FC Halifax Town: Shaymen hoping to inspire the next generation into the first-team

Bridging the gap from youth team to first team remains FC Halifax Town's youth development and community programme's biggest conundrum.

It does everything else, engaging with children across Calderdale from toddlers to teenagers, culminating in a two-year education and football course at Calderdale College.

FC Halifax Town youth  training at Calderdale College. Adil Ayub, left, and Musab Aliya, right.

FC Halifax Town youth training at Calderdale College. Adil Ayub, left, and Musab Aliya, right.

By the time its students graduate, they are prepared for a career on the pitch or off it.

But so far, except for brief first-team appearances for Ross Barrows, Shiraz Khan and Sam Hillhouse. the pathway to The Shaymen's senior side remains untrodden.

"I was waiting for that question!," says the club's head of youth development Steve Nichol.

"It's why the programme was created. If you look at the start and end point, any player that enters the programme is a better player by the time they leave.

FC Halifax Town youth  training at Calderdale College. McCauley Smith.

FC Halifax Town youth training at Calderdale College. McCauley Smith.

"I don't think players are ready for our first-team when they leave us aged 18 if I'm honest.

"We've tried various approaches to bridge that gap, including a hybrid approach where we've retained players on a contract and they'll train with the first-team and go out on loan to get some experience."

Nichol's own research indicates that only six academy players over the last 18 months have established themselves in the first-team at National League clubs.

"There was one who was sold to Peterbrough by Fylde," he says. "The average age of those when they made their debut was 18 years and 11 months, so many clubs are making decisions on these players at the age of 18.

FC Halifax Town youth  training at Calderdale College. Lead youth team coach Mike Jeffries.

FC Halifax Town youth training at Calderdale College. Lead youth team coach Mike Jeffries.

"It's in their third year where they're making their debut and showing they can progress towards first-team football, so it's about how we bridge that gap. That's the challenge, how we cover the players from 18-21.

"There have been players at the club I thought could have progressed to the first-team.

"Pete (Wild) and Chris (Millington) have a background in academy football and I think they've got a good grasp of what our programme is, where the players are by the end of it, and we're looking at how we can work together to bridge that gap."

Goalkeeper Carl Rushworth, who was called up to the England under 19 squad last week, could have done so eventually had he not been cherry-picked by Brighton.

FC Halifax Town youth  training at Calderdale College. Lead youth team coach Mike Jeffries.

FC Halifax Town youth training at Calderdale College. Lead youth team coach Mike Jeffries.

Two players, Jake Taylor, 19, and Jay Benn, 18, are out on loan at Silsden in the North-West Counties League. The pair also train with the Halifax first-team.

"I think it's about communication and contact, and the belief that we want to progress players on the programme, giving them a platform from which they can develop," says Nichol.

"Ultimately it comes down to time on the training pitch at the appropriate level, and playing time in senior football.

"If we can bring Jake and Jay back at Christmas and look to step them up again, we can hopefully facilitate their development.

"There's a handful of players who have left the programme in recent years who are in the National League North. Carl Rushworth left us last year to join Brighton.

"There hasn't been that progression to our first-team as much as we'd have liked, but there are players who can demonstrate the programme has brought them on and are doing well at various levels."

FC Halifax Town youth  training at Calderdale College. Lead youth team coach Mike Jeffries.

FC Halifax Town youth training at Calderdale College. Lead youth team coach Mike Jeffries.

The programme was awarded academy status by the National League this year and now play in the National League Football Academy North division with Hartlepool United, York City, Solihull Moors, AFC Fylde, Chester, Kidderminster Harriers, Guiseley, Alfreton and Darlington.

There are around 36 players in the club's youth team squad, consisting of an under 17's and an under 18's group.

The club has also partnered the College in the delivery of their Centre of Excellence, which also caters for around 36 players.

Nichol says "a good percentage" of students on the programme are from Calderdale, with some from the surrounding areas and some from further afield, such as Manchester and Sheffield.

"They come because it's a successful programme. Our recruitment process is quite diligent, we deliver presentations to players and their parents to give them an understanding of what the programme is.

"It mirrors a programme a Football League club will run as closely as it can.

"David Bosomworth and the board have always supported us within reason to try and progress it."

Ben Hardaker is a lecturer in sport on the programme at Calderdale College, having been a football skills coach for the FA for five years.

He sees the students for around 10 hours a week, but they also have to study away from the College in their own time.

They also take part in four football sessions a week, two gym sessions and games on Wednesdays and Saturdays, with home games now being played at Huddersfield Amateurs FC at Old Earth in Elland.

"The lads study for a BTEC level three, at different levels depending on their GCSE results," Hardaker explains.

"If they get the full diploma, that's the equivalent of three A-Levels, and the lower diploma is two A-Levels.

"The second year's are doing Sport Performance and Excellence, and the first year's are studying Sport Development and Coaching Fitness.

"The units are quite diverse. The lads could go into fitness training, sports coaching or leadership, sports development, physiology, nutrition.

"We try to set them up for 'what's next, what if football doesn't happen?'

"I think quite a lot of the second year's are now starting to think about 'what next'.

"I think a lot of them are realistic, they know the stats are against them, but it doesn't stop them having that ambition and drive.

"We tend to find the lads who do well on the pitch also do well in the classroom because of their character, and their attitude.

"One thing I don't want to do is tell them 'it's not going to happen' because I'd love to be proved wrong.

"We want them to represent Halifax on the pitch, but if not, we want them to leave here a better person who's going to go on and have a career."

"It's easy for the football to take priority," adds Nichol, "but if you put the person first, what they do off the pitch is equally important.

"It's a difficult balance. There's a lot more expected from any person on this course than a typical student. Their time is divided between the classroom, the pitch and travelling to games or to College.

"The expectations of them are higher, so it requires a lot of commitment and dedication."

Those traits are also demanded by lead coach Mike Jeffrries, who has been in the role for around a year, but has worked on the programme for three years.

He previously worked at Huddersfield Town's academy with their 12-16-year-olds.

"Last season we started slow but towards the back end of the season I thought we picked up, and everything started to gel," he says.

"This season we got to the first round of the FA Youth Cup, but we're also in the new Academy League Cup and the National League Youth Alliance League Cup.

"Hopefully in the league we'll see the return from the work we've put in on the training pitch.

"We've got a good structure, it's a balanced take on how we see the game being played in terms of the tactical aspects, which allows us to work in detail around the technical demands.

"We do want to win things but if the lads buy into what we're trying to do it should breed success for the team and individuals."

Having the likes of Leeds United, Huddersfield Town and Bradford City on your doorstep can be a double-edged sword.

"A lot of the lads we get are ones that have been let go by those clubs," says Jeffries.

"We work hard in terms of recruitment. We try to pick up lads who we think have potential.

"We'll maybe see two or three outstanding attributes and try to work with them to improve and get them to a point where we can pass them on to the first-team.

"It is competitive, but the sell with us is that Halifax is historically a Football League team, and there's an opportunity that we can really invest time in them and give them a pathway to the first-team.

"A lot of the lads tend to come because they see that. They're enjoying the sessions, they feel they're improving. They believe in us as coaches.

"If clubs from the Football League want to take one of our lads then we're obviously doing something right.

"But hopefully there will be new rules coming in to give us some protection because we invest a lot of time in the lads."

The ultimate goal of first-team football pervades the corridors at Calderdale College, even though most of these players will probably never get there.

"I remind the lads every day that I'm here for the same reason they are, because we want them to be in that first-team environment," says Jeffries.

"If that happens with one of them, then the programme will have been successful.

"There's a couple of lads at the minute who are training every day with the first-team.

"It would be the ultimate if one of the lads could get in the first-team. I could probably retire then!

"We do have a responsibility in developing them in football but also as a person, so they can go away from here and make good decisions off the pitch as well.

"We can guide and shape them, but they bear some of the burden in committing themselves to it."

Should a graduate establish themselves in the Town first-team, it would be the crowning glory of the programme. But that shouldn't be the only yardstick by which its success is measured.

"We don't have the facilities and resources for things to happen overnight but it's gradually evolving year-on-year.," adds Nichol.

"On Thursday morning we have a Shaytots programme delivered by two mums to children as young as six-months-old.

"Above that we've developed our five-16's programme. We have futsal sessions on Tuesday nights, and an under 16's squad with around 40 players.

"We have advanced under 10's, 11's and 12's as well.

"It's come a long way. When I first came into the club, there wasn't really a youth team programme that was connected. It was ran at arm's length to a degree.

"We formed a partnership with the College, which has become the hub of everything.

"We have more and better players, our recruitment stretches wider, we have more staff involved in delivery, and we deliver a stronger, more well-rounded education programme.

"We have two full-time staff supporting delivery on the pitch, plus a number of part-time staff, and a strength and conditioning coach.

"We've reached the first round of the FA Youth Cup for the last four seasons, which is something to be proud of.

"We've performed competitively against some professional sides, although that wasn't quite the case this season (Town lost 5-0 at Fleetwood).

"I think the whole landscape of football at this level has changed massively at youth team level, so to be awarded that academy status was a big thing.

"We have an excellent team of staff and a developing academy structure below that.

"The basic structure is in place. It's now about developing it.

"Competition has become stronger so the talent pool has become more diluted.

"We have to work harder on the quality of our programme to get people here. Possibly could we accommodate players to get people from a wider range of areas?

"What aspects of our players can we develop in terms of supporting them in the gym, on the pitch and their development as a player."

FC Halifax Town youth  training at Calderdale College. Adil Ayub.

FC Halifax Town youth training at Calderdale College. Adil Ayub.

FC Halifax Town youth  training at Calderdale College. Mohammed Subhani.

FC Halifax Town youth training at Calderdale College. Mohammed Subhani.

FC Halifax Town youth  training at Calderdale College. Lead youth team coach Mike Jeffries, left, and Steve Nichol, head of youth and community development.

FC Halifax Town youth training at Calderdale College. Lead youth team coach Mike Jeffries, left, and Steve Nichol, head of youth and community development.

FC Halifax Town youth  training at Calderdale College. Lead youth team coach Mike Jeffries, left, and Steve Nichol, head of youth and community development.

FC Halifax Town youth training at Calderdale College. Lead youth team coach Mike Jeffries, left, and Steve Nichol, head of youth and community development.

FC Halifax Town youth  training at Calderdale College. Morgan Butcher.

FC Halifax Town youth training at Calderdale College. Morgan Butcher.