Martin Hardy: The man behind Middlesbrough's prolific player production process
Life Beyond the Premier League
Dave Parnaby put the lid on his pen, shut down his computer and took the short walk from his office to the indoor sports hall at Middlesbrough's training centre.
The Under-11s and Under-12s were training.
"I just stood and watched them for half an hour," he says. "It was reassuring. They were all smiling and enjoying themselves. In my opinion there was genuine talent on the pitch and that was great."
Parnaby should know.
On Saturday 5 January, earlier this year, Jordan Jones and Bryn Morris made their first-team debuts in the FA Cup against Hastings United. It took the total number of players to go from Middlesbrough's Academy to the club's first team to 42 since 1998. That was when Parnaby was approached by Keith Lamb (then Middlesbrough's chief executive) and Steve Gibson (Middlesbrough's chairman) to take over the academy.
It has proved to be the most significant signing Lamb and Gibson ever made.
"You said it was 42, I wouldn't have known," Parnaby says to me. "I'm not just saying that. That is the best way to look at it. You have to have a long-term project to it. There is no easy answer.
"We've had lots of plaudits. It's not me, it's a whole host of people. There are six departments in the academy. I would like to put on record my appreciation of their contribution to the whole process.
"Steve's real quest is to provide an opportunity for kids in Teesside and the surrounding areas. We have it in our presentations. He saw the onset of academies as an opportunity for kids in the area to play professional sport. He has never steered away from that. Ron Bone has been here 25 years and he's done every role within the club. Youth development demands staff to stay for a long time.
"We all work as hard as each other to ensure the boys get a nice journey. The key word with our parents is enjoy the journey, because at some point it comes to an end.
"It's a nice environment here. We keep working hard at it. We keep changing things and moving them along. I hope Joe Public and the parents can see there is opportunity here. We have core values of respect, humility and honesty.
"You feel proud [that so many are now professional footballers]. You feel sad as well because they've all left us. Our personal choice would be for them to stay forever but being the club we are, we realised one of our aims is to produce first-team players if we can and also can we produce players who will give us a financial gain."
Stewart Downing cost Aston Villa £12 million. Adam Johnson went to Manchester City for £9m. In total, it has cost other clubs more than £37m to prize those players away from Middlesbrough.
Parnaby's own original desire was to play professional football himself. He still has the letter from Middlesbrough which said he wasn't quite good enough. He played, coached and managed in the Conference for Gateshead. He taught PE for 22 years and moved into middle management. He completed his "A License" and got into coaching with English schools. He was asked to join the Football Association full-time, declined, was offered a position with Sunderland, which he declined, spoke to Newcastle and was then approached by Middlesbrough. At that point he left teaching. That was 15 years ago.
The role for those in charge of academies now leans more heavily towards administration. The Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP), a youth development scheme initiated by the Premier League, has increased paperwork. Any academy with a full-time educational model can broaden their horizons for recruitment. Middlesbrough have a hybrid model where they bring children in on day-release. It means their targets for recruitment remain in the surrounding area. "The grass-routes environment in the north east is still healthy and vibrant," he says. "That provides our raw material."
Parnaby has been backed by the five managers he has worked with. Bryan Robson, Steve McClaren, Gareth Southgate and Gordon Strachan all recognised the work being done. Tony Mowbray addresses all academy players at the start of the season (there are currently around 150). "He doesn't mention football," adds Parnaby. "He only mentions about being a good person, have humility and respect for people. You can see that in abundance in the man himself."
He talks about the benefits for youngsters who go out on loan. "They come back and they say it's real. There's a crowd, the results of the game matters. It's people's livelihood." He admits the idea to play Under-21 games as a bridge to the Premier League is not working.
He would like the game's governing bodies to work closer together. "I hope the EPPP plan has brought the two leagues together and with the opening of St George's [National Football Centre] it gives the FA an opportunity to re-establish themselves as the governors of the game. It should happen. I'm not sure if it will."
But there is delight at those that have developed at Middlesbrough. "Stewart and Adam often text," he adds. "I suppose I text them when they're having bad times. Stewart has had challenges at Liverpool and he's come through them. Adam had some challenges at first at Sunderland and he's come through them."
And there is pride at the work of academies when England do well. "If England fail we get a hard time. It is an easy out. The progression of youth developments since 1998 has been huge. Danny Welbeck came through at Manchester United, Wayne Rooney at Everton, Jack Wilshere at Arsenal and Tom Cleverly at Bradford."
There is still time [just] to go to the sports hall. "People were smiling and there was sweat on the brows and the coaches were enjoying it," he adds. "It reassures you we are still alive, we're still kicking and we have talent.
"I just stood and watched and complimented the kids afterwards. There is nothing better than seeing them develop."
The people of Teesside would concur.
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