THE FIRST class from a Kilkenny soccer academy have just taken their biggest test.
The members of the Elite Sports Performance soccer academy will this morning (Wednesday) return home having played three games in three days against English opposition.
The locals were led cross-Channel by academy director Paul Smith on the trip, which came near the end of their Summer-long series of training sessions. Players studied the technical side of the game, as well as undertaking other aspects designed to improve their game.
“It’s been a really good programme,” he said. “The lads have been fantastic to work with.
“I’ve been really pleased with the attitude they’ve brought to the academy,” he said of the players. “They’re turning up on time, wearing the right kit and clean boots - they might sound like silly little things but they make a difference. It’s nothing less than would be expected of them if they were at an academy in England.
“They have a laugh when they’re not training, but when the time comes they train at a great intensity,” he added. “I had hoped that’s what they would be like, so they’ve proved me right. I’ve been pleasantly pleased by that.”
Coupled with training, the players have taken to the various elements of the academy. Nutrition, hydration and alternative exercise have all been used with success.
“We’ve had yoga teachers in, Ellen Roche from Nutrivive to give talks on nutrition and hydration,” said Smith. “Garry Breen, who is playing in Northern Ireland with Portadown, has spoken of what it’s like to be an academy player in England while the Kilkenny school of yoga has also been up to do some yoga classes.
“The lads have really taken to the different elements of the academy; everyone has gotten something out of it, asking plenty of questions on a regular basis. They enjoyed things like the sports psychology aspect while resistance training was new to a lot of them. They found it tough at first, but gradually they have gotten into it.
“It’s been quite action-packed,” he added. “Given that they’ve made big leaps so far, maybe the programme needs to be longer so they can keep going.”
It’s not just the players who have been learning. Smith himself has picked up on things too.
“Running the sessions is the easy part,” he said. “We have to sit down outside of that and analyse the heart monitor and fitness test data, so I’ve learned that it takes plenty of time! We’ll do assessments after the trip with each player and give them feedback on each session they’ve done, from their fitness to their overall game and areas where we think they need to work on, as well as where they are doing well.”
The trip to England saw the group leave Kilkenny at 5am on Saturday. Their first port of call was Morecambe, for a match against the club’s academy side on Sunday afternoon. The second leg of their journey saw the players travel to Luton for a game against Luton Town on Monday before taking on Southend United on Tuesday afternoon.
“It’ll be a hectic schedule,” Smith said prior to their departure. “There will be a lot of travelling and matches, but that’s what all of our training has been for.
“To play three matches in three days isn’t ideal for anybody, but it will show the lads the rigours of what these academy players in England and across Europe face,” he added. “It will be a step-up from what they are used to - they’ll be playing professional academy teams where the standard will be very, very high.
“Hopefully they’ll get spotted or some will get the chance to go back and train with the academies,” he continued. “If that happens though they’ll be training every day - as Garry Breen told them when he went to Manchester City the big thing he noticed in the first few weeks was how he went from doing two hours a week training here to six hours a day over there.”
Talking to Breen provided the players with a valuable insight into what would be expected of them should they attract attention overseas.
“I think the key thing he got across to the lads was how, if they did get across to England, that it’s only the start of things,” Smith said. “They haven’t made it at that stage; they have to prove themselves by breaking into the academy team and then get a professional contract.
“Garry also made them aware of how important it is to grasp every opportunity you get,” he added. “The four main leagues in England, the Conference and feeder leagues that run into it are so well run that great place to be if you want to do that as a trade.
Easier to get spotted as well if you’re over there.”
That includes some of the clubs where the Kilkenny lads have been playing.
“The Luton and Southend academies are renowned for their set-up, particularly Luton, who have sold £3 million worth of players from their youth set-up in the last 12 months alone,” said Smith. “They have strong links with a lot of the London Premier League teams. It makes more sense to try and get spotted at that level, work your way up and get into the professional ranks.”
While the players will be easing down their activities this week it won’t be the end of their work at the academy.
“The current programme finishes on Monday August 27,” he said. “We’ll have an assessment and review of the players, but at that time we’ll be going through the next programme which will start in early September. We’ll run a season-long academy, which will complement what the players do with their clubs - it won’t get in the way of games or club training.”
The new phase of the academy could also be aimed at a wider selection of players.
“We will be inviting all of the current crop back,” said Smith. “We’ll also have trial matches for other potential players at under-14, 16 and 18 age groups. We’re also looking at the possibility of running a girls’ academy, as well as bringing in more of an educational element for some of the players, such as Transition Year students. Everything will be designed to give the players a pathway, whether it’s to professional football or education.”