City Secure Academy Coup And We All Missed It

Football, it’s all about what happens on a Saturday, right?

I mean, who cares what the suits and ties do in the week? If we win on a Saturday, all is good. If we lose, someone is to blame. It’s an easy game, isn’t it?

Only, it isn’t. We think it is because we run our own clubs on Football Manager, or we hear from the bloke down the pub (or the Twitter troll) that one of those suits isn’t up to his job, and that’s that; we know. Try telling that to Brentford, who have achieved their Premier League status by employing a proper recruitment model, a comfort telling their big players and an ethos that extends beyond a Head Coach, and runs through the whole club. That is what we’re trying to achieve. Other clubs have cottoned on to the model and perhaps even influenced us. Look at Brentford, a Premier League club now, but our equals a few years ago. They operate the same philosophy as us with the Head Coach role and the recruitment team uses stats and analysis to identify players. It’s worked well for them, has it not?

Courtesy of Graham Burrell

One thing Brentford have done that we will not, is to abolish their academy. At our level, we feel there’s a niche for our academy, shown perhaps in Sean Roughan’s inclusion (finally) in the first team setup, but also the promise of a number of our younger players who have come through. Look at lads like Freddie Draper, Oisin Gallagher and Sam Long; they’re all hoping to have a big future here, and even if we sell them to clubs before they impact the first team, it helps the financial model of the club continue to thrive.

That’s why I’m disappointed in myself this week that the news of Jon Pepper joining as our Academy Manager slipped by with little more than a passing comment on social media. That’s not the club’s fault; they shouted it from the rooftops, but what did we do? I didn’t cover it, I scrolled past without giving it too much, though. In our Stacey West WhatsApp group chat, Chris did say he’d got Pepper as his Academy Manager on Football Manager, and that was about it. Yep, even Mr Pathway himself gave it a passing comment. I’d imagine a few at the club felt a bit disappointed.

Why? Because this is a significant appointment to our backroom staff. It’s not a new position: Jordan Mccann left us earlier in the season and we advertised for the role, it’s not an additional spend, but a replacement for an outgoing person. However, Jon Pepper’s CV is hugely impressive, and when you understand what he did at Burnley, you’ll begin to wonder why fans (like me) haven’t grapsed the importance of this capture sooner.

“I have 26 years’ experience in academy football, from coaching right through to Academy Manager at various clubs,” Pepper told the club’s official site. “My most recent experience was at Burnley from 2016 until 2021, where I was their Academy Manager. I took them from category three to category one in the space of four seasons. I will probably be looking to apply similar principles into my role here at Lincoln City.”

Taking an academy setup from category three to category one in just four years is a massive achievement, and Pepper oversaw that as part of Sean Dyche’s bigger vision for Burnley. Dyche diverted money towards the setup knowing that it can give clubs with lower budgets an edge. When Pepper arrived at Turf Moor, the Premier League team had 14 full-time academy staff, dilapidated buildings and were playing the ‘lower’ teams in youth football. When he left, they boasted more than 30 staff, had state-of-the-art facilities and were playing in Premier League 2 against the likes of Aston Villa and Wolves. Dwight McNeil, the Everton winger, is perhaps the biggest success story to come out of the setup, but Lewis Richardson, Josh Benson and Jimmy Dunne all made Premier League appearances before the Clarets were relegated.

Prior to his time at Burnley, Pepper has worked as a youth coach at Nottingham Forest, acted as Bradford City’s Academy Manager, and was with Double Pass as EPPP England Project Manager. It’s an impressive CV and one where, rather than just words, his Burnely experience has tangible positive outcomes to shout about.

For those with time to spare this afternoon, there’s a podcast below Pepper did with Training Ground Guru, where he gives more insight into his methods. I’d recommend you have a listen, as Pepper could be the biggest signing of the summer in terms of the club’s long-term goals and aims.

Even if you’re sceptical about the academy, which some are, I don’t think there’s any doubt that a thriving youth setup can be a massive benefit to clubs at our level, and if we are taking bigger steps to improving the environment for our young players, it must be a good thing.