This feature is part of the Academy Way
MANCHESTER CITY FOOTBALL CLUB HAVE MANY REASONS TO BE BOASTFUL. They are the reigning Premier League champions, have assembled a first-team squad brimming with star quality, and play their football inside the Etihad Stadium, one of European football’s most intimidating fortresses. However, another fortress was recently built to add to the Manchester City kingdom, a development which speaks volumes of the club’s vision towards becoming the world’s finest footballing institution.
In December, the City Football Academy was officially unveiled, giving birth to yet another exciting chapter in the history of the club. Costing a staggering £200 million, the City Football Academy is state-of-the-art and represents the culmination of the club’s defining vision of promoting youth. Indeed, greeting visitors on the wall of the main reception is a quote from Sheikh Mansour: “We are building a structure for the future, not just a team of all-stars.”
Although that quote may have been met with scepticism when the new City owner made that statement in 2008, they now resonate strongly as prophecy and a system of beliefs which drives the club towards the forefront of the footballing world. The corridors are brought to life by graphics of City’s successes, past and present, creating an atmosphere of ambition to uphold their current standing in the game.
The centre is littered with stunning features. There is a 120-seat press conference room, a 7,000-seater academy stadium and an extremely advanced hydrotherapy facility. The astonishingly equipped gym has an enormous image of Sergio Agüero celebrating after scoring that Premier League-clinching goal against Queens Park Rangers in 2012. That was the greatest moment in City’s history and the ultimate goal of their new super-academy is to produce many more of those extraordinary moments.
There are several motivational messages etched on wall, including “Teamwork, Performance, Respect” and “Train like a professional, Eat like a professional, Drink like a professional, Tweet like a professional”. Overlooking the gym is “Create the Future” written in blue. This is the club mantra; long-term planning and a focus on honing their burgeoning talent will make the future blue. The club is committed to drilling the core principles of professionalism into its young stars as they learn their trade in City’s stunning domain of player development. The image of Agüero is apt as City’s workforce behind the scenes plot tirelessly to produce the next champion, the next hero, the next Manchester City legend.
The club’s phenomenal training facilities are not just a great place to learn how to play football, they are a statement of intent that City intend to accomplish their vision of development from within. Building City Football Academy in a former eyesore of the city, the club contributed to the regeneration of Manchester as by transforming a desolate industrial wasteland into a sporting metropolis. The club was committed in making it a community inclusive project, aimed at attracting children to football. After all, the area is called the Etihad Campus because the club is creating the message that they are not just building a project purely associated with football; they are building an exciting future for Manchester.
At the heart of the campus is the Performance Centre, home to the Academy and City’s future which is bursting with endless possibilities. At the Academy’s launch in December, club chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak spoke confidently of the club’s proud philosophy of building from within. He said: “The real work begins now. Our approach is based firmly on the approach that if you invest in people and create platforms and opportunities for development and creativity, the returns are immeasurable.”
What is immensely satisfying for Mubarak and the club’s hierarchy is that their programme of development appears to be paying dividends even at this early stage. Under the tutelage of Patrick Vieira, the U21 Elite Development Squad has made promising strides this season. They recovered from a slight dip in form recently with a 3-1 victory over Fulham that has got the squad moving in the right direction once again. Building on their domestic form, the EDS have been mightily impressive in the UEFA Youth League this season.
City, along with Shakhtar Donetsk, are the only unbeaten club left in the competition. They have already shown their confidence when they completed a group-stage double over Roma in the group stages, including a spectacular 4-0 victory in Rome. They also produced a stunning performance in crushing Bayern Munich 6-0 in a result that reverberated around Europe. The sense of excitement surrounding the club’s flourishing young stars is the ultimate vindication for a massive investment in the club’s new training and academy facilities.
The club’s youth squad is stocked full of future stars, including prospects that have already appeared on the fringes of the first-team – an impressive achievement for a footballing pupil. For example, José Ángel Pozo spearhead’s the club’s exciting future in attack. The highly regarded 18-year-old made waves earlier in the season when he was forced into the first-team fray after injuries to Sergio Agüero, Edin Džeko and Stefan Jovetić. The Spaniard marked his debut with a goal in the 7-0 Capital One Cup demolition of Sheffield Wednesday in September and also tasted Premier League action as a substitute against Sunderland and then led the line from the start in the 1-0 win away at Leicester City.
It was a priceless experience for one of City’s brightest stars and his development is a clear snapshot of the level of progression currently pervading the club’s youth ranks. Pozo was also quick to highlight the potential of his younger brother, Iker, who is currently plying his trade in the U14s. The Pozo’s came from European Champions Real Madrid after being frustrated with the lack of opportunities at the Bernabéu. It goes to show how City is beginning to attract talent from the greatest clubs in the world because of their promise to build an exciting career for their youngsters.
Another academy product currently creating significant buzz is Devante Cole (pictured), son of Andrew – a legend of City’s rivals across the city. The 19-year-old striker has been part of the club since the age of seven and has steadily risen through the ranks to the point where he has established himself as one of the deadliest strikers in his age bracket. Cole, who has scored ten goals across two loan spells this season at Barnsley and MK Dons, was particularly impressive in the UEFA Youth League last year, scoring six and assisting four. In seems that Cole is primed for a call-up to the City first-team once he returns from his loan spell and if he were to breakthrough and cement a stating place, it would represent a significant breakthrough for the club.
That is because a criticism consistently levelled at City has been the predominantly foreign make-up of their first-team. The perception has been that a lack of an English core is damaging for the club’s reputation as a Premier League heavyweight, however several of the youngsters excelling in City’s academy are English and it is a development which delights the club and its fans.
In addition to Cole, Ashley Smith-Brown is another exciting prospect thriving in City’s academy. Born and bred in Manchester, the home-grown full-back has shown a fantastic aptitude under Vieira and captained City’s U-8 side; he has been drilled as a top-class defender and as a leader. Joining Smith-Brown in City’s wave of English talent is the scintillating winger Brandon Barker. The 17-year-old was named the Academy Player of the Year last season after scoring 13 goals in 32 appearances for the U18s and has impressed Manuel Pellegrini to the point where he was invited to train with the first-team in Abu Dhabi in January.
However, one of City’s key educational tools bestowed on their youngsters is preaching patience. Pozo may have featured in the first-team and Cole may have briefly rubbed shoulders with superstars like Agüero and David Silva but the coaching staff in City’s Elite Development Squad would have been quick to remind him that there is still plenty of work to be done. No matter how talented or promising a player, there is always a mountain of work to be done before an academy prospect is adequately equipped for the intense rigours of Premier League action.
The belief at City is that they now have the structure and philosophy to break the academy-to-superstar hoodoo and finally produce players worthy of lining up inside the Etihad Stadium. In a way, with the perfect academy centre now at their disposal, there is added pressure to produce top-notch talent so the next few years are crucial in confirming City’s status as bench setters in youth development.
City’s investment in youth and developing talent from within is one of the most admirable enterprises the club has undertaken. The solid foundation of English youth in the academy ranks bodes extremely well for the future and portrays a club that aspires to do much more than simply haemorrhage cash on marquee signings. It is City’s club vision to produce, to develop and to create, rather than simply acquire. The towering immortalisation of Agüero’s title-winning goal serves as the bedrock for all the youngsters currently embarking on their footballing education at City Football Academy. It is the most powerful inspiration they can call on.
By instilling youth talent with the professionalism and skillset to succeed in the cut-throat environment of top-flight football, it may not be long before an academy product is ripping off his shirt after securing Premier League glory. The infrastructure is certainly there; Manchester City are undoubtedly cantering towards becoming a powerhouse in youth development, it is now up to the young stars to show their worth as potential Premier League stars and maybe one day they will adorn the wall of the gym as a legend of Manchester City.
Paul Scholes, one of Manchester United’s most famous academy graduates, recently wrote that City’s promise to reinvent themselves as power players in nourishing youth talent worried him. After an examination of City’s infrastructure and current crop of youth stars, it seems that his trepidation is wholly warranted. We have already seen the balance of power shift from the red half of Manchester to the blue, but can City sustain their legacy with breeding the next generation of superstars? Time will tell.
By Matt Gault. Follow @MattGault11