Colchester United continue to invest in their academy amid the dog-eat-dog world of League Two. In this interview with Steve Ball, the club’s technical director explains how it sets them apart and why they hope that commitment will give them an edge…
Among the favourites for relegation before a ball was kicked this season, Colchester United are determined to continue doing things their way. That means investment in the club’s academy remains a source of pride – and talent.
In their win over Bradford last month, the starting line-up included teenager Marley Marshall-Miranda. There was a man-of-the-match performance from Al-Amin Kazeem. The oldest of their trio of academy graduates was Noah Chilvers who joined the club at nine.
Chilvers is a relative veteran at 21 and has three goals already this season. For the draw against Hartlepool last time out, these three were joined by Junior Tchamadeu, 18, making his fifth league start of the season after breaking through last year.
This is Colchester United, a team bucking the trend down the divisions by investing in their own youngsters rather than concentrating only on the first team. They are one of just two clubs in League Two – the other being Crewe – to be funding a category two academy.
“Some teams in our division like Salford and Mansfield, full respect to them, they heavily subsidise their first team, which is their right,” technical director Steve Ball tells Sky Sports. “We subsidise our youth department. The hope is that this will give us our edge.”
The vision is clear.
“We want to bring players through and sell them on. There are examples of that. Sammy Szmodics, Kane Vincent-Young, Frankie Kent, Macauley Bonne. All players we have had over the years at our club who have moved on to bigger and better things. That is our model.
“Junior is our youngest ever debutant, who is proving to be a very good player for us at right-back and has a lot of interest. We have category two facilities and a chairman who has shown real vision to develop our own players for the first team.”
It is a significant commitment given that it costs a significant sum to fund a category two academy. “It is huge. We are regularly monitored, audited. We have to meet criteria in terms of staffing and facilities. Our chairman has been brilliant with that.”
The chairman is Robbie Cowling, a man who, even when the club has found itself courting relegation, has maintained that desire to see young players on the pitch. The risks are real for Colchester but the hope is that it gives the club its own identity, as Ball explains.
“We respect our fans and they want to see success on the pitch as most fans do. But I think our fans understand our model. We are trying to get the balance right. We want to be a club that is sustainable. That is key in the modern game. Hopefully, our fans understand that.
“But my hope is that everyone outside of Colchester recognises us as being highly driven in regard to youth development and wanting to bring our own players through. I am personally very proud of the successes that we have had in our academy.”
If this sounds personal for Ball, then it is no wonder. He might be the technical director now but prior to that he was the head of recruitment at Colchester and before that he was the team’s manager. The connection to Colchester dates back rather further than that.
An FA Youth Cup winner with Arsenal as a teenager, Ball went on to have two spells with the U’s as a player and was even born in the town. He has a pretty strong claim to be Mr Colchester. “You could say that,” he acknowledges. “I am not sure the fans would agree.”
Even so, few have had such a long association across such a range of roles. “I have probably done every job in the club from U14 coach and up. I made my debut for Colchester at 19. I went to school here. I think I’m the only home-grown manager the club has had.
“That was a very proud moment for me. It did not go to plan, obviously. But I have been here for 12 years now and I have a really good relationship with the chairman. This new job is giving me a whole different perspective on the club behind the scenes.”
Now a director, Ball’s job is to bring the departments together. He is reporting to those above him but he also understands the pressures on Wayne Brown, the manager. “I hope I have the respect around the building to have a football opinion,” he says.
“But I am more on the business side now. Every day is different. It could be a big deal to bring a striker in or working on travel arrangements. Certain things that are new to me. There are things on the catering side that I have never been involved with before.”
One of the first tasks was to bring in his replacement as head of recruitment, appointing Ross Embleton, the former Leyton Orient manager. “He knows the league and he understands what is needed at this level. He will be a good acquisition for the club.”
Embleton draws up the targets. Brown is involved throughout. Colchester have two full-time scouts – one covering the north and the other in the south. Wyscout allows for data analysis. Given the investment in the academy, they lean heavily on that department.
“There are lots of good people in the football club watching games. We know the budget and we know the profile of player that we want to bring in. It is challenging because the better players cost the most. It is just trying to pick the right ones.”
That includes Alex Newby, who has come in from Rochdale. “He can play anywhere across the front three and has very good feet. He is a really creative player and will be a huge asset for us.” Ossama Ashley has joined from West Ham. “We have high hopes for him.”
But Colchester are aware they are still trying to defy the odds, their laudable focus on youth development and the long-term sustainability always offset by the more immediate demands. The aforementioned Salford and Mansfield are in the playoff positions.
Colchester are a couple of points above the relegation zone.
“I know this league too well. It is a levelling division. Anyone can beat anyone. If we can find some consistency, I believe top half would be progression for the club but who knows?” Whatever happens, one thing at Colchester United will not change.
“We will keep working to our model.”