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Watford Academy

When you think of Watford FC you think about the previous club owner & famous musician, Elton John & the successful periods they enjoyed under former England Manager, Graham Taylor.  Taylor enjoyed a successful 10 year management spell between 1977-1987.  During this period Watford went from the old fourth division to the old first division.  They finished 2nd in the first division in 1983, competed in the UEFA Cup during 1983/1984 & reached the FA Cup Final in 1984.  Graham Taylor then took Watford to the Premiership during his second spell.  They also produced some terrific players like John Barnes & David James.

I had the pleasure of spending 3 days at the Watford Academy based at Harefield Academy.  I write about them briefly in my new book, ‘1-on-1 Coaching The Secrets To Improve ALL Football Players – GUARANTEED!‘, so was very excited to travel over & see the great work the club is doing.

I flew from Belfast International to London Luton.  My good friend, Dave Godley, is Watford’s Youth Development Officer.  He very kindly collected me from the airport & offered me accommodation.  I met Dave when I was on a coaching visit to Holland.  He played for Dutch second division side OJC Rosmalen.

Harefield Academy

The next morning we travelled up to Harefield Academy, or ‘The School’ as many people refer to it.  Pat Cottis, Head of the school, gave us an insight into school life & a tour of the fabulous Academy.  I was very impressed.  She was passionate & driven to achieve success.  Watford Academy used the school as a training facility up until 2005/2006.  At this time it is probably fair to say the school was failing & facilities were not great.  But exciting plans of a brand new building & a relationship between Watford FC & the Harefield Academy were on the horizon.

The relationship began in September 2007 with about 35-40 boys, aged 12-16, from Watford’s Academy signing up.  This would be approximately 50% of the boys attending from Watford’s Academy.  There is always a lot of thought from both the football club & school as to who attends.  Players that have maybe only just started at the club, settled at other schools or maybe it’s not right for them would not attend.  Another factor early on was convincing parents to take their child out of their current school where they were settled, performing well & had their friends there.  Harefield Academy is open to all boys & girls – not solely Watford FC.

'The School', Harefield Academy

The School

‘The School’ is built over 3 floors & is open plan so is very modern, bright & the Head always has a good view of her pupils!  It has a real welcoming feel & offers everything for the pupils.  Pat explained to us about this unique school commenting, ‘take the school as a jig saw puzzle & put it together.’  Along with the normal lessons that children everywhere receive they also offer students 45 minutes in the middle of the day to progress in their dream, whether that be sport or music.

Children buy into it, it’s like a package deal.  For example, some attend horse riding for the day while others are based at Crystal Palace (athletics) for 2 days.  Their education is always closely monitored to insure no one falls behind.

I love this philosophy.  We all perform better & put more effort into something we enjoy, that we are passionate about.  It makes perfect sense to offer it to students.  Children also have full use of I.T. with over 30 computer stations set up.  This is positioned on arrival at the school.  A real open, bright area with positive messages draped over flags coming down from the ceiling.  There is also the ‘wall of fame’ positioned here of previous students from the school that have developed well in their chosen profession.  This is a mix from footballers to athletics, including a young man who is being tipped to feature in team GB’s next Olympic team for the 200 metres.

The school also operates a no cash policy.  Instead it is replaced by students using their finger print to purchase food & monitor what they are eating & drinking.  This is especially useful for those training on a daily basis to insure each individual is hydrated & eating the right things.

Generally 6 or 7 players from each age group at Watford’s Academy will be invited into the school from a squad of 20.  The club assess players at the ages of 10 & 11 for entry into the school.  Then the school interview them based around the educational side.  Both parties are always looking long term – will this 11 year old be here at the age of 16?  It is very rare for a player to be released mid term, the club is always looking at long term assessment.  Players are assessed on a monthly basis with goals being set.  They are assessed twice a year on their technical, tactical, physical & psychological performance & given a grade of 1, 2 or 3.  1 being on track, 2 meaning work required & 3 being concerned.

Watford Academy

Indoor 3G Facility at Harefield Academy

Nick Cox is the Watford Academy Director.  It is very interesting listening to Nick & seeing the thought process & the importance of everyone at the club to the school backing the concept.  The typical English Academy system will have boys going to school as normal then returning home to start homework, eat dinner & then to be transported by a parent to training.  This adds a busy schedule to each individual boy & adds pressure to the family life.  It is not uncommon for a father to return home from work early & to eat on the way to take his son to training.  Nor is it uncommon for that child to be up at 7.30am on the morning & on the go all day to 9.30-11pm at night.

Watford made many visits to European Academies to see what suited them best to move forward as a club.  The Dutch Academy set up was one of choice, especially a club called Willem II.  They have a similar set up in terms of stadium size, club structure, fan base, etc.  The big difference in the Academy structure was the club would work in partnership with a school.  This is what Watford FC based their concept on.  Although it was not copying the Dutch club they would simply set up an academy to best suit Watford FC & their Academy players.

Here is some videos on Harefield; video 1, video 2, video 3 & video 4.

The main positives for club, school & player include;

  • Increased contact time for training with the boys.  From an average of 3,500 hours to 9,000 hours (approx 10-12 hours per week but up to 15 hours available)
  • Greater Academic support & discipline – less conflict between school & club.
  • Prime time training – day light & on grass (indoor 3G dome available too)
  • Better home lifestyle – more family time with less inpact, i.e. transport & finance.
  • Professional lifestyle – more training, less late nights, regular meals, less hectic.
  • Better relationship with players – get to know them better.
  • Optimum time for education & sport.

Typical Day

Below you will find a typical schedule for a Watford Academy player attending Harefield Academy.  Classes are mixed, i.e. not exclusive to all WFC players.

  • 6.45am – Pick Up
  • 8.15am – Lesson 1
  • 9.15am – Football Training with WFC Academy Coaches
  • 11am – Lesson 2
  • 12pm – Lunch
  • 12.30pm – Lesson 3
  • 1.30pm – Lesson 4
  • 2.30pm – Normal day ends
  • 2.50pm – Study (home work / support)
  • 4.20pm – Day ends
  • 4.45pm – Football Training with WFC Academy Coaches

Success Stories

Over the years Watford have produced players like John Barnes, David James & Ashley Young.  But most recently other players have broken into the first team including Marvin Sordell, Lee Hodson, Ross Jenkins & Matt Whichelow.  Other recent first team graduates from Harefield include Tommie Hoban & Sean Murray.

The benefits of players coming through Harefield help to keep a normal school life.  The old cliche of footballers being stupid has been thrown out the window as 100% of junior scholars have achieved grades A*-C at GCSE.  This includes 88% achieving A*-C in English & Maths.  The average is 10 GCSE’s per junior scholar!

Ex Liverpool player, Ronnie Rosenthal, with Coach Tim. Ronnie's son, Tom, attends Harefield

Harefield is entering its 5th year with the oldest graduate still only 18 including Ronnie Rosenthal’s son, Tom.  So far there has been 36 graduates, 7 internationals, 6 pro contracts signed, 22 scholars at Watford FC while 10 have signed for other clubs.  3 have played for the first team.

In 12 years 50 Academy players have made their debut in first team.  43% of all starts came from the Academy graduates.  20 Academy players featured in first team last season.  Last year there was 5 new debuts & 13 international players.  Genuine home grown players.  The average is 12 miles from Vicarage Road (Watford’s ground) with the closest only 100 yards away!

  • Better People
  • Better Players
  • Better Grades

Key Issues

The average spend from clubs on their Academy set up is 2-3% of turnover, Watford spend 10%.  The intial focus was on the start up.  As mentioned already it was convincing parents to come to a school that had a poor level of results & old building.  Watford also had to be very selective of the players & also when it came to the release of players – U16 decision time.

They set up a talent ID for enrolling new students.  It is a demanding schedule when they enter into the school (the novelty factor can were off!)  The club has greater responsibility for player behaviour.  It is essential there is a ‘whole club approach’.  It really does require the right people that ‘want to do it’ v ‘have to do it’.

It was a very informative day.  There was representatives (invite only) from Tottenham Hotspur, Reading, Derby County, Southampton & the Scottish FA along with myself (TWAcademy.Org)  I personally believe that this is the best way forward to encourage a better education for potential players & to help develop better technical & tactical players through increased contact time.

Vicarage Road

Vicarage Road, home of Watford FC

After the presentation I had opportunity to walk around the town centre.  Watford is a lovely town & I found the people very friendly.  I then went back to the school to see the U7 & U8 development squads train.  Refreshing to hear Dave talk about them being one of the most important age groups.  Getting the ‘right’ coaches to work with them is essential to help develop them.

After the session we transferred to Vicarage Road to watch the first team play Bristol City.  It was great to see Watford old boy, David James, return to the ground as Bristol City goalkeeper.  It was a very entertaining game with Watford going 2-0 up before City pulled a goal back just before half time.

After giving away a goal at an awful time – just before half time – Watford then gave away a soft goal straight after the interval to level the score.  That is how the game ended, 2-2.  I was very impressed by the stadium.  We sat in the Rookery Stand.  This is positioned behind the goal & Dave tells me offers the best atmosphere.  As an added bonus it was great to read a 2 page spread on Dave in the programme!

After a very enjoyable day it was back to the boat to talk football.  How I would love to work at a professional Academy like Watford!  My final day in Watford was relaxing & after some lunch with Dave I had a final walk round the town before making my way back to Luton for my return flight home to Belfast.

I was returning home full of energy after an enjoyable 3 day visit to the school.  Not only was it a terrific experience to see Watford’s Academy but enjoyable to sample Dave’s way of life & his wonderful hospitality.

I would like to extend my thanks to Watford FC & the Harefield Academy for their wonderful hospitality.  It is refreshing to see a club open its doors to let other coaches view their set up.  Special thanks to my good friend & Watford coach, Dave Godley, for providing transport & accommodation for me.

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