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Inside the Academy: Revealing the system developing Palace's next generation


Morning breaks over the new Academy building, and the facility is already buzzing with activity. Joe Ranson greets the players as they arrive, checking on their night’s sleep. Dougie Wright fires up the analysts' footage from yesterday’s training sessions. Colin Barnes opens his vast database to begin another recruitment meeting. Sion Thomas prepares for one-on-ones with the squad.

Crystal Palace’s new Academy is a state-of-the-art complex, but what will really make it successful are the people that work within.

“This operation has been huge,” says Karl Eccleston, Head of Academy Operations. “You don’t just become a Category 1 by spending millions on buildings and pitches: it’s about having the right staff in the right positions and doing the right things once they’re there.

“We recruited physios, sports scientists, a player care team, a Head of Education, a psychology department and more, all the things we didn’t have before.”

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You don’t just become a Category 1 by spending millions on buildings and pitches: it’s about having the right staff.

Karl Eccleston

When the new facility opened its doors last October, we spoke to key figures across the departments to reveal for the first time the level of detail, dedication and analysis that goes into the development of Palace’s next generation.

Breakfast at the Academy ground, and the Under-23s and Under-18s are in before training. Joe Ranson, Head of Medicine, takes the opportunity to check in.

“They come in and get questions about their wellness,” he says. “How did they sleep? What is their nutrition like? Is there any muscle soreness?

“The U18s will do a battery of tests in the morning. Once we’ve got those results, we’ll be looking for anything that goes against trend, or is not quite normal. Do they look like they’ve dropped their output? Does anything need to be flagged?

“Or is it a simple question of them not having enough sleep? They might say: ‘You know what, my neighbours had a party last night,’ and that might raise some questions.”

Unlike across the road with the first-team, the job of the U18s and U23s is to develop, rather than maintain, peak athletic condition.

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We’re looking at their journey as a player from Under-9s to Under-23s as a whole process.

Joe Ranson

“We need to appreciate they’re not adults, they are not fully grown men,” explains Ranson. “So you’ve got to cater for these things. The younger age groups you have the growing and maturation, but the step-up between Under-16s and Under-18s is massive in terms of training load. It becomes a full-time environment.

“They’ll be looking at individual tailored programmes. One player might need to put on 10kg, but for another their goal might be more speed oriented or movement focused. We call that the Long Term Athletic Development process.

“With all our rehabilitations, we don’t want it to be generic. We don’t want to just give the boys a session, a piece of paper, some home exercise programmes. All rehabs tend to be one-to-one.

“We’re looking at their journey as a player from Under-9s to Under-23s as a whole process. By having a complete and thorough programme, we should be getting players on the other side coming out as footballers, but also able to cope at the top of the men’s game.”

The top of the men’s game – the Premier League – comes when they cross the road to the senior facility. It’s something Ranson and his colleagues have to carefully manage.

“Ultimately our end game is always going to be getting boys training over the road and into the first-team. We have to bridge that gap – it’s all about the communication. I would have to be liaising with Ed [Richmond, Head Physiotherapist].

“It’s especially important in pre-season with such vast numbers going over there. It falls on me and the team to update Ed and Dr Zaf Iqbal [Head of Sports Medicine with the senior squad] to say: ‘This player has asthma, this player needs a cardiac screening on this day, this player has a groin issue.’ It’s about aligning as much as we can.”

Working closely with the Medical Department is the Sports Science & Performance Department. A growing field is that of sports psychology, headed up in the Academy by Sion Thomas. He accompanies Ranson on his morning rounds, checking in on the players – significantly, however, often the players will seek him out themselves.

“It tends to be a WhatsApp message, or they know where I am,” he says. “Players will contact me before a game and say: ‘Are you going to be with us tonight? Can we catch up for 20 minutes before the warm-up?’

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We've already profiled all the Under-18s, which throws up their key psychological strengths.

Sion Thomas

“Being present, being visible and being accessible are really important parts of my role. It takes time to build trust with not just players, but staff. How can I impact on players and how can I not?

“A good example might be Paddy McCarthy giving a team-talk 10 minutes before kick-off. If I haven’t been able to impact that player before they really switch on, it’s too late and I’ve missed my opportunity.”

Thomas’ role is far more detailed than that of a matchday sounding board, however. Ranson will often send players across if his morning conversations raise red flags.

“They might say: ‘I’ve not been sleeping great because I’ve been worrying about certain things,’” he explains. “That would make us say: ‘Have you spoken to Sion, because that might help with performance anxiety?’”

Thomas can fall back on a wealth of psychological study of the squad.

“There are 25 Under-18s this year,” he explains, “so I’ve already psychologically profiled them all, and what the profile throws up is their key psychological strengths.

“Sometimes working on emotional control could refer to anger, but often it can be softer negative emotion like anxiety, worry or apprehension. There’s always a fear of letting yourself down, or the team, or letting a wider peripheral group like parents and friends down.

“If there are triggers within a game: ‘I get fouled’ or ‘I score a great goal and the linesman flags me offside’, very often you get to that acute level of negative emotion – everything else packs its bags and jumps out of the window. I’ve never met an athlete in 20 years who is able to focus on their task if they’re experiencing the proverbial red mist.

“Prevention is better than cure, so let’s develop strategies to recognise different triggers before they happen.”

The players head out to training around 11 o’clock. Fixed firmly in their minds will be the areas in which they can improve, the seeds planted by Head of Analysis Dougie Wright. This starts from a very young age.

“Nine-to-12s we focus a lot more on individual analysis and try to help the players grow technically through video review,” he explains. “We record all the games and set them individual tasks to go back through and pull-out certain clips of them performing techniques and movements.

“However, when you move on to the YDP [Youth Development Phase] we follow our club syllabus of six situations.

"Every week, we will focus on one of the following situations: understanding how and when to play out from the back; controlling and creating in the middle third; creating and finishing in the final third; pressing our opponents high if and when appropriate; retreating organised, compact and ready to re-press in the middle third; being compact, controlled and calculating in our defensive third.

“We will review games and put together reports on the players between 13 and 16, which will give us statistics on the players against our own set key performance indicators. This gives us a numerical way of monitoring the players’ performances.”

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There was a point this year where the lads put together a presentation themselves and presented it to the coaches.

Dougie Wright

By Under-18s level, every minute of football – be it competitive or on the training pitch – is being recorded, dissected and scrutinised. It’s a level of analysis the players welcome.

“There was a point this year where the lads put together a presentation themselves and presented it to the coaches,” Wright reveals. “We will pull individual players for meetings to go over bits we might have noticed.

“Let’s take Fionn Mooney as an example, we might speak to him about the positions he keeps getting in to and how we want him to take advantage of that in terms of goals, assists or key passes.

“[Then] we will have post-match meetings with the players where we review team performances, in terms of how the 90 minutes played out against our Academy’s six situations philosophy.”

The players progress, and competition for places intensifies – but so does the fight for new arrivals. As the shouts from training float up to the office balconies, Head of Recruitment Colin Barnes sits down with Gary Issott and several coaches for a meeting. Barnes is charged with scouring south London for the best young talent. It’s no small task.

“We’ve probably got people covering between 120 and 150 fixtures each weekend,” he says, keenly. “That’s without counting games during the week, school games, and tournaments.

“What we look for is criteria over actual performance. Sometimes we have someone who is a top player, but he’s over matured – he is getting by because he is physically stronger than other kids.

“So when you’re looking at grassroots, you’re looking at three things: how a boy takes and deals with the football, how he moves, and what his spirit is like. When you’re on the side of the pitch you’re not going to get data, it’s going to be a feeling of if they’re good enough to come in and trial.

“Then when they come in, we’ll have all their data like speed testing, predicted height. So many things go into it.”

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We’ve probably got people covering between 120 and 150 fixtures each weekend.

Colin Barnes

Simply watching games is not enough, however, and Barnes and his colleagues have worked hard to develop Palace’s relationships across the catchment area.

“We’re becoming more strategic with our scouting,” he explains. “We had a talk with Cray Wanderers, who have 35 teams. With them being on board with us, it means another 35 pairs of eyes who can say: ‘We played so and so and they’ve got a really good Under-10s left-winger.

“It’s also the goodwill you create with them. It’s about building relationships, which we’re striving to do – getting in with schools and top grassroots clubs.”

Once again, despite working in the Academy the focus is on getting players over the road. But most won't make it in such a competitive industry.

“The buzz is seeing somebody walk across that white line at Selhurst Park,” Barnes admits. “We want to see the first-team win, and our job is to produce players, either to play in the first-team or to get a residual sale so they’re an asset to the club.

“But it’s never nice letting someone go. That’s the horrible part of the job. We’ve got relationships with lots of other clubs at different levels, and so we always try to place a boy if we’re releasing him.

“But you’ve got to do it for the right reasons. I went to an FA Youth Cup game, and a chap came up to me and said: ‘Rob Quinn was fantastic with me, we had a fantastic time at Palace.’ Even though he hasn’t made it, he had a fantastic, holistic experience.

“Some of the biggest people who recommend players to us are people we’ve released.”

And so the Academy cycle continues. Barnes meets with Gary Issott and the coaches to discuss recruitment for the week. Ranson oversees rehabilitation sessions for the injured youngsters. Thomas holds one-to-one sessions to check in. Wright analyses that day’s training.

It’s clear what a difference the investment will make. “We’ve always punched above our weight, but now we can compete,” says Barnes.

“This facility just takes things to a next level,” says Ranson. “We’ve got the ‘wow’ factor now. We just hired a 9-16s physio who turned down an Under-18s position at another club. It shows the levels.”

“Because of the work we’ve done, we hope to attract and keep the best players in London,” Eccleston explains. “There is an incredibly bright future ahead for this football club.”

The facilities provide the glamour, but it is the staff within that make the Academy tick. It is by no means a nine to five. In the evening, Ranson holds screening tests for the Under-14s. Wright puts together clips for the next meeting. Thomas travels with the squad. Barnes heads to an FA Youth Cup fixture, always seeking the next bright talent.

The sun sets over the new Academy building. Tomorrow, it starts all over again.