Gillingham Football Club, along with the majority of other EFL Clubs, run an Academy designed to produce full time professional players for the club's first team.
The majority of the younger element of the Academy programme is based at the excellent facilities at the University of Kent at Canterbury, while the older players (17s-21s) are based in Gillingham.
Academies are divided into three phases: first, the under-seven to U11s are in the Foundation phase (that includes our six Development and Advanced Centers at Sittingbourne, Sevenoaks, Medway, Canterbury, Dartford and Maidstone). The U12s to U16s are in the Youth Development phase and the U17 to U21s are in the Professional Development phase.
Our different age groups that play fixtures run from under-nines to U16s, who train either twice or three times a week, and our younger teams (under-nines to U14s) play their Sunday fixtures at the University. The under-16s Saturday fixtures are at Beechings Cross, normally when the Youth Team are away. The Youth Team consists of full time apprentices, who are under-17 or under-18s, and train daily, as well as carrying out an education programme.
Once a decision is made on the players at the end of their apprenticeship to retain them, they then move into a Professional Development Group, where they will potentially train with the first team as their progress dictates, or play fixtures within this group, or potentially go out on loan to further their experience.
All of our age groups are in a games programme, competing against other academies from such clubs as Watford, Portsmouth and Southend, as well as some more geographically distant ones such as Northampton and Peterborough. No points are at stake in these fixtures, "roll-on-roll-off" substitutions are allowed, and, up until the under-16 age group each player must play a minimum of half of a match.
This is all designed to encourage the development of players, rather than sole focus on the result. This is not to say the games are uncompetitive, as they most certainly are!
The Youth team play in the Football League Youth Alliance, and compete in the FA Youth Cup.
During games no parental involvement is allowed, with most coaching input coming in the breaks of play. Our U9s and U10s play five-on-five and eight-on-eight matches, while our U11s have nine versus nine games. Play normally lasts 60 or 80 minutes, broken into three or four periods. From U12s up to U14s it moves to smaller size 11 versus 11 pitches, while at U15/U16 level, full-sized pitches are used and two halves played.
During the season, in the match day programme, we will be giving you more details on each of the age groups and the type of things they do in training, what we look for in a footballer and hopefully other areas you might find of interest.
Over the last few years the likes of Andrew Crofts, Matt Jarvis, Nyron Nosworthy, Danny Spiller, Jack Payne, Luke Rooney, Connor Essam, Callum Davies, Bradley Dack, Jake Hessenthaler and Luke Freeman have gone from the youth system into the first team.
Jarvis (played in the Premier League with Wolves, West Ham and Norwich), Freeman (won promotion to the Championship with Bristol City in 2015) and Ryan Bertrand (who moved to Chelsea when aged 16) have since gone on to represent England at various age groups. The latter even played in the 2012 Champions League Final for the London club against Bayern Munich.
Clearly not everyone in our programme can reach these heights, but undoubtedly we have the potential for some to follow in the footsteps of those named above. It is our job to nurture them and ensure they have the best possible opportunity.