Last month, the U10 and U11 players from the AFC Youth Academy traveled to Southampton to play against their English Premiership counterparts. The trip, which was the first for the Youth Academy since the Covid pandemic, saw the young Dons play against the youngsters of Southampton at the team’s first training ground, the Staplewood Training Center, as well as a visit from St Mary’s Stadium.
The young Dons left Aberdeen on Friday morning, playing against players from Southampton’s Youth Academy as well as players from their Bath Center that evening and Saturday before returning to Aberdeen.
In recent years, the Youth Academy has worked hard for its international reputation, which has enabled players from across the Academy to benefit from trips to England and Europe. The trip to Southampton is the first in almost two years, and Founding Phase Director Liam McGarry explains how beneficial the trip has been for young Dons. He said:
“It was great going down to Southampton, it’s been so long since we last left. It’s a great environment there and we take good care of you. Southampton are a good club and we have a great relationship with them.
“At the end of the day the reason we go is to play matches and the matches are of a high standard because it is such a comprehensive and well organized youth academy that it has players quality. It was really very good from that point of view.
“It was good to see the progress too. We devoted more resources to the Youth Academy and this was the fourth or fifth time we had been there. It was interesting to see the individual quality gap and see if we can go and match them.
“It’s great for our young players to experience different types of football by going on these trips. The game is faster, the players think faster, technically they are also very good. We get a different test. If you take a wrong touch, you have to go and pick it up.
“We want to go down and win but win by playing with our style. The reality is that when you come up against teams that challenge you, individually as players, individually as coaches, they expose their weaknesses. When they expose weaknesses and highlight areas where we need to improve, that’s ultimately what you take away from the experience, it’s a good test. We’ve won games, which is great, but that’s just a small picture. Overall, this laid out some things we need to be better at. Ultimately, it’s about bringing individual players through our Academy and into the first team. “
Southampton Youth Academy has produced Champions League winners Gareth Bale, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Adam Lallana, as well as England internationals such as Theo Walcott, Luke Shaw and James Ward-Prowse in recent years.
Liam believes that it is the quality of the opposition as well as the values they carry on the ground that have allowed for a close relationship between the Gifts and the Saints:
“Southampton is a lovely club. There are a lot of values shared between the two clubs. There is a lot of humility in their culture. The way the staff behave, the way they talk, the way their players behave. At the same time, as soon as you cross the white line, they have quality and a competitive advantage.
A number of first-team players have benefited from overseas trips with the Youth Academy in recent years. Calvin Ramsay left with young Dons while Dean Campbell and Jack MacKenzie both competed in the Gothia Cup in 2017.
Traveling to a new environment and being away from home not only helps develop young Dons on the pitch, but it also helps them develop off the pitch as people.
“Our international reputation is both on and off the pitch. You can be the nicest person in the world, but if you go out there and don’t play or offer a challenge on the pitch, that’s mostly what you’re here for. If you can go down and do well on the court technically, tactically, athletically and pair it with good manners, and be good people off the court, that builds up your reputation, which offers more of those kinds of opportunities.
“The way our players behave and the standards we hold them to, whether they are traveling like Southampton or traveling to Club Academy Scotland games.
“It’s great for them to become independent. I always say it would be interesting if we had hidden cameras to follow us, because parents would be absolutely amazed at how independent they can be. The life lessons that young players learn from travel can be quite significant. Ultimately, personal development is just as important as player development.
“The players can also see the staff in a different light on these trips because we have more time. You are traveling, make sure they have brushed their teeth, make sure they have eaten well, make sure they feel good. It helps to strengthen relationships and build trust. Off the pitch, it’s really important.
Everyone had to find new ways to cope during the pandemic and our Youth Academy was no different. The lockdown and restrictions on overseas travel meant academy coaches had to find new ways to keep players engaged and continue to develop them as players.
“Our international tournament season is so important to the development of our players, but everyone has been in the same boat. We had to change our mindset and focus on solutions. The lockdown programs we put in place were extensive and the feedback we have had from parents and players has been very positive. We made the most of the situation we found ourselves in.
“We played a lot of local youth teams due to travel restrictions. We played 9v9 football that a lot of players this age didn’t play. They were exposed to it a little earlier, but we did it because it was the only way to have opponents. Instead of being all pessimistic about it, you just had to draw the positive from it and make the most of what we had.
“Absolutely, we missed the foreign tournaments, but all of our players on and off the pitch will come out of this lockdown experience as the best players and people. I wouldn’t change it, but we can’t wait to get back to foreign tournaments in 2022. ”