Clyne, Ben Watson, Jonny Williams and Wayne Routledge.
This Premier League season to date, 10.2% of minutes played has been made up of players under the age of 21 – a league record (source: Opta). Last season, more than 10% of English players in the Premier League were born in south London (source: Guardian). With the national team manager also a Palace Academy graduate in Gareth Southgate, the prospect of the Eagles Academy becoming a powerhouse of talent is a mouth-watering one for Issott et al.
“You never know whether it’s a moment in time,” Issott says. “Look at Essex when England won the World Cup in 1966, or the north-east for a period in the 1980s-90s. But I think where south London is at the moment – it reflects the Premier League. It’s very diverse, the Premier League has around 100 or so countries represented in it. Well, London looks like that at this moment in time. It’s a hotbed for immigration, so you get players from all over the world.
“We get our pick of a variety of players – it’s a really competitive area, with 13 clubs – three of them on any given year could be in the Champions League. The north-west is very similar – with 20 clubs or so in that area. London is a hotbed for talent – but it’s very, very competitive.
“In an era when so few lads come through – I do think there’s a connection with any young player who gets on the pitch. Someone will always know someone who knows him, or from his area. There will be a connection. There’s nothing like a player from your area coming through for your club.
“At Palace, we have an owner and a manager and a star player all from south London. How many clubs can say that? It’s extraordinary.”
Issott oversees a team of 40 scouts, and plays a key role in persuading parents and family representatives of the hottest talent south of the river that Palace is the right place for their young prospect. Thankfully, there is a proven pathway for the Academy’s best players. “It’s a necessity. Players have to be able to see a pathway. They’ll sign for you and play for you if they believe there’s something for them at the club. I think you’re duty bound to try to give every player a professional career.
“People say it’s only the chosen few who make it – and they are absolutely right. On any given Saturday there’s only 920 outfield positions, they’ve got to be filled from players in the age range of 17 to 35. These professional players will be from all over the world. So as a young lad if you grow up in Brixton, Streatham or Croydon and you go to bed at night – you’ve not got to be thinking about the lad who lives in Northampton or Devon, you’ve got to be thinking about the lad who’s waking up in south America, in Holland or France – as ultimately, that’s who you’re going to be competing with. To get through to that level, you’ve got to be so good, and you’ve got to be different. Because ordinary won’t get there.”
Issott is now responsible for a department with 35 full-time staff and 100 part-time staff, split into nine departments: coaching, scouting, sports science, video analysis, goalkeeping, player support, player administration, education and safeguarding. Nothing is left to chance.
It’s a far cry from the four colleagues he encountered when joining the south London club in 2004.
Reflecting upon the last decade and a half, the Academy Director – who played at Luton Town, Exeter City and the Southwest Florida Manatees in America’s B-League before spending the early part of his coaching career at Tottenham Hotspur, said: “The first five years didn’t really change that much. The club was smaller, I was working day-to-day with the manager and reserve team manager.
“In those five years I worked with Iain Dowie, Peter Taylor, then Neil Warnock – which took us up until the administration. Iain was great to work with, whilst Peter had been with the England u21s. I’ve got to say Neil was really good to work for, and was the one who put a lot of the young players in the team – Moses, Clyne, Scannell – who were around the right age, 18-19, when he came.
“Administration in 2009-10 was really traumatic for the whole club. I remember getting off a plane from Greece, and looked at my phone – everyone had been made redundant. It was a really horrible experience, but luckily enough the new owners came in – and we got through it.
“At the end of that season [the year after administration], the Premier League’s Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) came upon us. It was aimed towards the smaller clubs to get a guaranteed sum now if a player was sold after going through your Academy. The offset was that you could lose your best Academy players. You can see why – guaranteed money is much better than living on hope. The EPPP has made it better in terms of facilities, staffing and resources so it did need to happen. That’s what’s made the Academy grow.”
Issott took over the Under 23s in 2012, which has proven to be a critical move for him and for the stability of the Academy as a whole. “There was a feeling that a lot of coaches used the 23s or reserve team role as a stepping stone or as a job filler – but it’s the last step, the most important step.
“We felt as an Academy that if we just took control of that, rather than letting managers appoint a coach for the role – who may not have a vested interest in the Academy – that’s why we made that decision to say: ‘right, we’ll take control of the 23s.’”
It is paying rich dividends with the Under 23s enjoying a hugely successful period under the guidance of former Palace player Richard Shaw, with the three most recent high-profile graduates in Wan-Bissaka, Luke Dreher and Woods featuring heavily in that team’s Professional Development League title triumph in 2017/18.
At the other end of the spectrum, Issott’s scouts are looking for promising players aged as young as seven. “We have had Under 7s and Under 8s teams since about 2008. One club started it – and then all the clubs had to follow. It used to be just Under 9s, and back in the 1990’s it used to be Under 14s.
“There’s still a move that some clubs want to begin at Under 5s. I think you’ve got to be very careful to ensure that children’s first experience isn’t a professional club that they get end up getting released from. That could be quite damaging – it should about having fun at that age. Five- or six-year olds aren’t emotionally ready for that.
“I think Under 8s is about right. Still, if we make a commitment to an Under 9 player - we certainly try to guarantee them two years, because we just think the trauma [of being released] is too big for a young player.”
A critical group for Issott is the U14-15 teams, a stage where his staff are tasked with making huge calls on their likelihood of these youngesters making it as a first team player, which of course is the Academy’s ultimate goal. “In 20 years of working with young players, at the age of 14 I’ve not seen too many players who have surprised me and ‘come from the pack’. The better players I’ve seen at Stevenage, Spurs and Palace, at age 14 were still the best players at 18, 19. Now, what I have seen is players who you’ve thought might make it in that group fall away, but at 14-15 you have a clearer idea if they’ve got some standout qualities that are going to make them professional footballers.”
Issott fondly recalls Victor Moses at that age. “Within four weeks of seeing him, he was up in the under 18s, aged 15. Most players play a year up, but Victor was that good that he needed to be tested and challenged. He was an early developer and he could cope with it. Because he was one of the first players that I worked with, he left a mark on me. He was so exciting.”
Issott also pounced on an opportunity to bring Spurs’ Nathaniel Clyne to Palace, aged 14. “Clyney was struggling with the travel to Tottenham, as he was living with him mum in Brixton. Spurs let him go, and of course I knew him and spoke to his Mum – so I said we’d take him. He was an Under 14. That was the best free transfer we’ve probably ever had!”
The future promises to be extremely bright for the current crop in that age-group, as Palace’s Under 15s are national champions. “They have proven themselves to be the best cup team in the country. En route they beat Chelsea and Arsenal. Wigan [the other finalists] beat Liverpool, City and Everton. So it’s a really exciting group for us, and Darren Powell has done an excellent job in coaching them.”
“Players can fall away for whatever reason at this age. We’ve just got to try to make sure we give those players exactly what they need. We have a big belief in individual training programmes for the players, because one training session doesn’t always fit all. Of course there are team training sessions, matchday preparation sessions, and educational sessions. But we try to give each player bespoke plans and training sessions, in terms of video analysis, their individual strengths and weaknesses.
“The whole way through the Academy - you try not to treat players as positions: they are individuals within the positions. It’s a team sport but it’s made up of individuals. You’ll coach a centre-half who’s got pace slightly differently to one who hasn’t got any, or a centre-half who’s small as opposed to one who is tall. You coach them all as individuals. Of course, they need to fit into the overall philosophy, but to fine tune their games, they need individual programmes.”
So just what is Issott looking for in identifying the next generation of Zahas and Wan Bissakas? “This summer, the Chairman, Dougie Freedman and I sat down and we talked about what we want to see in the Academy. What we’ve got to produce is players who can play in the Premier League.
“Your back players have to be comfortable on the ball, and have the ability to step into midfield. We’ve got to have midfielders who can receive the ball in tight areas, who can pass forwards and hurt opposition.
“And then what Palace have always had – exciting attacking players who can go at and run beyond people. That’s what we’re hoping our teams are going to look like across the age groups. Teams that dominate possession, because at the highest level – it’s how the majority of top teams play. We have to be comfortable on the ball. If you don’t have a team of 11 who do that, invariably passing moves will break down – it’s in transition where you concede goals the majority of the time. Most goals are scored on turnovers or on set-plays, so if passing moves break down, you’re at your most vulnerable – certainly in the Premier League.”
Issott and his team are not only responsible for developing elite footballers, but well-rounded human beings too. “The utopia is a terrific professional, is selfless for the team, turns up on time, lives his life right - but you’re dealing with human beings. Jonny Williams was exactly what I have just described – an absolute manager’s dream. But you don’t get twenty Jonny Williams in every team.
“Our job when players are aged 16-18 is to try to turn them into professionals. They don’t come to you as professionals. They come to you as young players, who still haven’t got the mind-set of being a professional athlete. A lot of Paddy McCarthy’s job (as Under 18s manager), and my job at that age group – is getting them into sporting habits. Once they get into the 23s with Richard, you’ve ironed out them being late for breakfast when you’ve been on an overnight stop, or that they’re not in bed by 10:30pm, that they’ve used a few excuses for being late.
“We believe that the technical aspects you develop early on, between the ages of 6-12. We have a big emphasis on them developing their technique, being two-footed, trickery, being comfortable on the ball. From 12-16 you’ve got to start adding the athletic and tactical sides, then when they come in full-time to the building (aged 18+) – there is a really big emphasis on psychology. Then finally, fine-tuning their game - being position-specific and player-specific to their role in the team and how they can get the best out of themselves.”
Issott is overseeing a conveyor belt of talent, but the numbers of those reaching the first team expose the harsh reality that only the very best will make it at the highest level. “It’s not instilled into players at a young age, but players are fully aware of how difficult and tough it is to get through. If anything, with some players – you have to try to capture their imagination – it could be you – think positive, it’s going to happen to someone, why won’t it happen to you?”
Issott’s primary fulfilment remains in the week-to-week work on the training ground of seeing young players develop as players and people – and unsurprisingly peaks when a young player breaks into the first team, but it troughs when he has to break the news to 16 year-old’s that they are not going to be offered a chance to make it as a professional. “The worst bit of the job,” he says.
“You can have a negative head on – sometimes I’ll think football as an industry spits players out. As an industry we’ve got to do more for post-player care. It’s a traumatic experience, effectively players are being sacked if they don’t get a new contract. It affects your finances, your wellbeing, your ego and status, your dreams, you lose friends from a dressing room environment. So it’s a huge trauma leaving a professional football club.”
Issott ensures such conversations are handled in a dignified manner each season, in what he described as ‘multi-disciplinary’ meetings – with representatives from each department explaining the rationale for each decision, in front of the player, his parents and representatives. Players are given time to process the news, before being guided on future opportunities and options.
“On the other side, these players will have had a wonderful experience. They train and play with the best players. They go all over the world – to places they would never have been to. You try to give them fantastic life skills: elite-level punctuality, doing your best every day, going to bed early, eating correctly, striving, fighting to get to the top. These are great transferable skills into all industries.
“I’ve seen players leave the game with the right mentality and they’ve gone on to be successful. You can feel old in football at 28-29, as most careers end 32-33, but in the real world you’re still young. There are lots of things you can go into.”
Issott is passionate about the pastoral care he rightly considers a duty to these young people in the club’s Academy set-up. “When you want a career in Academy football, you’re really signing up to develop young players and young people – that can look different at various times. It’s your duty as a former coach to go and see them, and look out for them. It’s like being an extended relation really. We should be there for them for all the highs and lows.
“Your coach should look out for you for the rest of your career- in football, or not. If you’re working with young players – you’re signing up for a long-term commitment.”
Gary Issott certainly knows the meaning of long-term commitment – 15 years for the Palace Academy and counting. With the recently announced long-term security of the Academy site in Beckenham, the future is bright. Brimming with enthusiasm, Issott beams: “With the full buy-in from everyone at the club, we can achieve everything.”