It’s a cold February morning in Halifax, and while half The Shaymen’s youth team are braving the elements on the training pitch, the other half are sat at their computers in the classroom.
The club’s youth set-up is a programme of two halves, designed to develop brain and brawn, with 34 students commuting from across Yorkshire to work towards a BTEC Diploma in Sport as well as a shot at making the grade in football.
Under the bespoke programme, all academic content is delivered by a qualified tutor in purpose built classrooms at Calderdale College, where the course is delivered.
“Those who don’t progress on the football side for whatever reason have to have something to fall back on” says Town’s head of youth development, Steve Nichol.
On the full-size grass and 3G pitches, the youngsters receive up to 12 hours of technical and tactical coaching per week and play in the Football Conference Youth Alliance and FA Youth Cup.
Due to students usually showing more enthusiasm towards ball work than homework, anyone slacking off in the classroom is punished by having their hours on the training pitch cut.
Discipline is enshrined with a code of conduct which dictates diet, nutrition, fitness work, punctuality and attitude.
Nichol is keen to learn from other academies, in particular the astonishing track record of Southampton, but stressed Town shouldn’t limit their ambitions because they’re a non-league club.
“I’ve maintained involvement with the academies of some professional clubs to learn about the EPPP (Elite Player Performance Plan),” says Nichol.
“What Southampton are doing is special and it’s reaping its rewards.
“I actually met Rupert Lowe last week (former Southampton chairman) who should probably be credited with a lot of aspects of the structure in place there.
“It’s been difficult over the last two years setting up and managing a whole programme with a part-time team around me.
“What we’ve got now is an excellent programme with good staff.
“Hopefully I can free up a bit of time, go out and see what other people are doing.
“We may be a Conference club but I don’t think that makes a difference if your coaching programme is right.
“If we can put the right programme into place it’s frightening what we can do.”
Nichol says the programme has come a long way since its inception in 2013.
“We based the education at the Shay and secured a grant to purchase 20 laptops.”
“The good side of that was the players were based at the Shay and they felt at home.
“But we hopped around different places for facilities.
“Being at the college has accelerated the whole programme. We have a base where we can deliver the education and football programmes.
“We have the best facilities in Halifax. One of the biggest challenges was the area - it’s basically all hills so you don’t get many flat areas for pitches.
“But here we have the full-size 3G, full-size grass pitch, indoor gym and sports hall, so the logistics are far easier.
“I hope we’re doing good things for the college as well and increasing their profile.
“It’s a two-way partnership and it’s working well. We’re looking at ways we can extend the programme so we have the players for longer than two years.”
Town have their own success stories of nurturing raw talent into the Football League; images of Lee Gregory and Jamie Vardy are the first faces prospective students see during the introductory presentation by Nichol.
“It shows the development path players coming to this club could follow,” he says.
“I also think it’s important people realise the benefits of non-league football and the number of players starting to go up the pyramid that way because they get an experience of competitive adult football first at a younger age.
“Whereas if you got to a bigger club, they maybe play under 21 football and you’re only playing against players of your own age group.”
Nichol is keen to establish a clear link from the first-team to the youth side, which he hopes will only grow thanks to Sam Hillhouse’s leap up to the senior squad after signing an 18-month contract with Town recently.
“The chairman and Neil (Aspin) have spent a lot of time watching games,” added Nichol.
“We’re making progress in how we integrate the club together in terms of the youth team and the first team and trying to create a pathway between the two.
“There’s a lot to do to continue developing that but we’ve made a lot of progress and Sam’s been the first player to benefit.
“There’ll be hopefully be one or two others as well in the not too distant future.
“Neil being full-time and available to come and see our games is a big help.
“It’s important the youth team players do see Neil, it makes them feel connected to the club in a wider perspective.”