Joe Ackroyd & Tom Harban: Revealing The Inner Workings of a Professional Academy
Updated: Mar 18
"You can't win anything with kids."
So goes the now-infamous line uttered by Alan Hansen on Match of the Day in August 1995, referring to Manchester United, after Alex Ferguson's young side had been humbled by a 3-1 opening day defeat away to Aston Villa.
As it transpired, Hansen was proven so very, very wrong.
Once another famous piece of footballing parlance had passed the lips of Kevin Keegan, who would have loved it, loved it if his Newcastle side had beaten the Red Devils, the Old Trafford outfit ultimately finished four points clear at the top of the table to claim their tenth top flight title.
From that story, the evidence is clear. You can win something with kids, and that simple fact is of great comfort to two men whom I spoke to recently. Joe Ackroyd and Tom Harban are the captain and coach, respectively, of Barnsley FC's under-18 side.
The academy at Barnsley is close to the first team in a literal sense - home games are played in the shadow of Oakwell, less than 500ft away from the mother ground - but also figuratively. With an average age of 23.4, the Reds' current first-team squad is currently the youngest in the Championship, and with an emphasis on developing young players, right now, Joe and Tom's roles are as important as they've ever been.
Joe feels that the ethos of promoting youth currently being employed at Oakwell is a positive: "It's good to be at a club where if you are good enough, you're going to get a pathway. As long as you keep working hard, you never know what might happen."
"I live in Barnsley and I support Barnsley, so it's a perfect setup for me to be part of!"
Being a fan of the team you play for naturally fosters an immense sense of pride in any player, but the environment that Tom and other coaches aim to create plays a part in that general feeling of positivity too.
Tom explains: "Open and honest are our key ideas. I grew up in Barnsley, and the culture of the club is hard-working, honest people, so the fact that all the players will engage with anyone is a quality we want to create within them. We are definitely an open book, and we don't close ourselves off to anyone.
"Even the lads who are unlucky in that they don't get a pro contract, they still leave Barnsley as good people, which is important."
The point about not closing the academy off to anyone is certainly true in the current crop of under-18s, with the squad having an international flavour through its featuring of Israeli defender Amir Ariely and Australian striker Angus Chapman.
I ask Tom if the coaching staff have to do any further work with the players who aren't local to make them feel a little more at home?
"With Amir coming from Israel, where it's a completely different culture, yes, but his English was really good when he first arrived so that was a massive help. With Angus, although his first language was still English, he's come as a 16-year-old boy from the other side of the world.
"We have to manage these lads to make sure they're alright and that they have support networks in place. The lads who are local have got their friends and family, whereas these lads only have their host accommodation and us, so we have to make a bit of an effort with them.
He goes on to underline the importance of supportive teammates: "The group is quite a close knit group, and a lot of the players have grown up together through the academy over the years, so they do really make an effort to help these new lads coming in from abroad integrate as much as they can."
That is very much in keeping with the previous philosophy that Tom has talked about with regards to encouraging the players to engage with anyone, and as well as the coaches, the captain plays a key role in shaping the character of the playing squad.
Joe is in his eighth season at Barnsley, and he recounts the story of how he took on that particular role, which he says ignited even more of a positive feeling for the football club he loves.
"Midway through last season, when a few players moved on to the under-23s, Tom just took me to one side and said he wanted me to take on the armband.
"Obviously I said yes, and I've done it ever since, so it's really nice to be considered in that way by the coaches."
Oakwell is home for Joe, but he has of course had the opportunity to lead the squad up and down the country, and back in November, they headed to Chelsea for an FA Youth Cup tie. Although the day did end in defeat, Joe looks back on it with a lot of positivity.
"It was definitely an eye opener in terms of how good you've got to be to make it, but it was a brilliant opportunity to play against some of the top talent for our age group.
"We've watched it back a few times, and we've learnt a lot. For us, it was about taking as much as we could from the game, and trying to implement it into what we're trying to do."
Devising tactics and the approach to games is something that is particularly interesting when it comes to coaching in development football, because of the balance that has to be struck.
The first-team coaching staff are completely focused on winning games, but that might not always be the case on the academy side. The development of the players at your disposal is on a par with winning the games in terms of importance, so how do the coaches walk that particular tightrope?
"It's always nice winning!" laughs Tom. "But ultimately, my objective is to consistently get players progressing up into the under-23s.
If that has an impact on performances and results in the under-18s, then that's how it has to be. If our results take a hit because players aren't available, we just have to take it on the chin. Winning is not the be-all and end-all for the academy, because we get our rewards when we get a player into the first team."
Tom mentions goalkeeper Jack Walton and midfielder Romal Palmer, who are both products of the Oakwell academy and have made a combined 47 appearances for the Reds' first team this term, as shining examples of that particular type of reward.
The finished product is obviously the ultimate aim, but the raw talent has to be discovered first, so how does the scouting process for new players work at Barnsley?
"As an academy, we have quite a small group of staff, but the key thing is that we all have our own contacts with grassroots clubs, so we can bring in new players through use of those," explains Tom.
"The staff we have in the academy at the moment are really good at reaching out in order to bring this new talent into our system, and that model has been proven to work well over the years."
While tried-and-tested methods are comforting, just occasionally something unexpected can come along that torpedoes even the most well-laid foundations.
The unexpected can range in magnitude, but the most recent example of such an event was certainly at the top end of the scale. Around this time last year, a tiny little virus announced its arrival, and in the ensuing eleven months, it has affected every facet of society in one way or another. I asked Joe about the impact that coronavirus has had on operations at Barnsley.
"We had five or six months off, and it really wasn't easy to get back into it after we came back following that. We did have support from the club with sessions while we were off, but it was tough.
"I did keep my fitness up, and although I might have lost my touch a little bit, I think we're getting back into the groove of it now. You've just got to get on with it, haven't you?"
If Joe's last sentence there doesn't sum up the determination of the professional sportsman, then I don't know what does.
I want to thank both Tom and Joe very much for taking the time to speak to me. They were both a pleasure to talk to, and of course I wish all the very best to Joe as he continues his professional footballing adventure, and the same to Tom as he navigates the world of coaching.
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