By Keiran Fleming
Dundee United were once renowned for producing some of the best talent in the country with the likes of Stuart Armstrong, Ryan Gauld and Johnny Russell all making an impact at the club and beyond. However, over the last five years or so it seems as though the academy has struggled to consistently produce players who make a name for themselves at the club.
NE98 Assistant Editor Keiran Fleming spoke to Andy Goldie who has been the Academy Director for two years now about the ins and outs of the Arabs new look youth structure. Although Dundee United is still in the early stages of its new era under new ownership he believes there is more opportunity than ever for young players to break into the first team:
“The performance strategy and the business plan that the owners Mark and Scott Ogren and Tony Ashgar have put together, with input from the likes of myself and other members of staff, centers all around the development of young players.”
“If we want to bring success both on and off the pitch such as winning trophies, qualifying for Europe, finishing higher up in the league or success as in the business plan bringing more financial stability to the club and making profit, as the owners have rightly set the target of, then we have to invest in our young players.
“Gone are the days where we buy a journeyman or someone who is going to block a pathway for a young player. First and foremost we look to see what’s in the academy first to see if there’s a player ready to step in. We’re early on in that journey we’re only two years in but it’s really rewarding to see some greenshoots come through with the number of 17-year-olds coming through already, Lewis Neilson, Chris Mochrie, Kai Fotheringham and Darren Watson who all made debuts. You’ve still got boys like Declan Glass, Louis Appere, Jamie Robson and Logan Chalmers who are only a couple years older.”
“The first group of players I mentioned are still only 16-17 and in the second group of players the oldest is 23, Jamie Robson. It’s an exciting time for us. It involves everyone buying into the same vision. It involves everybody really investing and believing in our young players and giving them those opportunities. Lastly it involves everyone not putting a ceiling on what any of our staff or any of our young players can achieve.
“If we are going to paint the picture and sell the dream as just playing for Dundee United then ultimately we’re not going to achieve very much or move forward in the significant amount we do want to. It needs to be more ambitious than that. Our benchmarks aren’t within Scotland, our benchmarks are the best practices around the world.
“ We had Fluminese presenting today, we’ve had Hadjuk Split, Benfica, Roma, we’ve got connections with Partizan Belgrade, Dinamo Zagreb, Nordsjaelland. These are the clubs we’re benchmarking ourselves against because these clubs produce players for the top five leagues, Champions League, international level across the world. We need to learn and steal best practise from them and make it our own but at the same time they are wanting to learn what we’re doing and what we’re implementing in our methodology at the club as well.”
Although interactions and connecting with clubs all over the world has been extremely beneficial for the club, Andy doesn’t want United’s academy to just be a copycat of those abroad:
“What I’ve always hated is (the attitude of) Spain is doing great, let’s copy Spain; Germany is doing great now let’s copy Germany; Belgium is doing great now let’s copy Belgium. What we have to create is a real identity of what we want at Dundee United first and foremost. So if we are going to continue and try to replicate what other countries we are always going to be ten years behind. Belgium is getting success now because of what they did ten years ago; Spain was getting success at one point because of what they did ten years before; Germany is the same because of what they were doing ten years ago.
“Of course there are always lessons we can learn but if we don’t have a clear vision and a clear strategy of what we want to do and achieve then we’re always going to be behind and that’s the biggest problem in Scottish football. We’re copying everyone else and we don’t have a clear why. Why do we have an academy? What do we want to achieve? If we get that bit right we can actually formulate our own plan, our own DNA, our own identity and then we could potentially be the frontrunners and industry leaders.
“People will ask what Dundee United is doing? What is Scotland doing as a nation? So it’s not about constantly copying others but it’s about stealing best practise to make our own ideas even better.”
A lot of United fans have been very excited by the current crop of young players coming through, Chris Mochrie, Lewis Neilson and Kai Fotheringham. Some Arabs have even dubbed this group of players as a “golden generation”.
United’s Academy Director sees these players as the beginning of what could potentially be a wave of talent pushing their way into the first team:
“We don’t really want a ‘golden generation’ because that suggests it’s a flash in the pan. What our mission statement says is we want sustainable success so to get sustainable success we need to look at a bigger picture.
“Yes our 2003 age group are really strong but we also have really strong 2004s, really strong 2005s, really strong 2006s, who are part of the player pathway and they will continue to come through the player program as well. It’s not about just one age group in every five, six, seven years, we look at it as a whole approach. We look to see what’s coming in behind them and any decisions we make on our players is based on three or four age groups at a time.
“We know, for example, we have Chris Mochrie who almost skipped under 18s and went into the first team environment. So we’ve got an opportunity to invest in 2004 and 2005 in a similar position without clogging the pathway.”
“100% the 2003 age group is exciting. We’ve come in at a really good time where we can use those kids as role models and I do emphasise the word kid because they are still 17-years-old. There’s a lot of expectation on what they are going to achieve both short term and long term and it’s up to us to manage that as well.
“It’s been great to see Lewis breakthrough and play relatively consistently in the first team; It’s been great to see Chris become the youngest ever debutant; It was great to see Kai and Darren breakthrough and make their debuts as well as a number of other 2003s forming part of the squad. We’ve had Fin Malcolm and Kerr Smith from the 2004s being part of the squad as well.
“Underneath that there’s a conveyor belt of talent coming through and it’s important we support that in the right manner, manage their expectations as well as our own. It’s more about patience and making sure we get the right moment for these young kids. When they do breakthrough and when they do feel that belief that they’re ready for it then they’ll make a bigger impact and it’ll be a more sustainable impact.”
Chris Mochrie certainly proved himself in his short loan at Montrose and Lewis Neilson has made a good impression in the games he has played for the Arabs so far. Andy believes the success of the players is down to the person rather than the academy they come through:
“We always remind the coaches, the staff, the parents and players that we don’t create any player. So we don’t make any player a footballer and create a successful journey for him they need to do that themselves.
“In terms of processes, the strategy, the way of working, our identity, all the things we’ve put in place, I would say the 2003s are the first group to benefit from that whole package. They were the first group to come in and really benefit from the full-time pathway we created. They benefited from consistent, coherent daily messages of how we want our players to play, how we want our culture to look, the values we wanted to instill in them.
“Even things off the pitch. Like Lewis Neilson goes and achieves five highers in his first year of becoming a professional footballer, as well as transitioning into a new position, as well as becoming a Scotland under 17 international and breaking into the first team and making his debut. So these are the aspirational messages we were delivering on a daily basis.
“What really excites us is the boys that have been immersed in the full program for maybe three, four, five years and that really excites us. Even more so than the 2003s.”
A huge criticism of the academy systems across the UK in the past has been that players have been given false hope. Many players who were dropped by their clubs at a young age have gone on to claim that football ruined their life after they were told to focus on the sport rather than education.
The key change in the Arabs new academy setup is it aims to develop the players talent as well as further their education:
“I think there was an article down in England where 70% of the players they interviewed didn’t feel supported and felt their expectations had been mismanaged. When that journey comes to an end (a player being let go). if it does come to an end, we prefer a proactive approach.
“One of the messages we deliver to our parents and to our players on a regular basis is if you think that you’re coming into Dundee United football club’s academy just to become a professional footballer then ultimately you’re going to fail because it’s about so much more than that.
“It’s about the shared experiences, it’s about going to tournaments and creating friendships that are going to last longer than any full-time football career; It’s about those interpersonal and transferable skills you’ll create through football being a tool rather than being the only thing that matters in the program; It’s about our academy awards night this Sunday where we get to celebrate the hard work and the successes of our players; It’s about creating networks round the players so they do have different career paths that they can go on to. Michael McPake, our Head of Academy Operations and Education, did a magnificent job in developing those transferable skills for us as well.
“It’s not just about football and their end journey within football because their end journey might be in league 2, it might be junior, it might not be to play football by a certain age. Yes we want to aspire to produce players who go on to play Champions League football, play in the top five leagues, go and represent their country in major tournaments but that’s utopia. Not every player can achieve that, so it’s important we’re proactive in managing expectations throughout the journey and tell them there’s so much more than that (football), so many greater experiences they will get that will outlast any football career.”
Fans of any club are always looking for the next young player to breakthrough into the first team and a majority of the time they are told to be patient.
Andy has a different mindset he told NE98 that fans should expect to see more and more young players pull on the tangerine jersey:
“It’s not that we’re hoping for it to eventually happen (break into the first team). We’ve got clear processes and clear strategy so that it will happen, we will achieve our vision. The number of players we achieve that with that go and play in the top five leagues in the world, play Champions League football, play international football we’ll find out but nobody puts more pressure on the success of the academy than myself.
“That’s what motivates me, that’s what inspired me to take the job and leave my previous role. I’m not here to just develop players for Dundee United first team, I’m here to develop more than that. That’s my motivation.
“To see another Billy Gilmour make his Champions League debut and win man of the match on his Champions League debut. That’s what inspires me. If we can give more of our young players that opportunity although with an understanding of patience it’s not going to happen overnight.”
“An understanding that these young players are going to make mistakes and it’s not just a linear journey or a constant positive journey, they will have bad games, they will make mistakes, they will lose goals for us. But, because of the type of character we’re developing they have the resilience to learn from those errors and therefore be a better player every time they get that opportunity.
“I totally appreciate and I want the fans to want more from the academy. I want them to get excited, I want them to buy into it. Again they’re a real stakeholder for us. Our job is to produce players they can relate to, who inspire them, who bring more fans to the stadium, put fans on the edge of their seats, who they can celebrate and hopefully they can watch them lift trophies for the club again as well.”
Although he has only been in the job for just over two years it is clear to see how passionate Andy is about his role as Academy Director and the ongoing project at United. He told Keiran that he sees his long-term future with the club as it continues to move forward in this new youth oriented direction:
“It’s not a short-term project. Of course you can’t guarantee anything in football, whether the club makes a decision or there’s an opportunity elsewhere that comes up that I just didn’t see coming, that can obviously happen in football.
“ But, I’m here for the long-term, my family has moved up here, we lived in Lanarkshire previously. We’ve moved up, the kids have moved school, we’ve fully invested in this. I’m not a person who does things by half, if I’m going to do something then I really want to go two feet in, invest everything in it. I’m really fortunate that I’ve got a wife and two kids that do the exact same and they understand that as well.
“I’m not going to settle for second best, I’m not going to settle for good, the most horrible word in the Scottish dictionary is decent that’s not success for me. Success for me is excelling, being excellent on a daily basis, constantly producing a conveyor belt of talent not just a generation, getting more fans in the stadium who are excited about our young talent, getting Dundee United fans talking about how excited they are about 16,17,18 year old players coming through. That’s where I get my motivation from, that’s what inspires me and that’s why we work so hard every day.”
NE98 would like to thank Andy Goldie for taking the time to speak to us. We wish both him and Dundee United the best of luck for the future.