Manchester United. Sporting Lisbon. Barcelona.
Just a few of a number of footballing powerhouses famed for the talent who have progressed through their academy set-ups.
But far away from the glitz and glamour of Europe’s top divisions, one club in Western Australia has also earned a reputation as a prodigious producer of professional footballers.
Plying their trade in NPL WA, ECU Joondalup SC are a club with a truly remarkable record when it comes to youth development.
From Socceroos Brandon O’Neill and Adam Taggart to recent A-League breakthroughs Callum Timmins and Luke Bodnar, the long list of players who have broken through at the Perth based club makes for truly staggering reading.
Kick360 spoke to Academy Technical Director Mark Scanlan and English League One defender Cameron Burgess to try and discover the secret to ECU’s success.
“Early doors, they didn’t really have a choice but to play the kids” says Scanlan.
“They weren’t a powerhouse in terms of finances and with the demographic at the club, Joondalup being fairly British at the time when the club was founded, they had these British parents coming across and bringing their children who were already quite good footballers who would end up joining the club.
“That’s what got us through our early days. Then because of the success of some of those kids going back to England, aspiring footballers saw us as a pathway to the professional side of the game.”
One of those young British players was Cam Burgess.
Born in Aberdeen, Burgess’ family made the move to Perth when he was young, and like many migrants in Australia, football played a key role in helping them settle in their new home.
“There were a lot of British folk where we moved too. We knew one or two families before we went, but you kinda find yourself in a British community and it goes hand in hand with football.
“ECU seemed to be a team that’s probably renowned for having good teams, good players and winning things at a young age. I had a lot of friends that were there, people I had competed with or against in a lot of different things.
“I happened to be playing with my friends at a really good team, but once you’re there you start to realise that there were a lot of guys before me coming across to the UK. There was definitely a link there and you end up having that dream of maybe doing it yourself.”
In the early days, playing youth may not have been a choice, as Scanlan puts it, but over the years investment and a belief in young players has become imbedded in the very fabric of club.
“There’s also been an unconscious, unbiased culture at the club that, ‘if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. I have an U20s player now, who’s 15 and he’s probably my best player. At other clubs he’d probably stay in his own age group to win junior trophies but for me, this kid needs a challenge, let’s get him in and play him as high as we can. Hopefully, he’ll be our next one to make it through to his first team debut. If you’re good enough, you’re old enough is right at the heart of what the club is.
“We’re a team that will prioritise development over winning, but it’s about trying to strike a balance between development and performance. We try to develop players first, then if we win, that’s a bonus.”
From ECU to Europe
The quality and professionalism of the coaching staff was something that stood out to Burgess during his time at ECU.
“The coaching staff were very good” says the current Accrington Stanley man.
“There was a demand and a sort of professionalism about the coaches. A lot of the coaches had been around the professional environment over in the UK and you had to want to compete. That was put in to us as a team.
“The coaching staff set demands for us, and it was a pretty competitive environment. That was something I really enjoyed, that’s what I wanted out of football.”
And there was certainly plenty of competition within the youth ranks then.
“My immediate age group was Jordan Lyden and Mitch Oxborrow. The year above, two years above there were a lot of lads. Ryan and Aryn Williams, Brandon O’Neill, Alex Grant. A bit older than that there was Shane Lowry, Chris Herd.
“And below me, there was Jack Iredale… it just seemed to be a couple in every age group!”
Their talent development soon caught the attention of clubs overseas, with Shane Lowry and Chris Herd being the first of many to take the now well trodden path from ECU to the UK.
When Burgess’ time came to make the journey, the name of ECU Joondalup and their ability to develop great young prospects was already well known on the other side of the world.
“When there’s a few boys going on to certain clubs, it certainly becomes a bit of a link. For myself, when I went across to try and earn a contract, I went to Aston Villa first. You were comfortable straight away because you were training with boys you already knew. I trained with Jordan Lyden when I went across there. Then you go to Fulham and Ryan Williams is there…
“There was a link, but also a bit of a respect there? ‘This lad has come across from ECU, we know X,Y, Z has also come from there, so let’s give him a chance.’
“There’s a comfort thing too. You’re moving across to the other side of the world to try and win a contract, and there are lads there who you know already, that helps a little bit.”
This excellent development record earned the club more than just a good reputation.
“With previous regimes, training fees and percentages of fees have come back to the club” Scanlan said.
“We still get the training and compensation fee from some of the current professionals who have played for ECU that comes to us through Football Australia. We do still have that revenue stream of little kickbacks from England and the A-League. We’ve had fees for Brandon O’Neill come through quite recently. That certainly helps.”
These fees have helped secure the stability of the club and allowed them to re-invest in the next generation, making sure that not only is their academy programme outstanding, but also accessible.
“We are the cheapest NPL junior club for football. Our kids pay about $300 in total, which is for the cost of their training kits, bags and tracksuits. Everything else is paid for by the club through sponsorship.”
This makes playing the game more affordable for young players, and helps them stand out in a small and heavily congested market that includes A-League club Perth Glory.
“That helps us recruit. Last year we had hundreds of hundreds of applications to trial during our trials process. It’s pretty full on.”
But for those who do join the ranks, ECU’s “if you’re good enough, you’re old enough” mantra and their proven history of believing in youth provides a promising pathway to the first team and beyond.
This has only been boosted since the arrival of former Perth Glory manager Kenny Lowe, who took over the role of Head Coach last year.
“Kenny is probably the perfect match for us as a club, because he built his reputation as a development coach. With his work with the NTC and the amount of kids he’s coached there that have turned pro, he really aligns with us perfectly.
“He’s a senior coach and of course, he knows how to win games, but he will also blood the kids. He’ll give kids the opportunity. Just off the top of my head, I think we’ve had six or seven teenagers play first team football this year, with probably three or four more who might get an opportunity before the season finishes, he knows how to balance performance with development, which is extremely difficult to do as a senior coach.
“It’s now our challenge is to push through another generation that goes pro to make us sustainable and sets us up for the next ten, twenty years.”