Academy Interview | Gavin Chesterfield discusses first 90 days in charge
Having stepped into his new role as Academy Manager in November, Gavin Chesterfield has overseen the ongoing development of the Academy both on and off the pitch in the months since his appointment.
Sitting down to speak with Cardiff City TV, Gavin reflects on his time so far, and looks ahead at what is yet to come in the Welsh capital…
Cardiff City TV: Gavin, thanks for joining us! It’s been three months since you’ve been in the role; tell us what those first 90 days have looked like from your perspective.
Gavin: Firstly, massively welcoming. You never quite know when you come into a new role, where it’s going to go, how it’s going to go.
A clear work ethic is evident around the place, we’ve got some really good people who care about the players and what’s struck me between the eyes is that everyone is working really hard to do the best we possibly can for the football club and the best we possibly can for the players.
Those are really nice things that hit you as you walk through the door, and I’d like to think that you’d see that anywhere across the Club. If you went to Leckwith, here to Treforest or in the stadium, whenever there is work going on for the football club, the guys are working hard to produce. It’s a great base for me to build upon.
Cardiff City TV: What have you tried to instil amongst your staff and players during the first three months?
Gavin: The first three months is quite apt really, because I said to the guys that for the first three months it’ll be about observing, understanding, getting to know people, lots and lots of one-to-ones, building intelligence, and understanding what we do, and why we do it.
Whilst that’s unearthed a lot of positive things, it’s also unearthed things that we can do better. I think in some ways we need to be better in having a stronger identity. I’m talking about an on-pitch identity there, but the work ethic of the staff is representative of the players as well.
We come from a hard-working docks city and that has to represent itself in how we carry ourselves and our players. You’ll see that in spades, but our idea is to use that undoubted work ethic at the core of what we do, but flavour it a little bit more with quality in certain areas. I think that giving our players and staff a better framework to work off is going to produce dividends in the future.
Cardiff City TV: We’re here in Treforest, but this time next season, we’ll be sitting somewhere very different, moving back into the heart of Cardiff, in Llanrumney. How exciting is this year going to be for the Academy?
Gavin: It’s massive, really. I’ve obviously come in fairly recently. It’s nice to be part of the planning stage. It’s nice to be part of how it’s now being shaped, but if you go down there now, every single day there’s something different. There’s a new room that’s been added or a new wall that’s gone up, it’s fantastic.
To see that investment in us is huge because that shows belief in what we’re trying to do. It shows belief that we’re confident that we can bring players through. If I’m a young player here as well, I’m thinking a club like Cardiff City Football Club is willing to invest in us in terms of facilities, what’s not to like about that? It’s just so exciting.
We're moving to a part of Cardiff that has always produced players as well. It’s very accessible. We’ve been very thankful to USW for many years for being based in Treforest, and whilst we’ve been here, we’ve had many successful times, but the truth is, it’s never really your home. Moving down there is an opportunity for us to draw a line in the sand and move forward.
Cardiff City TV: You talk about investment, the backing from the Club, as well as other partners of course in this project, Steve Borley has been very central to it, Tan Sri Vincent Tan made a visit recently, it’s nice to show that care is coming from the Board and you must feel that?
Gavin: Very much so. I must say, the support I’ve received from everyone, particularly senior Board members, has been fantastic since I’ve come in. There’s a real thirst to produce our own. You can see that with the guys we’ve got in the First Team at the moment that have come through, the affinity they have with the supporters, the connection with the supporters is unlike any other. It’s very difficult to replicate and almost impossible to forge. For me, it’s essential.
I can’t wait for the next one and that’s our primary aim, it’s always to produce players for our First Team. If we can’t do that, then we can educate players to still make a living out of the game and enjoy a fruitful career. That’s great, but fundamentally, it’s about trying to get players through to our First Team.
Cardiff City TV: There’s perhaps a little confusion about Category 1/Category 2 status. Llanrumney is set up to host a Category 1 academy in the future. Can you tell us what the route looks like from what we are now to what Category 1 would look like?
Gavin: Categorisation is dictated by the quality of the provision that you provide. There are some unbelievably high-quality academies out there that are probably in excess of Category 1, so categorisation is one thing.
We are currently a Category 2 academy. Llanrumney has been built in mind with the potential to go Category 1 in the future, but that’s not a discussion I’ve had at this stage. The jump from Category 2 to Category 1 is quite significant, both in terms of facilities, but also staffing, finance and many other things.
The good thing about where we are at the moment is that we’re in a good place; we’ve got a good player base, we operate a very strong Category 2 system that will get better.
Categorisation in terms of moving to Category 1 protects you, I suppose, in terms of a better games programme, better facilities, better investment in certain staff, and better provision across the board.
Sometimes, it can protect you in the trading market for players, but sadly since Brexit, in many ways, you have Category 1 academies that are purchasing from other Category 1 clubs as well, so I think everyone is just finding their feet as how these new rules affect the trading of young players.
Cardiff City TV: As you said earlier, the priority of the Academy is to invest and develop players to the best of their potential. We’ve seen reported interest recently in some of our young players from some big clubs it has been said. From an Academy perspective, what does that mean?
Gavin: Firstly, it means we have good players. Secondly, it means it’s a difficult environment at the moment. All clubs are finding their feet. Category 1 clubs can no longer go into Europe to purchase players below the age of 18. As a result of that, they look to supplement squads and recruit the best talent they can from these shores.
We’re no different to any club in that regard, your players are always going to be sought after, it’s a good thing and it would be wrong if that wasn’t the case. It’s difficult because you don’t want to lose your best players, you don’t want to lose any of your players, but if we are going to lose our best players, we do so on our terms. We sell aggressively and protect the investment and the future of the Club.
Sadly, it’s sometimes a by-product of having good players. Inevitably, it might be the case that you lose one or two, but we believe in our pipeline. The hope is that the added investment in Llanrumney, a clear pathway into the First Team allows us to produce players. This builds confidence and enhances belief in the system, and gives everybody a boost, players and staff alike. In recent years, the Club has done so well and the hope is that we continue that.
We talk in-house about our blue talent pathway and what is required to get a blue talent through and that encapsulates everything. That talks about categorisation to some extent, but more so, it speaks about the people; The people we have in the building, the work ethic, the quality of provision, the quality of coaching, the attitude of the players, the commitment of the parents throughout the entire chain. We talk about the experiences that they have both in our care in the building and indeed, maybe on international visits. We talk about the loan experiences, we talk about senior exposure. Player development just doesn’t happen in a straight line, it’s a jig-saw and we’re putting the pieces together at the moment. It’s really coming together.
Cardiff City TV: Looking at the loan market, we’ve seen as recently as deadline day, Jack Leahy and Tom Davies going out to Welsh league clubs. There’s immense value in sending these boys to the Cymru Premier, isn’t there?
Gavin: Yes, and you’re talking to someone who knows that league better than most. I see a huge value for these lads. They’ve both settled ever so well at their respective clubs. Loans are interesting because the ideal is that you go straight from the U18s into the U21s and before you know it, you’re in the First Team and you’re established, but truthfully, this type of journey is the exception rather than the norm.
The truth is that loans enrich the quality of a player’s experience. It’s not just about the player’s offering, it’s sometimes the player living away from home for example, hearing a different voice, seeing some new walls, playing for three points, understanding that winning matters and understanding that you’ve got to deliver every single time you cross that white line because it’s those types of experiences that will allow them to play for our First Team.
Jack Leahy has gone to Haverfordwest County, a really well set up club. They play a style of football that will suit him immensely and the role they have for him in the team is where we see his talents lying. He's working with an experienced manager in Tony Pennock, who has been in the Championship as a First Team coach, so we felt that was a really good opportunity for him. They go into a period of their season now where every game matters. They’re pushing for a European place and Jack is there to try and help them do that. The hope is that Jack benefits hugely from this loan and he’s able to kick-on.
It’s the same for Tom Davies. When Tom burst onto the scene - a hugely exciting talent - but probably needed a different stimulus now, a different challenge to get more out of him. He’s gone to Pontypridd United, again in the Cymru Premier, but with staffing structure and coaches that we trust and know quite well.
The best thing about the boys going into the Welsh system is that because both those clubs are not full-time, they’re still able to stay around the building with us, so we coordinate with the clubs to manage their data, all their footage for example and they’re able to maintain a full-time playing diary, albeit with a few different voices a couple of times a week, but they get exposure at a senior level.
We do have interest sometimes from English clubs as well and we’ve got a few out at the moment, but Kieron Evans is doing ever so well in Torquay and we’re in regular dialogue with the staff down there.
Loans really enrich a player’s pathway. What we look at as part of our talent planning is what the first loan looks like and what that then allows them to kick-on to do in their next loan. For example, with us being a Championship club, it’s easy for us to say that our U21s players can go and play in the EFL tomorrow. I think they’ve got the ability to, but they’ve got to prove that and be good enough that people can rely on them. The idea is that the initial loan will set them up with some senior exposure so we can build onto a better loan, a bigger loan and a loan higher up the chain maybe next season. It’s all part of the plan.
Cardiff City TV: Of course, looking elsewhere around the club, we’ve had the pleasure of seeing the likes of Rubin Colwill, Isaak Davies and Joel Bagan step up into First Team level. In recent weeks, we’ve seen Xavier Benjamin on the bench, as well as Lewys Benjamin and Morgan Wigley. That will always resonate with Academy staff when that happens, won’t it?
Gavin: Everybody just gets a massive shot in the arm, it’s fantastic to see. Those boys have earned those opportunities and it’s fantastic that the manager has seen something in those players to give them a chance. All we can do is position those players in the best possible light, thereafter, it’s up to them. That’s what we’re here to do, we’re here to produce players for our First Team.
We believe in a pathway. We’ve got some great ideas to take it forward, we firmly believe in what we have in the building. There’s nothing quite like seeing someone in the Academy play in the First Team, albeit after a couple of loans or getting some early exposure. Regardless, what we want to see is a couple of breakthroughs.
Cardiff City TV: With players stepping up to First Team level, it creates gaps with the younger squads, which means the younger players have to step up age groups. There has been a bit of transition in age groups because of this work that we’ve been doing, hasn’t there?
Gavin: That’s a really good point. In the Academy, winning matters for us. I don’t want people to think that we’re happy to lose, we want to win. We don’t need to win, but we want to win at every opportunity with every age group. I don’t to take that out of a young player.
For us, it’s about education, it’s about trying to win according to our style and our approach and at the moment, if you look at the U21s squad, it’s polarised in some ways. You’ve got some players that are genuinely classed as First Team players in and around the squad and are getting game-time there, which is brilliant as our young players benefit from their experience as well, but then we look at the rest of the squad and it’s quite young.
If you look at our recent matches, I think it was about eight or nine U18s players that were involved; we want that. It’s important that we continue that, we don’t want a lot of players stuck in your U21’s, we want people who are young and are constantly striving so that they can get close. It's the same then for the U16s and the U18s. It was great to see our U16s getting through to the Semi-Finals of the PDL Cup, that’s fantastic. The U18s are an exciting group and are doing well in their league and we’re pushing their players up into the U21s, so it’s doing alright at the moment, but I still believe the best is yet to come. With where we’re going now, we’re releasing a new curriculum, a new approach when we move to Llanrumney in June. I talked earlier about a line in the sand and it’s another line in the sand for us to kick-on. These are exciting times and I hope the players are as excited as the staff are.
Cardiff City TV: We spoke about the first 90 days, about observation, about learning, about studying and working with each other. What does the next 90 days look like?
Gavin: Now, we enact the plan. We’ve gathered the intelligence, we know far more than what we did when I walked into the building. We’ve built upon our core of hard work and resilience, and we sprinkle that with a solid structure. I spoke about a new curriculum when we move to the new facility, that’s exciting, that’s something that all the staff are a part of and is an essential part of us developing a more explicit identity.
We’re going to focus on three key areas. The first is going to be 'technical excellence' - I think you need that to thrive in the modern game. The second is going to be what we’ve called 'physical mutants'. It doesn’t mean that everyone has to be 6”5, not at all. I look at Lionel Messi for example and he’s a physical mutant. He’s strong, agile, resilient, athletic, always able to deliver. I know I’m pinning on one of the best players ever there, but if you look at the robustness of him, there’s just so much to admire.
Then, equally so with Cristiano Ronaldo, again just a triumph of what hard work and dedication can achieve. You look at the two profiles of those players, they’re very different, but all those abilities, those physical aspects have generally been trained. We’re really putting an emphasis on that.
The last one then is what we’ve called ‘mentality monsters’. To thrive in this game, you need to be strong and have a huge desire to achieve and be better than the rest. They’re important things for us. I’m not saying that we’ve ignored the other areas. The social aspect will largely be taken care of by the environment and how we treat people and how we interact, but then also the tactical aspect.
We do that through a principle-based approach. For the youngest of the young, tactics is just about space and time. Without being too philosophical, even the highest level, tactics is about space and time. With strong emphasis and drive in those three key areas of the player development journey, I think we’ll be in a better place.