One of the main themes coming out of keeping a hyperlocal blog is that of the local passion and commitment for Colchester. We sometimes take it for granted when the likes @CoolColchester stage a Free Festival in Castle Park; the Garrison plays a strong part in our community, keen to make the connections and not just be a place where people pass through. You can even see this sense of involvement up at the University, where for all the talk of multi-million pound Knowledge Gateways, many staff come into our community and make it their home.
Football however is different. It is a transient industry that makes no attempt to disguise the increasing finances that are involved. The days of a community run club that represents a town and acts as a rallying call to inspire others around the area are long gone.
At least we thought that was the case…
This wasn’t a soft PR sell either – nothing was out of bounds and we were encouraged to speak with the staff and players and see how Colchester United is continuing to develop as a professional club with serious ambitions, as well as a genuine belief in the community.
We say that ‘nothing’ was out of bounds – that’s not quite true. It soon became clear during the Friday morning training session that the sacred three points on the Saturday is the complete focus for everyone involved during the working week.
With an away game at Brentford the following day, a match intensity game was being staged, with the starting 11 lining up against the other squad members. Having been fortunate to receive the Tiptree invite, it was probably best not to go snapping secret team formations and then publishing them ahead of match day.
But that wasn’t entirely our focus anyway. The U’s have made some serious investment over recent years. Unlike many clubs competing at a similar League One level, not all of these have been of the buy and sell variety to achieve promotion thought the Chairman’s cheque book.
As well as the Weston Homes Community Stadium, the main investment coming out of the U’s over the past few seasons has been the completion of the impressive Florence Park training ground which opened in July. The match perfect playing pitches have been designed to replicate the exact dimensions back at the Community Stadium.
But what is a pitch without players?
The investment in the Tiptree training ground has been mirrored not with high profile signings, but a long-term plan to produce players coming out of Colchester. The passion and commitment that we see at the Free Festival, the Garrison and the University is continuing to be played out by Colchester United.
Having made the football faux pas of forgetting our boots (y’know, just in case…) Friday morning was an eye opener ahead of the final training session of the week. Officially starting at 10:15am, the entire squad was at Tiptree by nine, keen to come in and be part of the buzz that is now associated with Colchester United.
All good football chats are conducted over a mug of early morning tea. Tony Humes, the Academy Manager at Colchester United didn’t disappoint:
“The role of the Academy Manager is to produce young players through the ages groups to develop into professionals and ultimately into first team players for the football club.”
This starts from the age of nine and continues at all levels until the under-21′s. Boys are registered with the club when their talent is first identified. The under-12′s sign up on a two-year contract, and then by the age of sixteen, possible apprenticeships have been identified.
Looking after the pros is just part of the responsibility of an apprentice at Colchester United. Fourteen hours of football coaching is provided per week, with the remainder of the time spent on traditional education.
“The priority is football and to give the opportunity to make a career for themselves out of the game. But a major part of the programme is education as well. We have to give them the possibility that if they don’t quite make the grade they will hopefully get sufficient education to take it further into college or University. It is a major part as well as the football.”
Fifty per cent of the current apprentices at Colchester United come out of the North Essex area, something that Tony and his staff are incredibly proud of:
“The huge benefit it to get the homegrown players to progress into the first team. The more homegrown players that we can get through the ranks can draw more fans in. They can recognise what we are doing – they can recognise homegrown talent coming into the system. There is nothing better than a homegrown boy from Colchester making his debut.
It is a huge investment. The whole club has bought into the philosophy of producing young players and giving them time to develop and get into the first team. There will come a time when it has to be measured and whether the Chairman will be getting a return on his investment. We are giving a programme that is value for money. We are determined to make it work.”
This belief in the homegrown hyperlocal is already starting to pay off. Three apprenticeships have already been offered to under-16 players for next season. Two of these young lads are from Colchester.
Which brings us to Alex Gilbey, an incredibly mature 17 year-old from Highwoods, who is now in the first team squad and on the fringes of making a real breakthrough at League One level.
“I was born in Dagenham, but I moved to the area about seven years ago. I started to go to the Gilberd School at Highwoods. That’s around the time when I signed for Colchester. It’s been really good to get through the Academy, the Centre of Excellence and the first team squad.
At first I was playing for Frinton and Walton. I was offered a trial for Colchester United at under-12 level. It was a successful trial, I got signed. I’ve worked my way through the age groups.
It was at the under-15 level when Tony and Richard came in. They started talking about scholarships and where to go to at the next level to become a pro. I was offered my scholarship at under-16. I finally said to myself: I can do this. It was a big step in my life.”
This commitment to both the club and the community works both ways. As well as the club being able to bring Colchester talent through the ranks, the pride of playing for his hometown club clearly excites Alex:
“I’m really proud to play for the first team. Even at under-21 and the youth team – I’m really proud to wear the kit. I just want to keep on playing, get in the first team and make as many appearances as I can for the club.
The club has come such a long way with the facilities since I joined. These facilities are unbelievable. Everyone just wants to come to work and is buzzing to play football. We have perfect pitches – there is such a good atmosphere and it is such a great place to learn my trade.”
The Community Stadium and the Tiptree training ground are a world away from Layer Road and Shrub End. Just speak to Karl Duguid, a ‘more mature pro’ who has witnessed this major change in club policy over the past fifteen years.
“The club was a very small club when I first joined. Layer Road was a small, old-fashioned ground. We didn’t know where we were training each day. One day it was Shrub End, then Spring Lane or up at the University. We were shoved here, there and everywhere. The club has moved on.
It helped when we got promoted to the Championship. It helped the club and it helped the name of the football club. To get where we are today, the Chairman has put a lot of money into the football club. The training ground is second to none in our division, and probably in the divisions above. It is superb. You want to come in every day and train, and that’s what the youth boys have got now.”
Which is quite inspiring to hear when you consider that Karl is in the top ten of players that have made league appearances for the U’s.
Does Karl buy into the homegrown investment ideal?
“The main reason we have got this training ground is to produce our own players rather than having to go out there and get them from elsewhere. You look at clubs like Crewe and they have done it for years. The club is heading in the right direction. We’re going to do it the way of producing our own players.”
And with the Friday morning training game about to start, Karl told The Chronic plans about the next level of his career, something that will no doubt please the fan base:
“I’m coming to the stage of my career where I’m looking for the next thing. I feel that I’ve got a few more years left in me playing. Coaching does interest me a lot. I’ve started to do my coaching badges. If I can help one of those players to do what I have done then I will feel that I have put something back into the football club.”
And with those words of inspiration, the Friday morning training session was then raised to a full on match day intensity. Manger John Ward was at the heart of this action, coaching, supporting and reffing from the centre of the pitch as set pieces and styles of play were worked on ahead of Brentford away.
Meanwhile on the adjacent Florence Park pitch – and all fine for photographs – a young group of players were also being pushed hard, working on a similar style of play that now runs throughout the club. The message couldn’t have been more obvious: achieve on the practice pitch and the progression is there for the first team.
Alex Gilbey is evidence of this.
Sadly there was to be no happy ending in the immediate short term. A late winner by Brentford’s Farid El Alagui meant that the U’s made the short trip back up the A12 without the three points that everyone within the club was so focussed upon throughout the previous working work.
But look long term and you will see how the passion and commitment for the town that we are now seeing from Colchester United will soon start to pay off, just as it for others around the town. It may not be a direct financial gain, but by investing locally, the belief is that Colchester United can still be a community club that can compete at a highly competitive level.
We’ll bring our boots along next time…