Doncaster Rovers: '˜We have a genuine pathway for young players' - In-depth interview with Academy manager Kieran Scarff
For a long time one of the biggest gripes of Doncaster Rovers supporters has been the lack of players graduating from the youth team to the senior side.
Being brutally truthful, the genuine success stories emerging from the Rovers youth set up over the last couple of decades could be counted on one hand.
There are extenuating circumstances to a certain extent. The youth set up was decimated under the rule of Ken Richardson, its reputation damaged beyond repair for many years in the aftermath.
But it has also taken far too long to rebuild and is only now starting to show real signs of growth.
It is, of course, something the club have been keen to address. In an ambitious move, the board gave a minimum figure of how many youth players they want to see given professional deals each season – though this is understood to have been relaxed.
And, particularly since Darren Ferguson’s arrival as manager in October 2015, there has been a focus on reshuffling the club’s Academy to ensure it is delivering the players of the future.
The man tasked with leading the redevelopment is Kieran Scarff, who was appointed Academy manager a little more than 18 months ago.
Sold on an ambitious plan to kick start a production line at the club and eventually upgrade the Academy from Category 3 to Category 2 status, Scarff was told initially to assess the set up before putting plans in place.
“I think the key things to me were to improve the enthusiasm around the place, to strengthen the links with the first team which wasn’t difficult to do, to be quite open and transparent about things,” he said.
“It is always easy to come in and say this and that aren’t happening.
“To be fair to my predecessor Paul Wilson, he spent a lot of time here, and I know how hard the job is.
“He’ll have put a lot of hard work to ensure the foundations are in place.
“There was a real foundation to build on. It wasn’t a case of their being no programme and starting from scratch.
“There was a real programme and there was some strengths in it which was great for me to build on.
“Obviously everyone has an opinion and want things done a certain way, which I have and I wanted to instil that.
“I felt there was certain things – energy, enthusiasm and a sense of why we are doing what we’re doing and opening up that pathway.
“I didn’t want people to think it was a standalone thing. It as about pulling it all together.
“There’s a lot of good people at the club, part time staff that have been here a long time and have a real affinity with the club.
“It’s massively important to us.”
This season has been a good one for Rovers when it comes to player progression.
Six youth team graduates have been handed senior debuts in the Checkatrade Trophy – and there is genuine buzz surrounding a few of them. And one of those, defender Danny Amos, was handed his first call up for Northern Ireland Under 19s.
But former business studies teacher Scarff admits there is still a long way for the current young crop to go if they are to genuinely make the progression into the senior set-up.
“I think we’re in a good place right now,” he said.
“When you’re sitting on the back of six debuts and international appearances, we’re in a good place.
“Ultimately I think the programme should be judged on player progression.
“Again, the debuts this year, Danny Amos’ international appearances – it’s showing progression.
“We’ve taken six players from our U16s group into youth team contracts next season. That shows good progression
“What I need now is, Danny Amos for example, to develop over the next year to 18 months and become a first choice centre half or left back for the first team.
“That is the plan.
“Danny is only just starting his journey as far as I’m concerned.
“I’m surrounded by a lot of good people, a lot of people who are very committed to developing players and committed to this football club.
“We’re in a good place and there’s still plenty of work we want to do yet.”
Developing a real connection with Rovers as a club is something Scarff wants all players in the Academy to do.
And he wants to ensure talented players arrive young and stick with the club as long as possible.
On top of that, he wants players emerging from the Academy that Rovers can be proud of as individuals as well as footballers.
“We’re driving, with all the coaches, to make sure our player retention through all age groups is good, that it’s not a revolving door,” he said.
“I want players coming through bigger chunks of the programme than have in the past.
“A lot of players have maybe joined the programme quite late and gone on to make first team appearances.
“Ideally you want players coming through bigger chunks of the programme and the affinity with the club is deeply entrenched in terms of how we work, what we expect from them as players and people.
“That is the challenge for us.
“It’s also important we spend time developing them as people.
“There is a lot of work going on through our coaches and education team on how they develop as people, which is really important.
“The qualities of you as a person do define your career.
“Andy Butler is a great role model, coaching our U13s, with the way he is as a person, his qualities.
“That is why he’s had such a long career. He’s got ability, of course. But without those qualities I don’t think you get a long career in any walk of life.”
While Rovers’ own production line in previous years has been slow, there have been a steady stream of Doncaster-born talent thriving in league football.
Danny Rose has won 14 England caps while Mason Holgate has made 40 appearances for Everton by the age of 21. And Joel Latibeaudiere captained England U17 to World Cup glory in October.
But these are Doncaster-born footballers who Rovers have missed out on picking up in their formative years. Rose was snapped up by Leeds United, Holgate joined Barnsley while Latibeaudiere is with Manchester City.
Missing out on talent is a trend Scarff is keen to end.
And he believes the recent trend of giving youth a chance in the first team will be a major selling point in the future.
“Recruitment is massively important,” he said. “It’s probably the most important thing. It’s a real area of focus.
“We do recruit but there’s a structure I want to put in place which the board are being very supportive about and hopefully we can do next season.
“Everything they’ve been able to support us with, they have done.
“We’ve got to get the recruitment right. We’ve got to make sure the players with the most potential in Doncaster come to this football club.
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“And beyond that as well. We’ll take players from beyond that.
“Our unique selling point goes back to six debuts this year, a manager who works with youth players every day, who wants them in the first team.
“Not all clubs can say that.
“Every club has their strengths, every club will lay claim to be the biggest in the area and I’m sure that conversation goes on among the Sheffield clubs and Leeds.
“We’re not saying we’re as big as them but we’ve got a lot of history, a lot of tradition, a lot of values and ultimately a genuine pathway for young players.
“That is what we need to really drive home to make sure players come here.”
Scarff’s own arrival at Rovers was largely down to the presence of Ferguson as manager.
The two had worked together at Peterborough United where Scarff was Academy manager and both were keen to work with each other again.
Developing young players is something Ferguson has been renowned for in the past and Scarff says working with such a manager is incredibly advantageous – but also brings plenty of pressure.
“Our relationship goes back quite a long time and that was a big attraction for me in terms of how he works,” Scarff said.
“I have had it myself and I hear it from other people in Academy football where first team managers aren’t fussed about young players.
“You can understand it to a degree because you have two poor performances and everyone wants you sacked. It’s ridiculous.
“I understand those managers who are a little bit reluctant to do that.
“But Darren wants that to happen.
“He manages the club and he wants the whole club pulling in one direction.
“Me, the programme, gets judged on player progression and development. If you’ve got a first team manager who is not going to give them an opportunity, it doesn’t help at all.
“The pressure I get from him is constant, about the players.
“But it is great, that’s what I want. Whether it’s good or bad whatever he says to me, it’s because he wants players to come through.
“You can’t ask for anything more than that.
“The young lads are training with the first team all the time. It’s something that happens day in, day out.
“It is a genuine interest. It’s him and his staff – Paul Gerrard works with the goalkeepers day in, day out. Gavin Strachan works with the players day in, day out and comes down to watch youth team games.
“I couldn’t genuinely, as an Academy manager, ask for a better environment.”
The identity of the bright young prospect to keep eyes on is something all supporters want to know.
Understandably so, Scarff is not particularly keen to shine the spotlight on individuals at this stage of their development.
And he says pinning hopes on any young player can be a fruitless task, with plenty of development still to be had before they step up to senior level.
“I try to keep a level head with it,” he said.
“I have seen it where young age players get highlighted but they’ve got loads of development to go through.
“If you start talking about 15-year-olds doing this, that and the other, it’s a big statement to make and I don’t think it helps the kids.
“There’s players with real potential right the way through our programme but it’s just potential.
“Our job is to make sure we give them the right environment to fulfil that.
“Who knows when that potential stops. At 15 you might be thinking they’ve got unbelievable potential but at 18 that stops.
“I don’t think it’s right to get carried away.
“Ultimately it’s about potential and hard work. We need to instil that into them.
“It’s about working hard and giving yourself the best chance.
“There are players in there who can do that but there’s a lot of challenges ahead.”
SCARFF’S JOURNEY TO ROVERS IN HIS OWN WORDS
“It was very brief on the playing career. I didn’t get beyond being an apprentice at Cambridge United. I played non-league football and packed in on advice due to injury.
“In 2002 I got the chance to become chief scout at Lincoln under Keith Alexander and that is where I was unfortunate enough to meet John Schofield, who is here now as professional development coach.
“I had five really good years there, it’s a great club and Keith, god rest his soul, was a great man, brilliant to work with. They were good years, getting in the play-offs.
“I left when Peter Jackson came in and I had chance to go and work with Keith Downing, who is now the England U20 manager. We had a really good year at Cheltenham. We lost our jobs the following year.
“I did a bit of recruitment work with a few clubs, keeping my hand in.
“After a brief spell managing in non-league, I had the chance to go in at Peterborough. That would have been around about January 2010 and it was a really good time to be in there.
“The Academy manager asked me in to help out. He started the programme from next to nothing after it’d been scrapped.
“I linked it in to working as a teacher. I started working in a school where the Peterborough training ground is now.
“It was about combining the jobs and building a partnership between the school and the club.
“The result of that partnership was the training ground Peterborough have now got, a full time programme for their Academy programme. They have about 40 players who go to that school, train every day.
“We put a lot of work into that and it was really good. The likes of Leonardo Da Silva Lopez came through that programme.
“During that time I did various roles within the Academy, culminating in me becoming Academy manager for a couple of years.
“It was during that time when Darren Ferguson came back into Peterborough. We’d come across each other a few times before that but didn’t really know each other.
“I learned loads and enjoyed a lot of my time at Peterborough. I was involved in some big projects, the training ground, the Academy programme, good players coming through.
“It was great working with the gaffer because he drives the programme.
“I stayed with Peterborough for another season and a bit after that and the job came up here.
“The opportunity to work for the gaffer and Gavin Strachan again was first and foremost but then having met Gavin Baldwin and Andy Watson, the plans and ambition was a very easy decision for me.”