The official Chelsea website reports on a recent innovation at the club’s Academy, a permanent school looking after far more than just football education…
There is always plenty going on at Cobham from training throughout the age groups on a daily basis, to press conferences with Jose Mourinho, to Chelsea Foundation community coaching. However, since September 2012, the base in Surrey has also been home to a school for 20 of the club’s talented Under-15s and Under-16s.
Throughout the week these boys align their educational studies with their football development on site in a move that was recommended by the Premier League’s Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) in 2011. The school at Cobham brings the youngsters into the club and improves both the quality and length of contact time they get to spend with their coaches on a daily basis, increasing from a previous weekly average of six hours to over 20 hours, in line with youth development on the continent.
Gerry Harvey, the club’s head of education, played a pivotal role in establishing the school and believes the benefits of bringing young players into a school on site have been immeasurable. Speaking to the official Chelsea website, he says: ‘The main aim we wanted with setting up a school was increase the boys’ contact time with their football.
‘When the Premier League looked at player development and looked throughout Europe, they found the English academy system had roughly five or six hours of football a week, compared to Spain, Italy or Germany where each child has 16 hours of football. You can’t get enough contact time even with a day release programme and we knew we needed to increase that.
‘We don’t train the boys for 20 hours a week purely on football. They do 11 or 12 hours’ football time a week, and then we have the opportunity to do things that support their football, like performance analysis, performance education and things that can affect their game off the pitch like nutrition, addiction, conditioning and lifestyle.
‘But the big thing was getting the boys in-house and getting a much smoother transition from schoolboy level to Under-18s. They understand the culture, they’re here every day all week and their development is helped so much.’
The previous day release programme allowed boys to come out of school and into training at Cobham for a couple of full days a week, however new guidance from the EPPP and the implications on player recruitment of allowing Category 1 academies to recruit young players from across the country, instead of the previous limit of a 90-minute journey circumference, persuaded the club to act on setting up an independent school.
‘The day release programme was good from a football perspective but the boys’ academic work tended to suffer,’ says Harvey (pictured below left, with Under-15s coach Frank O’Brien). We felt it was a halfway house and we wanted to bring the boys in full-time and educate them.’
He began a two-year research project looking at different models throughout Europe and across a range of different vocations including swimming, tennis, cycling, rugby, music and ballet. In fact, it was the unlikely ally of the latter which provided him with his greatest inspiration.
‘I went to Clairefontaine in France, I looked at the Dutch system where they have sports schools, and the German system,’ he continues. ‘I went to Barcelona for four days where they have a private school that they take over and send the children there, so Neil Bath [the club’s Academy manager] gave me great scope to go and actually see what the best model was. I didn’t look solely at football either, I was pointed towards the Yehudi Menuhin music school down the road from Cobham and the Royal Ballet School in Richmond.
‘Admittedly, I couldn’t see the ballet school and football having any similarities but I completely pre-judged the situation and was so wrong. The beauty of their school is they do four hours of ballet a day, five days a week, from Year 7 to Year 11 and, even though we only wanted to take in boys from Year 10 and Year 11, it was a model that I liked because there were a lot of similarities with what we are trying to do.’
The club agreed a tender arrangement with Glyn School in Epsom, in which they provide a selection of advanced skills teachers to come into Cobham throughout the week and teach in a variety of subjects. The boys are offered 8 GCSE options, with an emphasis on the core subjects of English, Maths and Science, however the more able students are encouraged to take on more and are provided with extra one-to-one tuition.
A lot of emphasis is placed on the academic side of the programme and Harvey is keen to stress the importance of delivering a first-class education to every student.
‘The stakes are high. We were taking some children out of good grammar schools and we had to guarantee them an education that was as good, if not better, than their old school.
‘Other clubs send their boys out to local schools but I didn’t like that idea. What happens is a lot of the boys go back to school after training and think they’re going to be big football players so neglect their studies. They feel like they don’t need to do their homework and ultimately they underachieve academically and I didn’t want that.
‘Here we place a huge emphasis on homework. We have supervised classes three times a week and, if the boy doesn’t do his homework, then his football suffers and we can control that. We also eliminate this swagger of the boys going round their own school thinking they’ve made it because actually they’re in a school with 20 others who are in the same position.’
The rewards are already being reaped 14 months into the programme, with the transition between schoolboy football and Under-18 level becoming much smoother. Youth team manager Adi Viveash has benefited by being able to call upon the services of the Under-16 players much more readily, and he believes working more regularly with the schoolboys has had a big impact.
‘The Under-16s have been able to train with the youth team since July so they form quite a big part of mine and [Under-16s coach] Joe Edwards’ working group on a daily basis,’ says Viveash. ‘It gives them a year to get used to that and get used to the way I work as well, which is probably different to that which they’ve had before.
‘We’ve done a lot of work with them tactically as well which I think is the biggest thing to get into them as schoolboys rather than as scholars. Hopefully next year we can be very progressive from July and really see some players developing and see some innovative football, with the players doing the thinking and doing the work themselves, because that’s what you want to see if you’re going to make a top player.’
Despite the advantages to development, Harvey believes he will be judged just as much when the GCSE results emerge in the summer as on the football progression of the students.
‘The beauty is if they’re training well with their Under-15 or Under-16 group they can move on and train with the Under-18s and so there’s great flexibility both in training and academic work,’ he says.
‘If Dominic Solanke (pictured above) was still in the day release programme then I personally don’t believe he would be where he is today. He’s here six days a week training, he understands how to conduct himself, he has constant interaction with all the other boys, so his transition to playing in the Under-18s has been very smooth.
‘Ultimately it’s a unique learning experience for the boys. The transition has become much smoother, their contact time with coaches is greater in terms of their tactical, technical and psychological development. There’s great flexibility in it so we can go off to a tournament for three days and then come back and do academic work. It’s been so far, so good but the key will be in the academic results. At the end of the day we want the child to achieve as much as possible academically and develop as a football player.’
– By Sam Poplett