Not even ten years ago you could go down to Clayton Wood, Stoke City’s training ground, with your camera, an autograph book and your sandwiches to wait for the players to walk over from the gravel car park and towards the state-of-the-art cabins and watch them train.
Millions of pounds, around 15 so far, and a few years later it would now take a security pass, a step ladder or a Marcelo Bielsa spying mission to see the players up close and personal but is that such a bad thing?
As the game has changed so has the training ground with the Coates family investing millions of pounds to attract the very best youth talent to the club in order to develop them ready for first team football.
However, with every club wanting their fans to chant ‘He’s one of our own’ competition is high as Stoke are one of six clubs in the Midlands who have an academy with category one status.
Combining this with the financial clout and geography of the top six, Stoke face a difficult task to attract the very best with clubs such as Manchester City and Tottenham offering first class facilities alongside the attractions of a bigger city.
U7’s to 1st Team: A clear vision
Unlike some clubs every player who represents Stoke plays trains and even eats at the same place. From the U9s on a Saturday morning to the first team on a Monday morning, the one club and community feel is something that should be appreciated and not undervalued.
Academy players physical data from training is on the same notice board as the first team and being asked to train with the first team is a regular occurrence for academy players. The most recent investments from the Coates’ have meant the introduction of five more academy pitches, two seven-a-side, two nine-a-side and one five-a-side – underlining their commitment to youth development as well as investing in the first team.
Academy midfielder and local lad Oliver Shenton said: ‘If you do well for the U23’s I don’t see why there isn’t a pathway here for me to get in here. The intensity is a lot higher and you have less time on the ball but training with the first team can only help you to become a better player.
‘We look up to the first team players because of their careers and what they have done in the game but in the back of their mind they have a thought of they don’t want a young lad taking their place.’
Academy graduates: a long-term vision.
When seven figure sums are bounded around for facility upgrades eye brows are often raised and some fans would rather the money be invested in the first team, however the long-term ambition should be kept in mind.
With Premier League football no longer an attraction for Stoke, it provides the academy the perfect opportunity to shine and so far this season that has been the light at the end of the tunnel for most fans who have had little to cheer about.
Since the departure of Ryan Shotton and retirement of Andy Wilkinson local lads have been hard to come by with a combination of big money signings and reluctant managers its only now under Nathan Jones a change in approach has given the academy prospects a life line.
Tyreese Campbell, Tom Edwards, Lasse Sorensen and Thibaud Verlinden have all featured under Jones this season and have not looked out of place with Edwards arguably the first choice right back.
Understanding the club and its values is something that seems to have vanished over the past few seasons with fans demanding more effort and fight from the players so the addition of former players such as Rory Delap to the coaching team will hopefully create the players in the Stoke and Jones model.
Speaking to Sky Sports in 2018 Academy director Gareth Jennings said: ‘You need to earn the right to train with them (the first team) and you need to earn the right to play alongside them. What you don’t need to earn the right to do is speak to them around the building. They are human beings.
‘If you come to Stoke City, you are part of the family and everyone is in it together. That is another strong selling point for us.
Whilst academy players have featured for the first team, senior players such as Charlie Adam and Moritz Bauer have represented the U23’s in the Checkatarde trophy this season which highlights the one club infrastructure Stoke are looking to create.
Ireland youth international and U23 defender Nathan Collins said: ‘When the first team players come down, they help the young players like me. They pass on their knowledge and experience throughout the games and always give 100 percent for the team.
‘From the day I have come in everyone has been so welcoming and I am just focusing one each week as it comes.’
With Nathan Jones looking for a young and energetic squad ready for next season, 2019 could be the year the Coates family finally see a return on their long-term investment.
Academy director Gareth Jennings will move to a role in the FIFA set up in the summer however his legacy and work may well have built the foundations for a bright and young future for Stoke City.