Guernsey Press

New-look GFA Academy aiming to 'turbocharge' future for island talent

Guernsey Football Association Aztech Academy manager Ross Allen and coach Rob Jones are the special guests on this week’s Guernsey Press Football Podcast as they explain changes that have been made this season and the long-term benefits they hope to achieve.

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GFA Aztech Academy manager Ross Allen leading a session at the KGV. (Picture by Sophie Rabey, 32825003)

How is the Aztech Academy structured this season and what has changed?

Ross Allen: ‘We’ve got age groups over three nights from our under-9s to under-14s, so that’s Year 4 to Year 9. We’ve got six groups across the three nights down at the KGV and we’ve had a bit of a restructure this year. We re-trialled everyone, looked at some high-performing players from the local clubs as well, and ultimately selected groups of roughly 16 per age group just to provide a better learning experience for everyone. For us as coaches to deliver to smaller numbers allows the players to get that really important player-to-coach time that maybe in the past with groups of 20-plus we couldn’t provide.’

Is that the key change, that it’s smaller groups, more focused?

RA: ‘For me, it’s really important to do that, to look at the high-performing players across those age groups, to give them as much attention as we can, to work on technique, different ways of playing, becoming masters of the football, so that when they do get to representative ages, they’ve got all the tools in the toolbox.’

  • Watch: Ross Allen and Rob Jones on the revamped GFA Aztech Academy

What are the origins of the GFA Academy?

Rob Jones: ‘My involvement in the academy goes back about 12 or 13 years when it was the Aztec Academy in those days, and it was the Aztec Group which sponsored it. And we were literally a group of 12, 14 players, myself and Darren Le Tissier were the coaches.

We decided that we’d like to get the better players in the island together because there wasn’t really a proper product at the time, so we did that and we had some great success that first season. We did a lot of away trips, gave the children a lot of exposure to playing in the mainland. We played Brighton, Bournemouth, we played Southampton, went over to Exeter and played Bristol. It was fabulous.

Then over the next two or three years, we developed it even further and then it became a full-time job, which I didn’t have time for, so we handed over to the GFA. And they’ve developed the product over the last seven or eight years to what it was up until this year.

Now, again we’ve revamped considerably to make it current and fit for the future.’

Why do you think the changes were needed and why is now the right time to kind of make this shift?

RA: ‘We’d got to a point with the academy, just the way it had been done historically, that there wasn’t really much jeopardy in terms of your place. I think players had got in and they were in for good, which was nice to see for their development, but some I think were stuck in a comfort zone, and ultimately they weren’t under that pressure to perform and improve themselves.

Now we’ve got that competition for places, it’s like a real achievement to get in, and ultimately we’re going to be able to look again at everyone over the course of the season and the following season as well.’

Given your input in the original iteration of the academy Rob, how enthused are you to be involved now and to see the kind of foundation you guys are laying?

RJ: ‘Oh, even more enthused than I was 12 years ago. I love my football. I’m passionate about it. I think the opportunities that these players have now compared to even 10 or 12 years ago is even greater with the facilities that we have, the fact that we’ve got more people working full-time in football and the support of the new coaches coming in. It’s really exciting times.’

  • Listen to an extended interview about the changes to the GFA Aztech Academy on the latest GP Football Podcast

For you as a player Ross, who’s given so much in an island shirt, achieved so much in a Guernsey shirt, how fired up are you about the set-up that you’ve got to work with now as Academy manager?

RA: ‘Yeah, it’s really exciting. I think I’ve now got a buzz for this that I’ve definitely brought from my playing side. I think the last few years has been a bit of a struggle. The motivation and the commitment as coaches was really difficult when you’ve got such high numbers. Anyone knows as a coach, when you’ve got really high numbers, you’re just managing the players on the night.

Now with small groups, we can really get in and work with those players. You bring an energy to it, the kids give you an energy back and you can see a pathway there, you can see opportunities that are going to come for these players if they put in the work, stay in the academy and take it back and do the good work that they’re doing at their clubs as well.’

There’s been a lot of talk about development in Guernsey football and particularly off the back of inter-insular results in the last few years. Do you feel like we’re heading in the right direction now?

RJ: ‘I think we are, but it’s baby steps. I think we’re not going to see the fruits of our labours now for probably another three or four years, but I think with the appetite the youngsters have and having the Aztech Arena for example, the facility there and the revamp of this academy with smaller focus groups and also giving line of sight to even higher performance.

I think it’s going to take some time but we’re giving it everything to try and turbocharge the future for our kids. If that plays out in inter-insular wins then great, but we want to equip these players at this age to be able to cope with football when they go off island, if they go to university, semi-pro or who knows even pro football. But if we put those building blocks in place right now, hopefully we’ll see the fruits over the years to come.’

Ross, what’s your hope for all of the youngsters, all of the age groups as they move forward?

RA: ‘I think ultimately it’s just to be enjoying their football. That’s what we want, the kids to be coming down, having a good time, but learning and developing and having that willingness to learn and ultimately, if we can get the match opportunities, trips away, good experiences that they can then take into representative football and then winning Murattis, having GFC careers and the pathway is set for them to go on and have professional careers as well if they put the work in. It’s really exciting times.’