James McCarthy recently departed his role as the head of Cardiff’s academy and he was kind enough to spend some time with VFTN recently to chat about his time at the club, the academy structure and the current crop breaking through to the first-team.
To begin with, can we just talk about your background. I know you have a huge amount of experience in coaching and education, so what was your path to Cardiff’s academy and to eventually taking charge?
I started coaching at the academy, or the centre of excellence as it was known then, in 2000. Matthew Crocker brought me in to the fold when I returned from coaching in America and that was a part-time position that went alongside my full-time position of teaching biology and PE in secondary school. That continued until 2013, working across many age groups and then I had the opportunity to come in full-time as assistant academy manger. That was working with the late Dick Bate, who was the academy manager at the time during Cardiff’s first season in the Premier League and I took over when he left.
When you took charge, where did you think there was room for improvement?
We just wanted to increase the production of young players progressing to the first-team. That was the goal for everyone. I was well aware that we had not had a consistent production of talent for a number of years, going back to players I had worked with in a part-time capacity like Adam Matthews, Joe Ledley and Aaron Ramsey. They were the last batch that you could consider academy graduates.
The aim was to put a programme in place to get players closer to the first-team and on a more consistent basis. That’s what we set about doing in my first season and it’s taken seven or eight years because these things take time, but we’re now seeing the fruits of our labour with a lot of boys in and around the first-team.
As you say, Cardiff have had an academy since 2004 and it hasn’t always produced a steady stream of players. Is that to do with the luck of the draw in terms of the crop of players you have at the time, a failure of the process or a bit of both?
It’s probably a bit of both. It comes down to having a manager, or a series of managers, that are prepared to play them and give them an opportunity. There’s a lot of factors that affect what happens and it’s not an exact science, but we’ve been fortunate with the current manager. I know he’s having some difficulties at the moment, but he’s giving them opportunities and so did Neil Harris before him. Long may that continue.
The academy category system was introduced in 2012. Cardiff have always been a category two, but have talked about upgrading to category one. Can you explain what the difference is between the two stages, what is needed to achieve that and why Cardiff have not yet upgraded?
The major increase is in terms of staffing and resources, so an increase in cost. You get increased funding if you become a category one academy. You would jump up from say £640,000 to just over £1.2m, so there are incentives to do it, but it does come at an increased cost because your staff numbers increase and your facilities have to be better.
You need ‘exclusive use of your facilities,’ so you have to own them and that has always been a difficulty at the club. Even at first-team level. That is probably why that jump has not yet taken place, but there are plans in place for that to happen in Llanrumney and hopefully that will be the case because that’s what the players and staff deserve.
One of the best players Cardiff have produced in recent years never made it to the first-team. Rabbi Matondo left in 2016 and the club received a reported £500,000 compensation for a player that was eventually sold by Manchester City for £10m, having never played for them either. Is this not the biggest problem with the academy system, that you either produce players of an insufficient standard, or the real good players are poached by bigger clubs?
In lots of ways, it’s an unfair playing field and everything is geared towards the category one clubs. They’re allowed to watch games and you have to oblige. The levels of compensation, especially for the big boys, is minimal, so they’re prepared to pay £500,000. The concern is, going forward, with Brexit, you can’t bring in players under the age of 18 from Europe, so it’s probably only going to get harder because the category one clubs will be in for the best talent.
I know, for example, that Brentford did away with their academy for these reasons, creating a B team instead and saving the £2m it was costing each year to run it. They instead focused on the players cast aside by other bigger London clubs, with great success. Clubs seem to be wedded to the academy structure, but I guess it shows that there are other ways to develop young players and I guess an academy may not always be the best use of a club’s money.
I guess it depends on what area of the UK you’re working in. I know Huddersfield and Salford have done something very similar. If you’re in a highly competitive area, with a lot of clubs in and around that area, you could just pick players up from a higher level as they get released. Brentford are getting players from West Ham, Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal, so there’s a business case there worth putting forward.
For Cardiff, I don’t think that would ever be viable because of our geographical location. I think we’re now proving that the money that has been invested in the academy has been well spent because of the players we’ve got to the first-team. Now the club can save money on Joel Bagan over Joe Bennett or Rubin Colwill over Lee Tomlin. When you look at that in a financial or business sense, it makes sense for a club like Cardiff to have an academy.
Cardiff are in direct competition with Swansea for players and I know that they run soccer schools in the area. Have the club struggled to compete with them in recent years, while they were in the Premier League?
There’s always going to be that level of competition in terms of recruitment for young players. We still have one of our most successful and productive development centres in West Wales, which produces players for us. Just to name two, Mark Harris and Rubin Colwill are both West Wales boys. Mark literally lives next door to the training ground in Swansea and we’ve had him since the age of seven and likewise Rubin is a Port Talbot boy.
It’s always going to be competitive and if I’m honest, what Swansea had in place is unsustainable. It was great while they were in the Premier League when they had money to throw at it, but it was very short-term. I think we’re seeing that with the level of players we have in our academy coming through at eight, nine and ten, so that threat from Swansea has died away a little bit.
I think people were disappointed that Cardiff didn’t use either of their promotions to the Premier League as an opportunity to upgrade their academy as some sort of legacy. Is it difficult to sustain a category one academy at Championship level?
Not necessarily. It depends on the vision of the club for the academy. There are clubs in the Championship that do run as category one, like Reading and Middlesbrough. I think it would be great if our club could have a go at that and get that status in the next year or two, if all their plans fall in to place. The move to category one was discussed many times during my time and I know it is a long-term aspiration of the senior personnel at the club.
Cardiff have had various different managers in recent years, who utilise various different styles of play. What input do they have on the academy, in terms of influence and style? Presumably, the academy promote playing a certain way through the age ranges and a manager should fit in with that, but I guess if a manager plays a different way, there is a disconnect and players may have to adapt in order to thrive.
The level of contribution they’ve had has been minimal because in fairness to Ken Choo and Steve Borley, they were very protective of the academy. They appreciated that there would be a turnover of managers and therefore its very important that what we’re doing at the academy doesn’t get affected. Otherwise you could be trying to put different styles of play in place every six months.
We used a saying which we pinched from Barcelona, which is that a rose is always a rose, so your best players are always your best players. You will spot a good player, so a Kieron Evans or a Sam Bowen and they can play for Mick McCarthy or Neil Harris. They will adapt because they’re your best players.
The concern that some have is that someone like Rubin Colwill, who is very good technically, if he is playing in a direct side, that will never play to his strengths.
That’s a very sensible way of looking at it, but all of those players in that first-team squad are good footballers and wouldn’t be there if they weren’t. They will have opportunities to play football the way they want to, and a turn of results will help that more than anything. When confidence comes back, they can get the ball down and play in the right areas, but it’s a very difficult time at the moment and maybe that’s being reflected in the style of play and the results we’re seeing.
In terms of the current health of the academy, there are finally players progressing through the ranks and making an impact at senior level. Going back to an earlier question, is that due to this crop of players being a higher calibre, an improved pathway to the first-team or a bit of both?
Again, a bit of all of that. We’re lucky in terms of this group of players that are coming through now were all in the same Under-18 team which was the first of ours to win the league, under Craig Bellamy and Matthew Bloxham. We knew they were a good group, but I have to say that its also the fruits of the labour from everything we started seven or eight years ago with the curriculum and syllabus we put in place. The identity and the way we wanted the boys to play, the staff have played a massive part in that.
It has been a very difficult season and the one real positive has been the rise of these young players. I know you won’t want to heap pressure on them, but just how good are the likes of Rubin Colwill, Joel Bagan, Tom Sang and the others breaking through?
You can’t get too carried away. They’re still going to require patience and time in the first-team, so we don’t want to get too ahead of ourselves and think they’re going to be world beaters after a couple of weeks. They have to become established first-team players. My goal was always that if the club were in the market for a centre forward or a left back, I could say don’t spend money because I’ve got a player for you. That’s coming to fruition now with the likes of Joel Bagan and Mark Harris.
Having left the academy recently, what are your plans for the future and your hopes for Cardiff’s academy going forward?
I’m going to take a little bit of time out. The job is all-consuming and you have to make big sacrifices, so I’m going to enjoy a bit of time with the family. In terms of the academy, I want to see the next crop of players coming through and get a few appearances under their belts. Longer term, I really do hope that the plans for category one status and the new training ground comes to fruition because that is what everyone at the club deserves.