FEATURE: How Millwall compete with Charlton and Crystal Palace for south London's football talent

LAST season, a club-record eight young players were offered their first professional deals by Millwall.

There are high hopes that George Alexander, Reuben Duncan, Billy Mitchell, Sam Skeffington, Besart Topalloj, Joe Wright, Junior Tiensia and Rob Strachan can impact Neil Harris’ first team in the long term.

But it wasn’t all celebration, as two young players, Harry Taylor and Lewis West, were told they were not being retained on professional terms.

That news was delivered to each player individually by Scott Fitzgerald, who started his career at Wimbledon before playing for Millwall between 1997 and 2000. He became Lions youth team manager in December 2007 and is now the head of the club’s academy.

In 2012, Fitzgerald oversaw the club moving to Category Two status under the Premier League’s Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP).

Millwall fans have had brief glimpses of the work being done underage at the club, from the under-18s’ FA Youth Cup extra-time loss to a Tottenham side that had just beaten Barcelona, to 14-year-old Darko Gyabi’s £1million-plus move to Manchester City.

Late last season, NewsAtDen spoke to Fitzgerald about that move, the process of finding players, Harris’ input, and the importance that young players can see a pathway to the first team.

NewsAtDen: You delivered good news to eight players that they were being given professional deals – but what happens for the other two?

Scott Fitzgerald: We get to the decision straightaway. We offer them exit routes. So we invite the boys back in the following week.

They get the decision on the day and then the following week they come back and get feedback from all the departments, the technical and tactical side. We put video clips together for them, there’s the sports science programme – where they came in at, where they finished at – and then we send it all out to the other 91 clubs.

It’s emotional for everybody because some of those guys have been with us since they were nine. You get to know the parents, the siblings. It’s a tough day.

NAD: Can you remember the moment you were told by Wimbledon you had earned a professional deal?

SF: Yes, I can remember the money I was offered. For me, when I sat in my meeting with the manager (Bobby Gould) it wasn’t a negotiation, it was: “This is the offer.”

I didn’t even bat an eyelid, it wasn’t, “I could do with another £25.” I was just delighted to be offered a professional contract.

I was living with my parents at the time. It was £75 a week – but it was a long time ago! But it wasn’t about the money, it was about carving out a professional career for myself.

The money will come if you’re good enough and you get the opportunity.

Billy Mitchell scored a 30-yard screamer against Spurs in the FA Youth Cup

NAD: How many people at Millwall are involved in making decisions over young players?

SF: For the professional contracts, what I do is hold meetings with all the relevant staff. That would be all the disciplines: education, sports science and medicine, and coaching.

We would all get together, we’ve got all the data from the time they came into us. How high they jumped when they were 12 to how high they’re jumping now. We have all the physical data, all the football data, video clips.

It’s not just one meeting, it’s a series of meetings over the year. I’ll meet with the first-team staff as well and the under-23s coaches. The way our club works, it’s very inclusive.

The manager [Harris] and the first-team staff will know every one of those boys and will have watched them a number of times. So they’ll have their opinions.

NAD: What areas do you look for players, and what is the competition to sign them like?

SF: We predominantly look in south London, London and we do look outside London. But when I first came in I wanted us to be the best in south London.

Within south London you’ve got Palace and Charlton. Not only that, I think everybody knows south London is a hotbed of talent – Ruben Loftus-Cheek at Chelsea, for example, and I’m sure you could name quite a few more. So the big clubs are active in south London.

We’re trying to battle the two other clubs but everybody is here.

We have eight scouts who are paid and about 10-12 scouts who are voluntary. About 20 scouts in total.

NAD: From what age players do you look?

SF: From seven to 23. They can’t officially sign for us until they’re nine. We would approach the parents and the club to seek permission for them to come in. We’ve got lots of links with local Sunday teams and schools.

They can still play for their Sunday teams but come in to train with us once a week.

Because they can’t sign for anyone they can train for us, Palace and Charlton at the same time, but when they get to nine they have to make a decision or we have to make a decision.

NAD: How do young players acquire agents?

SF: Through a variety of avenues. Through social media, which is quite sad. Through other players in the team.

It’s not supposed to happen [under the age of 16], it’s illegal. Does it happen? Of course it does. It’s a terrible thing that’s in football. The authorities need to be better.

But promises are made, and some parents fall for that. I can only see it getting worse.

It’s up to the FA but it’s difficult to enforce. There’s the destabilising of kids that are happy at a club, then the promise of being able to get them to another club.

Ultimately agents don’t earn money without moving someone on at the younger age groups.

George Alexander, who made his senior debut alongside Billy Mitchell on the last day of 2018-19

NAD: Does the money from Darko Gyabi’s transfer to Manchester City all go back into the youth set-up?

SF: When that happens you need to invest again in recruitment to find the next one.

If we were to just sell and put it all back into the club coffers it’s going to dry up pretty quickly.

There’s a long-term vision and strategy here of how we’re going to do it and everyone buys into it.

It was one of the scouts who found him. He’d been in with us three years and did really well, progressed really quickly. Some boys pick it up really quickly, some don’t, there’s not just one pathway for everybody.

He did really well for us.

NAD: Is it frustrating when you lose a player like that? Is it too young to allow a player to move?

SF: I think it’s too young. I think there’s a wider issue than just football. There’s a lot to be said for growing up in the area you’re from with your friends and socialising with your friends. It is an issue.

I think there’s an issue with bigger clubs hoovering up the best talent – they can only play 11 players at any one time.

You look at a couple of clubs – I won’t name them – that have 30, 40 players out on loan. I don’t think that’s healthy for English football.

I think players should be identified and play at their clubs until they’re a certain age, and then if they want to move on they can move on.

For me, yes, it’s frustrating. When I first came in there seemed to an appetite to sell players, but the chairman now doesn’t want that.

As a staff we’re really keen to get our players into the first team, that’s our main goal.

Sam Skeffington, with academy head Scott Fitzgerald, signing his first pro deal

NAD: Are there any changes you’d like to see made to help clubs like Millwall?

SF: The academies are basically governed by the Premier League, and the Premier League want the best players there.

Rule changes when they come in are most probably from the Premier League, so I don’t see wholesale changes in what they do.

Compensation would be, for me, higher to make it more difficult for clubs to take players, to make them think twice about taking a player.

I think the way it’s currently set is a drop in the ocean for them.

NAD: Is there a target for a percentage of the first-team squad to be home-grown?

SF: We’ve got KPIs [key performance indicators] for the academy set by Steve [Kavanagh, Lions chief executive] and the board. They’re assessed every six months, where we’re at. We have long-term goals and short-term goals.

We assess them at the end of each season and set new targets.

NAD: Neil Harris has been first-team manager for four years – how important is that stability for the youth set-up?

SF: For me, it’s so important that there’s stability at the club. We are a very stable club. We had Kenny Jackett for a number of years – a couple of managers in between – and now Neil’s been in the post a few years.

The first-team staff are settled, so we know what it looks like at the top and we can work backwards from there. That’s really, really important.

Joint-under-18 bosses Larry McAvoy (left) and Chris Perry have successfully brought players through

NAD: What are you looking for in nine-year-old players?

SF: As it gets closer to Neil’s side it gets tighter. Really at the beginning we’re looking for talent, attitude.

The attitude will always be the thing, even at a young age. We’re looking for the players that when the chips are down they’re still out there trying to be the best.

NAD: At what age group do they start mirroring the formation, style of the first team?

SF: It’s not so much about systems, it’s about principles. The manager can play 4-4-2, but at the younger age groups we give the players a flavour of a number of systems because the next manager, or five managers down the line, they might want to do something slightly different.

But I don’t think the principles will ever change in terms of the effort, the attitude. That’s what we try to instil in them.

NAD: How important is it for those young players to see someone like Ben Thompson breaking through?

SF: It’s massive. If the parents and players can’t see what we call a ‘poster boy’, someone who’s come through the system, then they’ll question whether there is a pathway.

We hadn’t had a pathway for a number of years previously, and now we’ve got two or three players in the first-team squad. Those guys are brilliant because they come back and talk to the players.

That’s really, really important.

Ben Thompson is a 'poster boy' for young Millwall hopefuls

NAD: Millwall discontinued the academy some years ago, then started it up again. What was behind both?

SF: When I came in it was called an academy or a centre of excellence. We were running as an academy and I wasn’t involved in those decisions. They felt they weren’t getting value for money so decided to drop from an academy to a centre of excellence.

And then EPPP came in six, seven years ago and you had a decision to make which way you were going to go, whether it was Category One, Two, Three or Four.

Most probably the equivalent would have been Category Three, but the club decided to go Category Two. The club have committed money to the academy over the last six, seven years.

It’s a substantial amount of money and the club want a return on that.

NAD: When he became manager, Harris said he wanted to restore the club’s identity. How much does that permeate down through the youth system?

SF: I’ve known Neil a long time. I know the type of person he is. For me, everything he stands for is what the club stand for but also what I stand for.

It fitted really nicely between the three parties. We knew that he was going to be open to young players. For everybody in the academy it was great that he was getting the job.

But ultimately the players have to be good enough. It doesn’t matter about relationships, if the players aren’t good enough Neil won’t play them.

NAD: What’s the next step for these eight players, are there continued conversations?

SF: It never stops. Aiden O’Brien, Ben Thompson, we still speak to them, see them once or twice every week. We still have conversations about life, playing, if they’re not doing so well maybe they’ll come over and speak to us, speak to me. We’ll have a conversation and reassure them.

If they’re doing well, pat them on the back but say, ‘keep going, you can do better’. The care never stops.

Image: Millwall FC 

John Kelly