FC Halifax Town: “My key role is getting players into the first-team” says youth team coach Atherton
Most managers are judged on results, but for Gavin Atherton, FC Halifax Town’s youth team coach, the development of players is his primary yardstick.
Atherton is six months into the role, having previously been football development coach at Calderdale College, overseeing Town’s academy teams.
The Shaymen’s youth set-up consists of 80 to 85 players and is divided into two parts, a Shadow squad managed respectively by Town winger Danny Williams and Aaron Beaumont, and an under 17s and under 18s youth team, overseen by Atherton, who reports to head of the youth set-up Steve Nichol.
“I think the partnership we’ve got with the college is very good, very stable,” said Atherton, 33.
“It links and works really well, it’s ideal.
“I think we’re by far one of the strongest non-league academy set-ups going.
“I don’t think many clubs or courses out there have access to a full-size sports hall, a full-size strength and conditioning gym, classroom with 25 PCs where we do analysis, three or four changing rooms, a grass pitch, a 3G pitch.”
Atherton was a centre-back in his youth - “I was in and around clubs as a kid but I never made it to the pro level, just non-league” - but an anterior cruciate ligament injury at Hyde United helped set him on the path to a coaching career.
“I was at college, studying a similar BTEC to what we offer, so I started my coaching badges through that, and when I got injured I was out for about a year-and-a-half,” he said.
“So I got into coaching. I was only 18, 19, did bits with a private coaching company, part-time at first and then full-time.
“I was there for about six years and did the basics of coaching, from reception kids up to year six in Primary Schools, doing after-school clubs, breakfast clubs.
“I learned my trade there, how to manage a class of 30 or an after-school club of 10 kids, or dealing with a child of reception age.
“I got my UEFA B badge and through that met a coach who ran his own coaching company, and I ended up doing little bits for him.
“He saw something in me, he ended up working for Oldham and then I ended up getting a job there doing the under 12s.
“I got moved up to the under 15s, learned a lot, some great coaches, some great mentors, obviously Pete Wild was one of them and Milly (Chris Millington).
“I got to know them and learned off them.
“I developed a lot as a coach and after three or four years there, I moved to Wigan Athletic, taking their under 15s.
“Great club, great opportunity. A new Academy Manager was there a year before and wanted to develop their academy system.
“I learned a hell of a lot there as well. Oldham was bit more physicality and direct training with a bit of technical in it, whereas Wigan were very technical based programme, they wanted to develop technically good players, to be able to play under pressure and not always about the big physical players.
“Mike Jeffries, said he was progressing from being football development officer at the college to become Halifax’s Lead Youth Team Coach and would I fancy coming to work alongside him?
“I’ve known Mike for about 10 years, we worked for the same coaching company when we were younger.
“I thought it would be a great opportunity to go full-time, be around youth team lads day-to-day and be a good progression for me.”
Atherton has also worked for Manchester Futsal Club running his own development Centre in Tameside, Accrington and Rossendale College as Head Coach for their ECFA U19s squad for two years. He also worked for Manchester City Football Schools doing different types of programmes from player performance to inspire programmes and worked for the Manchester FA on a voluntary basis coaching their U18 Representative Team.
He says competing for players with the number of non-league clubs operating similar programmes and professional clubs like Huddersfield Town and Bradford City, Barnsley and Doncaster on the doorstep is a challenge.
“It’s not easy but we have an established programme with a professional set-up. I’ve also tweaked some aspects of the programme with ideas I have gained from the clubs I have worked at previously. Our programme is comparable with those ran by clubs in the EFL without the Football League Status.”
Atherton says strong links to the Town first-team is a good selling point when trying to attract young players.
“Pete and Milly are great guys, they’ve been and done what I’m doing now,” he said.
“They’re massive on youth development.
“We looked at how we could link the youth team and the first team closer together, and thought would it be possible for the first-team to come and train at the college on a Monday so we could see the link a bit closer, the youth team players could be in and around the first team, the gaffer can meet the youth team players, if he needs any players during training we can throw one or two over.
“That side of it is great. Pete’s very open with that, I think it helps I’ve had a working relationship with him before because we’ve got that trust and bond between us.
“When we’ve done Zoom presentations to U16 players and parents in lockdown, Pete’s jumped on and talked about players coming up into the first team, and his aspirations for supporting youth development at this club.
“Nick Crane and Lucas Schofield have been on the bench. If the fit’s right and Pete likes the player and feels he can trust them, he’s going to give them an opportunity, it’s as simple as that.
“Throughout the season both first and second year scholars have trained on a regular basis with the first-team. It’s a great experience, it supports their development and shows to our players that opportunities are here with our first team.
“When you come into a club as a young player, any player and parent wants to see that progression into the first-team, they want to see that opportunity because there’s no point going to a club where you’re never going to get a chance.
“That’s a big selling point for us. I think as staff, first team and youth team, we’re a lot closer than we’ve ever been.
“Steve is also working with Pete and Milly a lot, helping out, being around it.
“I think it’s a win-win all round.
“Pete’s great like that, he’s brilliant. He’s from this background so he’s always asking how the lads are doing, what we’ve been up to, any developments, recruitment, who are we speaking to, can he do anything to help.
“Pete and Milly do offer support, they try and watch some of the sessions, and when they finish on a Monday they’ll have a walk over if we’re still training and have a look and speak to the lads.
“I think that shows the lads that they’re interested in the youth-team set-up, they can see a pathway.”
Atherton has to dredge his memory to recall the last time he took charge of a youth team game before recollecting a friendly against Wakefield during the hazy, vague times before coronavirus and lockdowns.
“The National League Academy League have recently announced that they have made the decision to curtail the season. We’re now in the process of organising friendly fixtures to create our own games programme. We are awaiting clarification from the West Riding U23 League,” he said.
“Everything we work on and say to them, we want to be able to put into practice on match days.
“So they have lost a bit from that side in terms of development, but we’ll be arranging a substantial amount of games to try and get that back, so the lads will have ample opportunity to play games so we can test ourselves and give the lads an opportunity on the pitch to show what they’ve learned.
“We’ve done a lot with them during lockdown on fitness and other stuff, the lads have still been busy, but the one thing they haven’t had is match minutes.”
Atherton sees his job first and foremost as a developer of players, and that success for him is seeing some follow in the footsteps of Jay Benn, a youth team product who is now part of Town’s first-team squad.
“Ultimately, my job is ‘can we get players into the first-team?’ Atherton said.
“Winning is a big part of the game at this level, don’t get me wrong, so you can’t not have a winning mentality. That’s still a big part of it, so we instill that as much as possible.
“But ultimately, I’m a big advocate of developing players, always have been and always will be.
“I’ve brought in position-specific sessions this year for the first and second years, so they work on it once a week, around all the basics of their game.
“The groups are separated into full backs, wingers, centre backs, midfielders, strikers and goalkeepers - I’ve put a five-week programme together that works on a certain aspect of each position each week and they continually revisit it, the topics never change so they get loads of repetition!
“So you work through them and try to develop the skills for your position, we then try to bring it together in team training sessions.
“So if the gaffer and Milly say to me ‘Gav, we need a centre-back for example’ I can say ‘right, I’m going to give you this player here, this is what we’ve been doing, for example, he’s strong defensively in one v one situations and aerial battles, or in possession he can step in with the ball, break lines with a pass and he possess a varied range of passing.
“These are some of the aspects we look to cover for a centre-back.
“My key role is getting players into the first-team or as close to it as possible so the gaffer can say ‘I want him training with me’.
“If we can get them into the first-team and get them a pro contract like Jay Benn, then superb, brilliant. That’s my goal, to be able to develop players, even if they don’t get anything with our first-team, we can say ‘look how far you’ve come from your start point to where you are now’.
“It’s progress that’s important, every players journey is different and hopefully we can support players reaching the next step in their development’. That’s what I strive on, developing players within a team setting.”
Atherton is optimistic there are players under his tutelage that could follow Benn’s path.
“I’m hoping we’ve got a few players within our youth team programme that can progress,” he said.
“There’s only so much we can do with the lads on the training pitch to warrant that.
“Jay Benn, as well as ability has demonstrated work rate, attitude and determination to get to where he is now, it’s absolutely fantastic, whilst as a coach you can create the environment a player must be driven to progress.
“That’s a good proportion of why he got something with the first-team, just purely because on the training ground he worked hard, he did everything he needed to do.
“That plays a big part in it. If the player doesn’t want it enough then some might not get it.
“We do have some talented players, but they’ve got to want to push and strive and do those extras away from the training ground and want it enough to go to that next level.”