FC Halifax Town: “I expect high standards” - Youth team coach Spooner on bridging the gap to the first-team

FC Halifax Town youth team coach Nicky Spooner says he wants to help bridge the gap to the first-team for the club’s young players.

By Tom Scargill
Wednesday, 7th July 2021, 9:39 am
Updated Wednesday, 7th July 2021, 9:53 am
Nicky Spooner. Photo: Dominic Holden
Nicky Spooner. Photo: Dominic Holden

Spooner was appointed on June 8 and will be employed by Calderdale College, overseeing their football programme with their shadow squad, as well as working with Town as part of their partnership with the college.

Spooner was a right-back for Bolton from 1987 to 1999 but suffered a broken leg in 1994 which put him out for four years.

He then went to play in America for two years, which helped him decide to try for a career in coaching, eventually going back to Bolton as a youth team coach, starting with five-to-11-year-old’s, before moving up to 12-to-15-year-old’s and then the under 18s.

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On two occasions, Spooner worked as first-team coach when Jimmy Phillips took charge of the side, as well as notably when Bolton fielded their youngest ever side against Coventry under Phil Parkinson.

While at Bolton, he coached Jeff King, Jack Earing and Niall Maher, with his coaching career at the club starting in 2007 and ending when he left in January this year when Spooner decided to leave and seek a new challenge.

“I’d seen the Halifax job advertised and heard good things about the academy programme,” he said.

“I got a good feel about it when it was explained to me.

“I knew Pete Wild as well from the academy circuit from his Oldham days, and I know he likes to give young players a chance.

“Obviously Bolton’s such a big club, they’ve got their own training ground, but where Halifax want to go to, Gavin Atherton (Town’s youth team coach) is a passionate coach, and Steve (Nichol, head of the youth team programme) does a hell of a lot of work that goes unnoticed, and it’s an established programme.

“I want to develop these lads to get to the next level of the academy, and support Steve and Gav with their lads, and hopefully the first-team manager can develop them after that.”

When asked what the young players in his teams can expect. Spooner said: “I expect high-standards and high work-rate, that’s what I’ve always believed in.

“If they give 100 per cent, you’ll get the rewards, and that’s what I try and do, high intensity sessions.

“I know they’re not going to change overnight, it’s a long process developing young footballers.”

Halifax face plenty of local competition for young players from the likes of Leeds United, Bradford City and Huddersfield Town, but Spooner is used to such problems.

“It’s always a challenge, if you look at Bolton, there’s Liverpool, United, City and Everton close by,” he said.

“You’ve just got to make it friendly and welcoming, and hope you get those one or two players who’ll push a few more players.

“I think the big selling point is the manager’s background, because he will play young boys if they’re good enough.

“Ideally, we develop players for the first-team, but obviously that doesn’t always happen. I know a Category Three team last year who did really well but none of their players got a professional deal.

“You’ve just got to hope you get that gem, but what Steve’s doing with the younger boys, trying to bring them through, means they’re already connected to Halifax, so hopefully when they’re 16, they’ll come on the youth team or shadow programme.

“It’s a long process.”

On his dual role of working for the college and the Shaymen, Spooner said: “That’s what appealed to me, because you do the coaching on the grass, day in, day out but you’re recruiting as well.

“The first priority is to get the shadow squad teams to a decent standard, and maybe one of them will push on to the academy, and then look at sitting down with Gav and Steve, and the manager, and saying ‘right, this is what we expect of a Halifax player’ then set a programme where you push on your better players.

“What normally then happens is they drag a few more with them.

“As I’ve got older, I’ve also rotated players more. They come through systems, someone says ‘he’s a right-back’ and they never move from that.

“But can they play centre midfield? They might surprise us, so it’s about experimenting too.

“I’ve made mistakes releasing footballers who’ve gone on to have good careers, but the big thing is, this programme gives an opportunity to young lads.

“That’s what’s special about this set-up with the education and the academy, is they’re willing to give boys a chance.

“The communication between Gav and the manager is great, and boys get the opportunity to train with the first-team, which is a big thing.

“We’ve discussed how we can prepare our best players to do that and impress the manager, because you don’t get that many opportunities like that.”

Spooner is due to meet with Wild during pre-season to discuss how players’ development can be tailored towards the Town first-team.

“Recruit well, try and improve them as much as we can, and become known as a good college set-up,” he said of his priorities in the role.

“It would be nice to get players from the shadow squad on the next step, and you’d love someone to go up to the first-team, which we’ve spoken about a lot, how can we get that pathway better?

“Steve’s asked for my experience about sort of things we should do, and it’s about preparing the individual more.

“We always liked to have three boys to get professional contracts from our group of scholars, I know it’s not big numbers with how many boys are in the system, but my passion is what can we do to get the 18-to-20-year-old’s prepared, how can we give them a bit longer?

“Do they go out on loan somewhere, go and learn their trade in men’s football?

“That’s what we’re trying to work out, to make that next step smaller, and can we prepare the individual for being around the first-team when they get the opportunity?”

Spooner says recruitment is just as important in his role as it is for Town manager Wild.

“There’s a lot of boys going missing in systems, a lot of late developers where clubs fill their spaces up and we’ve just got to say to these boys ‘the opportunity’s there for you’,” he said.

“Every good academy starts with recruitment, and if that’s right, and you get players into the first-team, word gets round. It’s as simple as that.

“People will say ‘Halifax Town’s good’, it’s about getting a good reputation.

“Even if they end up leaving, you want to shake hands and say ‘you know what I enjoyed every minute of it’. They’re not all going to make it, but you want the boys to enjoy it, and prepare them for whatever level of football they want to play at, and they’ve also got the education to go to university or whatever else.”

The shadow squad Spooner will oversee has two teams of 16-to-19-year-old’s, and Spooner will have two part-time coaches working under him.

“The shadow squad set-up mirrors the academy set-up, so my main role is overseeing the coaches in the shadow squad programme, arranging fixtures, liasing with the coaches and making sure everything’s running smoothly,” he said.

“And the other part is being on the grass with Gavin, and working with the academy boys, so it’s quite full on when the season starts!

“I want the training sessions to be at a high-tempo, and the coaching side of it to be as professional as possible.

“I think the college boys spend more time on the grass than some academies. The kids will do two sessions on Monday, two on Tuesday, they’ll play on Wednesday, rest day on Thursday and train on Friday, so it’s intense.

“And then you’d like some of them to play on Saturday in men’s football, to try and bridge that gap.

“Everyone wants to work so hard to make it a success, and this year, everyone’s wearing the same kit.

“The Shadow Squads are wearing the Halifax badge, so it’s all one. I think the manager wants the academy to wear the same training kit as the first-team so that when they do go up, they don’t look different and they’re all together.

“That’s very impressive. There were some under 23 games last year (involving some first-team players) which were great experiences for the young lads, to see the standard of where they have to get to.

“I’m a big believer in just going to watch the first-team train, just to see the standards, the expectations and the demands.

“The U16s will play in the Junior Premier League, the youth team will play in the National League Academy and Alliance Leagues and the shadow squad will play in the college AOC league, so they’re in two separate leagues.

“We’re due back in in line with the first-team in pre-season (in July). The Shadow Squads haven’t had a break because they’re still studying, so they’ll come in in early August, and their season doesn’t start until the second week in September.”

Head of youth development, Steve Nichol, said: “Nicky has joined our programme at youth team level, he will work alongside Gavin Atherton and support the day-to-day delivery of the youth team programme, and oversee the shadow squad, which operates alongside the youth team.

“Nicky has huge experience playing and coaching and will be a great addition to the team.

“He is able to join our programme as a result of our partnership with Calderdale College.”