Tom Pell delighted as Cambridge United academy passes Category Three status audit
Top marks in categories of Elite Player Performance Plan
Passing an academy audit may not sound the most riveting event, but it is of big significance in the Football League.
Therefore, to do so with flying colours in three areas is even more impressive from Cambridge United.
While it may not be the type of conversation for a regular Saturday afternoon in the Habbin or Newmarket Road End, it is further down the line that the impact could be seen by the wider fan base – in graduates appearing for the first team.
It is difficult to put into context why United retaining their Category 3 status following a successful audit is so important, but academy manager Tom Pell has an analogy that makes it more relatable.
“I always just try to describe the audit in an Ofsted sense,” he says.
“Everybody knows what Ofsted is when it goes into schools, and that’s how we put it in football audit terms; it’s an Ofsted-type audit where people come in and have a look at every single department – what areas you need to work on and what areas you are doing well in.
“That’s the best way to explain it to people that are slightly less into academy football and more a supporter of the first team.”
To provide greater insight into United’s success in their first re-audit since being granted Category 3 status on their return to the Football League, it is best to cast the net wider.
The U’s are one of eight Category 3 clubs to be awarded their status for another three years without re-assessment, and that is out of 40 clubs.
A further 24 clubs will have a re-assessment over the season to make sure they are hitting the criteria they need to or have not done during the initial audit.
Another eight clubs have failed and need a complete re-audit.
“We’re now funded for a further three years to be a Category 3 academy and in terms of passing it, I know this sounds blunt, but that’s pretty much what it means,” said Pell.
“To be in the top eight of those 40 is a good achievement but, being brutally honest, one we would expect to achieve because we like to set our standards as high as we can.
“But it is very pleasing.”
It is easy to understand why Pell adopts a modest approach, after all, in many ways they are just doing their jobs.
Yet, with audit scores coming in eight areas – productivity, the player, relationships, operations, elite performance, education and welfare, football and club vision – and the U’s achieving top marks in three it shows they are performing well.
Their top marks came in the player category, which among other things is about individual reviews, individual development and pathway plans, identifying opportunities and liaison with players and parents; operations, which is administration and recruitment, using things such as the shadow academy, regional development centres and external recruitment; and education and welfare, which is looking after the youngsters both on and off the field.
“It gave us a lot of confidence that what we’re doing is of a very high level,” said Pell, as he talked of the areas in which they got top marks.
“Everybody has worked really hard over the last four years to make sure we’ve got to where we’ve got to. Nobody really celebrated it to be totally honest, it’s a case of this is what we do.
“When you’re at the training ground all day every day, it’s just what you do.
“We try not to over celebrate with the players when we win, we don’t want to be throwing teacups around when we lose; it’s something we try to keep on an even keel I guess.
“But we probably should give ourselves a pat on the back.”
Pell acknowledges that one of the challenges ahead is to get more players into the first team, but there is much more being done behind the scenes, and the Category 3 status means there is financial recompense should a youngster be taken by a club higher up the pyramid.
“It’s worth mentioning that since we’ve been back in the Football League we’ve actually sold quite a number of academy products to other clubs over the years as well,” said Pell.
“When you’re outside of the League, you don’t hold any compensation for the players.
“To have players registered and to get the funding, it’s so important for a club the size of ours where we’re always trying to punch above of our weight.”
That does not mean there is any resting on the laurels though, with the aim still being to bring through homegrown products.
Leon Davies, Harry Darling and Tom Knowles have been nurtured in the academy to be currently in and around the first team, but Pell believes patience is crucial.
“We’ve got a number of first-year pros who we have high hopes for, but their journey might look different to somebody else’s, so I think patience is key,” he said.
“At the same time, the boys have to realise you can’t be patient forever. They will get opportunities at this club, but they have to take them and that’s something we’re keen to do.”
Pell added: “It’s brilliant to have this audit, it’s brilliant to have the results we’ve had and it’s brilliant to take a bit of a pat on the back.
“But the areas that we need to improve are the productivity to get players into the first team, not just every now and then but to have a large percentage of our first team made up of homegrown players because that’s what we have to do; that is our job.
“It does take time, it takes a lot of effort and several years to get that plan in place but we’re actually pretty confident over the next four to five years it’s something the fans will see not just every now and then but on a regular basis.”