The State of the Game: ASPIRE – A football academy with a difference

Gav rose

Dulwich Hamlet manager Gavin Rose (Photo: Onion Bag Blog)

In Part 3 of TFN’s State of the Game Series, James Dutton and Hugo Greenhalgh look at the ASPIRE Academy – a model that combines top class coaching with valuable life skills…

Last month, James Ducker published an in-depth study on young footballers in The Times. The series, entitled ‘From superstars to scrapheap’, examined the emotional damage that can be caused to young players who are released, especially those who fail to earn a scholarship or professional contract. A rather bleak study conducted by the charity XPRO revealed that “96% of scholars signed by clubs in England and Wales at 16 will not play again from the age of 18 and of those who do earn professional contracts, only 2% will still be professionals past 21”. Furthermore, over half of 15-18 year olds who were released suffered from depression or anxiety, and were turning to alcohol or substance abuse.

While these figures may not be altogether surprising given the unpredictability of most careers in football, it is worrying that a support network doesn’t exist for these young men. One day they are the club’s latest prospects, the next they could be released and unemployed. The players know full well that football is a life choice that requires more hard work than most, but if and when that plan falls through, they are left with very few qualifications and sacrificed full time education in order to give it a shot.

One institution who are trying to combat this is South London’s ASPIRE Academy. The Academy, founded by Dulwich Hamlet manager Gavin Rose, began in 2002 and its mission statement is to provide a football and educational programme for 16 – 18 year old males, to pursue their dream of playing professional football whilst also furthering their education. Dulwich play in the Ryman Premier Division, the seventh tier of English football, but the academy setup is the envy of many professional clubs.

An acronym for Academic and Sporting Inspired Routes to Excellence, ASPIRE believes that professional clubs miss out an home grown talent, particularly in this age group. Many young players begin to encounter other distractions, while professional clubs tend not to concentrate much of their resources on these ages.

Based at Bacon College, Rotherhithe, in the shadow of Canary Wharf, ASPIRE serves not only as a means for evolving the youth infrastructure of Dulwich Hamlet, but as a launch pad for talented individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds, ensuring that they undertake a full-time academic or vocational course.

While the academy seeks to mould footballers, Rose believes there is also a duty to mould young men. He speaks glowingly of the academy’s “good and humble boys”, including ex-students George Elokobi and Simeon Jackson, who have both risen to the highest level. When current members of the Dulwich side talk about a “Gavin player”, they mean a hard-working, modest young man without any attitude problems.

Jackson, a Canadian international, played for Norwich City in the Premier League before he was released in 2013. He now plays for Coventry City in League One, but the 27-year-old admits that he wouldn’t have reached this stage of his career without the guidance of Rose and ASPIRE.

The Jamaican-born striker moved to England in search of a football career in 2002, and was sent to ASPIRE after being released by Gillingham, so empathises with young footballers trying to make their way professionally. He said: “A lot of players end up having to find their own way and it’s difficult. I think ASPIRE is a net that catches those players and gives them the platform to make it, because there’s a lot of great talent out there.

“Sometimes it’s just guidance and time that needs to be put into players, and that helped me push on. It’s something that’s close to my heart.”

The focus at ASPIRE, which is currently the home of 45 youngsters between 16 and 18, is on the quality of people produced, rather than the quantity, as Rose explains: “We want to give individual quality time in terms of training and development, we don’t just want them to be a background number. We want to be able to say we’ve helped this individual, and provided them with a stepping stone to further their career and aid their education.”

Rose recognises the significance of education in giving his young charges another option, if their footballing careers come to an end. “College is important because it gives another exit route away from football,” he explains. “If things don’t work out, you can go into higher education and create better opportunities for yourself. Only a small percentage of the group we started with 12 years ago were academic. The emphasis for them was on the football, and playing for Dulwich. But we got strict, and said they wouldn’t be able to train or play if they didn’t progress with their studies.”

“They knuckled down, and a few of them who ordinarily wouldn’t have gone to university are now doing well in the City and some have got their own businesses. It just shows that some kids don’t really know what they want, and it’s good that they didn’t stop with their education. We feel it gives them an opportunity not to give up on themselves, because you never know where things will turn.”

The proof of ASPIRE’s success lies in the numbers; the programme has reached out to over 200 youngsters, over 50% of whom have undertaken degree courses at Higher Learning Institutes. Ninety have gained contracts at Non-League clubs while 21 have gone into professional football. However, perhaps the most refreshing statistic is that in excess of 90% of ASPIRE’s participants have achieved an A-C or Pass grade in their chosen courses.

Of the current crop, Rose believes midfielder Xavier Vidal can make the step-up to professional football. The 20-year old, who has been training at ASPIRE since he was 16, was recommended to attend by his PE teacher after being rejected by Charlton Athletic for being too small. Vidal had trials at Huddersfield Town and Bolton Wanderers last season and in December was invited by Birmingham City to train with their U-21s.

Vidal, born in Peckham, has become a regular in the Dulwich Hamlet first-team since firing the goal that won them the Ryman South championship in 2013, but still trains at the academy as he continues his footballing education. “The football’s quicker at Dulwich and you’ve only got responsibility for yourself, but here there’s a responsibility to lead others on and lead by example”, he explains.

Dulwich Hamlet's Xavier Vidal (Photo: Mike Urban)
Dulwich Hamlet’s Xavier Vidal (Photo: Mike Urban)

Rose is in no doubt about Vidal’s potential. “He just had a trial at Birmingham and was deemed not to be good enough to go into their first team within six months, which I felt was quite a harsh statement”, he says. “By all intents and purposes, he was definitely good enough for their Under 21s, they thought he was one of the better players so I thought that he maybe deserved a little bit more opportunity. But he’s attracted a lot of attention from the Championship and below, but I think he’s just got to be patient.”

Kershaney Samuels is another ASPIRE graduate who features regularly for Dulwich now. He loves the coaching that Rose, and his assistants Junior Kadi and Kevin James, have to offer. “Working with them, guaranteed I’m going to learn something new – either every game or every training session”, he says.

He’s also adamant that the ex-pros who have come to Dulwich in recent seasons have been impressed by the level of coaching at the club.“I’ve seen other players come from pro teams and their knowledge isn’t as good as some of us younger ones who’ve been here at Dulwich for three or four years”, he explains. “In terms of learning, it’s brilliant. They try and work on each player individually and help them understand their roles and their jobs.”

Rose’s talent has not gone unnoticed. In December, he was linked with the vacant Welling United job at the end of last year but turned it down because he wants to see through his work at Dulwich. “I’m heavily involved at Dulwich Hamlet. I believe in the project and I think if I’m to leave here, it’s got to be for something I feel is going to push me on to another level.”

It’s this involvement and dedication that has allowed Rose to make ASPIRE a real but underappreciated success story. Dulwich Hamlet benefit from the Academy as a competitive environment for young, hungry players who are eager to take a second chance. If the players impress, that chance will come and they can move on to a club further up the pyramid. It seems rather bizarre that such a successful model should be able to operate, under the mainstream, at non-league level but the FA and the professional circuit could do a lot worse than look to Rose for some lessons in coaching, player and person development.

State of the Game Part 1: Andy Kellett & the Under 21 Premier League

State of the Game Part 2: Coaching and Infrastructure

@jrgdutton; @HugoGreenhalgh; @The_False_Nine

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