Published: 05:00, 26 May 2022
Manager Neil Harris was disappointed that only two Gillingham youth players have made the grade.
The club have offered professional deals to teenagers Bailey Akehurst and Josh Chambers. Harris would have liked more youth players coming through and that’s part of his long-term plan.
Second-year scholars Tom Crump, Ethan Smith, Josh Leach and Oli Britton are leaving the club this summer and Harris hopes in the future more players will be ready to make the step up.
“I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to take more than the two,” he said. “It shows that our academy has to improve and be better as a group, we have to recruit better at younger ages, we have to develop better.
“I will be delighted to work with those two (Akehurst and Chambers) moving forward and I hope they hit the ground running in pre-season. If they are good enough to be in the first team they will be, if not there will be a clear programme for them to help them develop and that will be training with the first team on a daily basis but also a loan programme so they can get what they need.
“If it means they play Isthmian Premier to get football for 10-15 games to help them develop then they will go there.
“It is about developing them to be involved in our first team in years to come.”
Gillingham have had success stories from their youth programme, with the likes of Bradley Dack and Jack Tucker going onto play plenty of football for the club in recent years.
“The academy is another area that needs to develop,” said the Gills boss.
“We need to make sure we recruit better academy players, educate better and have a pathway to come through. There has to be pathway and a thought process from the first-team manager down to the under-15 and 16s so we can see players coming through in different positions and if someone gets in the way because they are holding someone else up then we have to move past that player and take the younger one. That is modern-day football, that is how it works.”
Harris has already taken that approach by allowing striker Gerald Sithole to move on with the hope that Joe Gbode, who is younger, can progress. Gbode ended the season on loan at Folkestone Invicta.
“Are we always going to get it right? No,” the Gills manager accepted.
“If we do it in the right manner and for the right reasons that is acceptable.
“I want to build a structure, an environment and a culture at the football club where people get an opportunity to thrive and develop and want to be here. Getting the blend from the academy to the first team is vital to have that relationship so there is an open door policy and everyone is welcome.
“My staff need to spend time with the academy players and staff to show what it means to play in the Gillingham first team.
“This is just the start but I will only play players who deserve to be in the first team.”
Last season the Gills included numerous young players to bolster the first team during a long injury crisis. With so many included in a struggling team, the chance to impress wasn’t easy.
Academy manager Bryan Bull accepts the gap between under-18 youth football and League 1 is “huge”, noting that “Generally apprentice players are not completely ready. It is something that I am sure will form part of the summer discussions as to how we can close that gap.”
He added: “There is no doubt in my mind that we need to produce more club-developed players more quickly.”
Ideally the Gills would have a development team so younger players would have another platform to impress but that needs funding, extra players to run a team and coaching staff costs money - something the club aren’t flushed with. It’s something Harris wants at the club but he knows he can’t have it all at once.
“As much as I am honest and pushy I fully understand why we haven’t
got an under-23 side at the moment,” he said.
“Is that something that we want further down the line in the coming seasons? A long-term project for the club, 100%, it has to be, a B team or an under-23 team, it has to be.”
The next batch of young players coming through include Gbode, Alex Giles, Sam Gale, Matt MacArthur and Freddie Carter, who moved to the club from Eastbourne Borough last year.
“There are some good lads coming through,” said youth boss Mark Moss, whose under-18 side were unbeaten in the Merit League Division 1 this term.
“I am enthused about what next season will bring. We need to work hard in the summer and embed the first-team philosophy into them so they are ready.”