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Gillingham manager Neil Harris hopes they can attract the best young talent in Kent to Priestfield with a pathway to the first team in place

Gillingham have set themselves an ambitious target as they look to attract the best young players in the county to the club.

Manager Neil Harris’ overhaul of the club’s infrastructure includes a plan that would see at least 25% of the first team squad made up of academy graduates.

Gillingham Football Club hopes to have more academy players in the first team
Gillingham Football Club hopes to have more academy players in the first team

Much progress has already been made with the likes of Keith Millen joining as head of academy coaching. There’s a B team in place this season which aims to bridge the gap between youth football and Harris’ senior squad.

Since the departure of Jack Tucker, the Gills haven’t had a regular homegrown starter in the squad, with young striker Joe Gbode the most frequent player to feature, but still limited to a handful of substitute appearances this season.

It’s a long-term project for the Gills but one that Harris sees as vitally important.

He said: “It is the right way of doing it, 100% the right way, it is not just the infrastructure of the first team and the stadia that has fallen short, it is the academy as well. Ultimately it costs money to try and do it.

“Trying to recruit the best kids in Kent to come and play for the only Football League team in Kent is a priority for us, we need to get to those kids and we need to have the scouting network to do it.

“There are a lot of kids that play football in Kent, a lot of kids who go and play for other teams, namely Millwall and Charlton in particular, we’ve got to get them to play for us, that starts the ball rolling. We are talking years away from the first team but that gets the ball rolling, that’s the infrastructure.

“People don’t always see on the outside that we have to start with the grassroots to build it up and ultimately any fan wants to see a fan on the pitch, that is the best thing when fans are singing ‘he’s one of our own’.

“As a manager, that is spine-tingling, that is the connection between the terrace and the pitch and that’s what we want to see, getting our own players through is a priority.”

The Gills have already played a handful of B team games for those young pros and under-18s looking to make the step up. Last week they hosted Millwall at the training ground and play Dartford at Priestfield on Tuesday night.

Harris said: “All we can do is show a pathway and starting up a B team is a pathway to the first team.

“You have to change the whole mindset of the football club, working hard behind the scenes to get the B team up and running, to staff it correctly and put on a good games programme.

“The under-18s have to earn the right to step into the B team rather than go on loan, that should be next phase, then the under-16s should be trying to get into the under-18s and so on.

“Under-15s will be saying, ‘am I going to travel and go across the bridge, or am I going to sign for my local team Gillingham, who my dad and my grandad supported all their life?’

“They will want to be at Gillingham because they want to be in the 18s, the B team and then the first team, that pathway opportunity is there.”

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