SCOTT Fitzgerald believes Millwall's new academy base at Eltham College will help revolutionise youth football at the club.
The young Lions moved into the training complex in SE9 last week and 40 local schoolchildren used the facilities for the first time on Tuesday.
And head of youth Fitzgerald is confident that increased staffing levels and the improved academy will see Millwall secure category two status under the new Elite Player Performance Programme (EPPP).
Clubs across the country overhauled their youth set-ups over the summer in order to keep pace with new regulations being brought in by the Premier League.
The EPPP states that a category two club must have separate facilities for its academy, which has prompted the move away from Calmont Road, the first-team training ground.
In a wide-ranging interview with NewsAtDen, Fitzgerald explained the ins and outs of the changes and his hopes for the new development squad, which has joined an U21 league for the first time.
A company from Belgium is in the process of assessing all of the new academies. When will Millwall be assessed and what will that entail?
SF: They've started with the clubs who applied for category one, and from the end of October they'll move onto category two. Our assessment is in early November, but we won't hear the outcome until February. They need to get a look across the whole football club. So that's from the U9s, all the way to the first-team manager and the chief executive.
They're trying to mirror it on the European model where the club is one, a whole, rather than 'there's the academy and there's the first-team'. They want both to be run in the same way. The assessors come in for four days and they'll speak to the coaches for the U9s, watch an U13s game, watch the U18s and speak to Kenny Jackett, so I need to start putting together a list of appointments. They are going to cover all of the bases.
It's hard to predict the outcome because these are the first assessments of their kind, but are you confident of achieving category two status?
SF: Millwall have done everything they could possibly do. We haven't cut any corners and we've gone above and beyond. We've gone from four members of staff in the academy to 16, which is a huge increase, and we've moved into a new facility, which is top drawer.
You moved into the new training base at Eltham College last week. What facilities does the academy now have?
SF: There are two classrooms, a multimedia centre, a swimming pool, a gymnasium and five pitches. A lot of the new rules are about offering more contact time to your younger age groups, and the new facility will enable us to do that. Tuesday was the first time we took boys out of school to come and train with us and we had 40 of them.
I was looking down, telling them that they are the future of this club, and some of them only came up to my knees. They had homework club, two training sessions and a video analysis session. The end product that we're now providing to these kids is just totally different to before. It just wouldn't have been possible at Calmont Road, so that was a big reason why we moved.
Most age groups will be based in Eltham, but what about the development squad?
SF: The development squad will stay at Calmont Road where they'll be under the guidance of Tim Breacker, whose going to be the development coach. That position comes under the academy banner. In terms of the who takes the U21 games, it will be a split between me and Tim.
And what do you think of the new U21 league?
SF: I think it's a huge step forward. For the boys to jump the gap between the U18s and the first team was just far too big, especially at Championship level. I've taken reserve games in the past where there was no competitive element to it. We're trying instill a winning mentality – if Kenny suddenly needs a right-back on a Saturday morning, it's crucial that we've been teaching our 19-year-olds that winning is important. When the first team lose a game there are a lot of disgruntled people – the supporters, players, staff and the chairman – so the pressure becomes different and we need to teach that.
Years ago they used to play reserve games at the main stadium but that was taken away because it was important to keep the pitch in good condition for the first team. Previously the U18s would only play at The Den in the youth cup so if they ever made it into the first team, they'd be like a rabbit in the headlights. We can't recreate the atmosphere of a first-team match, but we can now recreate the surroundings and the build-up.
How do you rate the quality of the current development squad?
SF: This is our first year at it, so we're very young in that department. Some of the clubs we're up against have been running a development squad for two or three years, where most players are 20-year-olds. Ours are mainly 18. That's something we were fully aware of going into it and we're going to work on that; we've got a good nucleus of players but we're looking to bring some more in, perhaps from non-league clubs.
You've completely revamped the youth scouting network over the summer. How many scouts do you have now?
SF: About 25. Only about ten of those are on money, the rest are Millwall supporters and we look after them in other ways. There was no point in aiming for category two and increasing contact hours without getting the players in. Having said that, we want to increase the quality of our young players and not just the number.
You're allowed to play a handful of senior pros in U21 games – their experience must be invaluable to the younger players?
SF: We're allowed to have three overage outfield players and one goalkeeper, which I think is a good move. We've had three games now and Steve Mildenhall has been fantastic. He's doing all the right things to get back into the first team or earn himself a move to another club. That is exactly what we are looking for – for the senior players to offer guidance to the younger ones, because they need it. That's how they'll learn; by playing with, and against, experienced pros.
Paul Robinson, Tamika Mkandawire and Danny Shittu played against Barnet last week to work on their fitness and overage players need to make sure they get the most out of the U21 games for their own good. The double-edged sword is that they help the kids out as well.
The U21s were beaten 3-1 by Barnet. What did you make of the performance?
SF: I was very, very disappointed with the Barnet defeat, particularly the manner of our play. I've been a player at Millwall, watched a lot of games and now I'm a member of staff. I think I know what the fans are looking for, what Kenny's looking for and I don't think the boys did themselves justice on that day. We want to be exciting – getting crosses and shots in. I thought we were really negative against Barnet and we let them dictate the tempo. It's a lesson for us but one we have to learn fast because there's only 17 development fixtures left now.
Kenny Jackett has spoken about introducing a passing style of play in the first team. Is that something the academy will look to mirror?
SF: To be honest, we've done that since the day I came in. From day one that was a massive objective, if not my only one. I wanted to bring a style and philosophy of play to the U9s, right the way through to the U18s. Anyone who has seen our younger teams will know that we play from the back, through each third of the pitch and that we're a possession-based academy. It doesn't always come off, but that is our aim. With Kenny tweaking the style of play, it brings the academy and the first team closer together.