The redeveloped Crystal Palace academy is nearing completion. The new first-class facility is an exciting step in the progression currently around the club. Even with the pandemic disrupting its development, we are already seeing the power of having a much-improved facility in the hotbed of footballing talent that is South East London.
Following the heroics of last season’s Division 2 play-off, the U23s have enjoyed a successful start to the season amongst some the best young players in the country in Premier League 2, Division 1. In their opening five games the U23s have picked up 6 points, 3 coming in a comfortable display at Selhurst Park against Everton and 3 more in a blistering 6-1 victory away at Leicester.
Despite losing their opener against Leeds United and faltering away at Arsenal and Manchester City, the attacking force of Rob Street, David Omilabu and Jesurun Rak-Sakyi has consistently produced goals against tougher opposition than last season.
Jake O’Brien’s performances in the centre of defence has earned him his first age group cap for the Republic of Ireland, while promising goalkeeper Joe Whitworth cannot stop saving penalties.
Similarly, the promising U18 contingent remain unbeaten with Victor Akinwale on fire in front of goal, while teammates Owen Goodman and Tayo Adaramola were recently spotted training with the first team.
I spoke to Harry Ross, a strength and conditioning coach who spent the last 18 months coaching in the academy while studying for his master’s degree, to find out how the players handled the pandemic and how the new academy development has benefitted the youth setup.
“The first lockdown was an immediate shutdown, everything just stopped immediately. Then the times after that you could kind of forecast if there was going to be any stoppages”, says Harry. “It took a little while to establish an efficient method of going forward, when it first came in we were putting our content on Instagram, so all the boys had access to it and we coached via that. Later, we transitioned into Zoom training sessions where they would train with the football as well. That was for the U15s down, but the U16s and up, pretty much continued throughout the whole thing.”
Many clubs across the top leagues we’re unable to find efficient methods of training on the ball in lockdown, but Harry maintains that the Palace approach was very effective.
“I would say out of most of the football clubs I am aware of how they were dealing with things I think we probably did it the best.” For Harry and the rest of the coaching team keeping the boys motivated in lockdown was important, but the appetite the boys have for the game made that easy enough. “To be honest, they were pretty outstanding. Particularly with the last lockdown in the foundation phase, [U15s down] they all started to get a bit frustrated because it was difficult to socialise. So, we didn’t have that, but the sessions went really well, and I think they were just happy to have something to do.”
Of course, solo fitness and training with the ball are no replacement for the real thing, but Harry is confident the coaching team were able to keep developing the next generation of Palace talent. “I would say we minimised the gap pretty well, from what I’ve seen after we came back, I’d say in the early matches the boys were way fitter than the opposition boys, whoever they were playing. But having said that, technically they were a bit off. Physically they were better than most other teams we played but from a technical perspective they did struggle to get back into it.” However, Harry is confident the boys are now back to their best technically, “by now things are fine, things are cracking, but obviously, there were complications, where because of lockdowns with the other age groups the season was extended so it did take them longer to get up to scratch.”
In the pandemic enforced time away from the pitch, the academy facilities continued to develop. Harry describes a few of the improvements in his time at the club, “at the start in the youth phase, let’s say the U13s, never got to go in the gym.” Explains Harry, “they would only do things on the pitch, but that was not ideal particularly, as a lot of the time at that age we are looking at individual adaptations, so there would be times where we would need to keep them after the session, it would be freezing cold, and we would still have to do stuff on the pitch.”
“The U14s, U15s, U16s and even in the pro-phase we were literally training out of a marquee with bad weights etc, we trained across loads of different locations as well. So, we had 3 or 4 locations making things a bit sporadic and disjointed.”
“That being said it was managed pretty well. But finally, when the gym was up, which would have been around early April, only at that point were we able to use the gym and then we had the new 3G where the boys could train. So, most of the age groups now, they’re all within a half a mile radius when they train, which makes things a lot more efficient, and the facilities are excellent.”
Now a Category 1 facility the academy features multiple new pitches to suit younger age groups, with an additional floodlit 3G pitch, a full-size main pitch with under-soil heating which mirrors that of an elite turf like Selhurst Park, and a covered full-size all-weather pitch; an impressive structure recently teased by Mark Bright on Instagram. In addition, the new site features the brand-new gym, classrooms, and an increase of full-time staff, allowing the club to achieve their aim of holistically developing young footballers from South London.
TEB would like to thank Harry Ross for featuring in this article, Harry has since completed his masters and has taken up a full-time coaching role in the Burnley FC academy. Good luck from the Palace family!