To mark the end of EFL Youth Development Week, we caught up with Argyle Director of Football Neil Dewsnip to reflect on the rapid improvement he has overseen in the Pilgrims’ Academy.
He said: “I’m very pleased with the progress that we’ve made in the last 12 months, and the particular outcome of youngsters progressing from the Academy and playing in the first team - that’s ultimately what we’re trying to do.”
Over a dozen Argyle Academy graduates featured in the Greens’ first-team squad during the 20/21 Sky Bet League One campaign, and Neil is particularly heartened by the improvements made in helping developing players transition into the senior side.
Neil said: “It’s an important skill to have, it’s something our country has gotten better at, developing youngsters, knowing when the time is right to put them in, and also acknowledging that they may need to come out of the team again to improve elsewhere.
“We’re fortunate at Argyle that we have an ever-growing group of Academy staff members that understand the trials and tribulations that individuals may go through. We’ve also got a manager and assistant manager that are passionate about giving these boys an opportunity, so we’re giving them the best chance to progress as young players.
“There is no rulebook on breaking into the first-team, it is not an exact science, and an immense number of factors have to be considered. It’s a difficult skill.”
While the club’s recent Academy restructure was always considered to be a long-term project, the youth set-up at Home Park is already showing signs of notable progress in performance – with Darren Way’s under-18 side securing the EFL Youth Alliance Merit League One title back in May.
The following day, seven Argyle Academy products took to the pitch in the senior side’s final league game at Gillingham – with three of the Merit League winning under-18 players, Brandon Pursall, Ethan Mitchell and Finley Craske, also involved.
Neil said: “As a Director of Football, I’m delighted with this accolade [the Merit League title] for everybody involved. There’s been noticeable improvements all the way through the age groups, with staff committed to a CPD [Continuous Professional Development] programme.
“As an entire collective we all believe in every stage of the Academy, and we’re now starting to see positive signs from trusting the process.
“In regard to the Gillingham match, I’m delighted for the boys [Ethan Mitchell, Brandon Pursall and Finley Craske] who travelled to that game, whether they played minutes or not. I’m also happy that Ryan [Lowe] is providing these opportunities where they’re appropriate.”
It is not simply a case of throwing youngsters into the squad at the last minute, though, and plenty of work goes on behind the scenes to expose these players to the first team environment, through training opportunities.
Neil said: “We get the boys training with the professionals to gain a realistic insight and replicate an authentic experience. We’ve committed to a developmental philosophy of the club, it’s an outlook across the first-team environment, and is an extension into the Academy.”
With home-grown player Luke Jephcott topping the goal-scoring charts this season, and goalkeeper Mike Cooper hitting a 50-game milestone in the early stages of his career, there have never been more opportunities for Academy products to make their mark at Home Park than in the current regime.
Neil said: “It’s the best feeling in the world, seeing Argyle lads nurtured from the start, running out on the pitch and putting in a performance. They’re not there to just improve our youth statistics, they’ve earned themselves a spot, and want to help us progress into a better team.”
Not one to rest on his laurels, former England youth manager Dewsnip now has his sights set on further development next season, alongside ambitious new plans for grass roots football in Cornwall.
“Ideally, we’re looking for at least one Academy debut every season, given the right circumstances. Another goal of ours is to have at least four home-grown squad members on the team-sheet for every game.
“We’ve got some really strong pillars in place now to facilitate development, there’s an improved staffing structure, and a strong philosophy that everybody genuinely believes in.”
Despite the notable success at the mature end of the Academy production line, Neil is keen to emphasise that the Pilgrims’ youth improvement is a result of the holistic, club-wide approach, from pre-Academy coaching right the way up to first team management – with every age group buying into the same philosophy for player development.
He said: “They are the unsung heroes, and it starts right the way back at pre-Academy development, and every member of staff is equally as important at our club. Fuse this with a manager who provides those crucial opportunities to play in League One, we’ve got a really promising outlook going forward.”
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