Mansfield Town are hoping the exciting and unique tie-up with Melton Mowbray’s Brooksby College and the club’s new U21s side will create a production line of new talent for the first team.
The project has been taking shape this year under the watchful eye of Mansfield Town Academy manager John Dempster.
Next season, with the lure of Stags’ new course at the fantastic residential facilities at Brooksby, Stags will take in a group of 20 players aged over 18 - the cream of the local crop plus players from all over the country - and turn them into an U21 squad to represent the club in the reserve league.
The Brooksby course will also include an educational qualification so players failing to make the grade on the pitch come out of it with another route to a job.
Dempster retired from playing for the first team early to take the opportunity to oversee this project and has had no regrets.
He said: “People ask me have I retired early? When this opportunity came up I could have carried on and maybe got a few more years out the game in a playing capacity.
“But when I saw the facilities here and pictured the environment I’d be working in, it was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down. Looking back I 100 per cent made the right decision.
“We have a great team here. We have fully qualified coaches who are a delight to work with every day and a group of lads who do us proud week in, week out.
“So from a personal point of view I am delighted I did this. It was a big call but I’m glad I made it.”
The project began to formulate when college principle Chris Bull wanted to make an offer that the club he supports couldn’t refuse.
“The principle of the college, Chris Bull, is a football fanatic – a Mansfield fan – and I believe he touched base with the directors and it’s taken off from there,” said Dempster
“It’s been a long process getting things sorted. But between him, Mark Hawkins and Steve Hymas, they got their heads together and made things happen. We are only eight months into the partnership, but so far so good.
“The partnership is beneficial to both parties. For us, we get to use these wonderful facilities and we can accommodate the boys on site, which brings loads of pros for us to be able to work with them for longer. We can work with them inside the classroom tactically as well working out on the 3G technically.”
Stags youth team players have had difficulty making the step-up from that level to first team, and the new U21s will offer a chance to bridge that gap more comfortably.
“We had highlighted there is quite a big gap between U18 football and first team football,” said Dempster.
“So we all got our heads together, all the coaches and the first team manager, and we decided it would be a good idea to re-enter the reserve league and play what will be a mainly U21 side. That will also allow us to play first teamers alongside them as there will be no barriers in terms of age. “So we can play first team players that are coming back from injury or out of favour alongside the up-and-coming young pros and other young players we feel have real potential.”
He added: “We will be targeting players that have done scholarships at other clubs that haven’t made pro. We will be targeting college players who have excelled but may be late developers, including this place.
“We’ll also be targeting non-League to see boys that fit the bill and are interested in doing education.
“This is unique in terms of the process we are going through and the programme we are putting forward. Not many other clubs encourage young players to take their education seriously like we do with the scholars and we’ll be doing the same with the young pros and other players who come into the Academy.
“They’ll have the opportunity to do a degree alongside their football so if it doesn’t work out for them in the long term, they have a qualification. And if it does and they go on to have a successful career then great.
“We all know a long career in football is a short one really. The average footballer only plays for eight years so it’s a short career at best and, at the end of it, it’s important you’ve got a plan. If any of the lads have got a qualification to go with their plan then they will be in a strong position.
“The kind of players that break into a first team at 18 and then continue to play in the first team until they are 35 are a rare commodity. It doesn’t really happen.
“Young players have peaks and troughs. Young Jack Thomas came on the scene last season and was absolutely on flames for a number of games. It was natural for him to fall out the team and take a bit of a dip in form. But he will be back as he is a good quality young footballer.
“We recognise there is a gap between U18 football and first team and what a great opportunity there will be here for the likes of Jack and the other young players at the football club to play against men every week in the reserves league to develop them further.”
Dempster said the standards at Brooksby compared well with any in the country.
“In terms of standards, after the other academies we’ve been to – our facilities are up there with category one and two academies, which is Premiership and Championship,” he said.
“The environment the boys are educated in and train in is a learning environment – a development environment – and we’ve already seen rewards in the short space of the eight months we’ve been at it.
“The way the players have developed physically and mentally has been flabbergasting to be honest. So in two years time I think the future is bright for Mansfield. Over a longer period of time the aim is to get players in the first team.
“Currently the U16s-U18s are already based here. The U21s will have the opportunity to stay here if they so wish, but they will be in and around the first team. A lot of them will be able to drive, so although they can be accommodated here, that will be optional.
“For the U21s our target market is 18-year-olds that have been released from clubs and not signed pro. We’ll also be able to target 18/19-year-olds who have signed pro but have maybe only been doing it for a year and not got an extension on their contract. We’ll be able to attract them.”
Dempster said it helped massively that first team boss Adam Murray was heavily involving himself in the project.
“He has a massive interest in youth,” said Dempster. “He came through the ranks at Derby at a young age. I think he made his debut at Highbury at 17.
“So he knows the importance of youth and that youth team players will run through a brick wall for you, as you’ve seen with Jack Thomas for example.
“I think the fact he comes to the college and takes part in sessions, it’s great for the young boys to see as they can see a route through. They can see the first team manager is taking an interest.
“When you speak to a lot of academy managers at other academies, their main problem is the managers have very little to do with the academy.
“Here, even though we are a bit of a distance away from the One Call Stadium, it couldn’t be further from the truth. We are all singing from the same hymn sheet. We have a good working relationship and it bodes well for the future.”
On his coaching team, Dempster said: “Scott Rickards is head of recruitment (16-21). It’s his job to highlight the players we wish to bring in to look at. He also coaches for the academy across the board.
“He is one of the best young coaches I have worked with and he has a big say on who comes in and it’s his job to identify talent.
“Mark Phillips is our goalkeeping coach, a highly experienced goalkeeper coach who works for the FA, and is doing his stuff for us.
“We have Mark Peters, our head of coaching, who played centre half for Mansfield many moons ago – a very good character, very level-headed and wise, who the boys look up to.
“And we have a nice blend of up and coming young coaches with a shade of experience, which you always need. The combination of the two has seen us through so far.”
Dempster concluded: “We do crazy hours, the phone never stops and we never switch off. We are both doing our A licences and there’s a lot of paperwork that goes with that.
“We still have a firm eye on local players - that will never change. The hours are long but the rewards are high. And when you’re doing something you love doing you’ve got to be grateful.”