How Tottenham are revamping their youth set-up

How Tottenham are revamping their youth set-up

By Charlie Eccleshare 21m ago

Five months on from the departure of the hugely well-respected former academy head John McDermott, Tottenham Hotspur announced their new youth coaching set-up last week.

As The Athletic outlined in March, the hugely popular McDermott’s move to the FA was a big blow to Spurs and the length of time it took to come up with a replacement structure shows the scale of the club’s task in filling the void. Since McDermott joined the club in 2005, players such as Harry Kane, Harry Winks and more recently Japhet Tanganga have graduated from the academy to the first team — even if some supporters think there should have been more who made that journey.

In any case, Spurs have opted for the continuity candidate to replace McDermott, with his former deputy Dean Rastrick taking the top job. The pair were extremely close and aligned in their vision of how to develop young talent. “Doesn’t suffer fools” is a term one former colleague uses to describe the approach of both men, who have developed excellent reputations at Hotspur Way and beyond.

The promotion of Rastrick, who joined Tottenham in 2010, also ties into the idea of having people with Spurs DNA running the academy. How important that is to a team has been much debated in the context of managers such as Frank Lampard, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and, briefly, Freddie Ljungberg, but it’s hoped that Rastrick and others can help the next generation of Spurs players understand what it means to play for the club.

Rastrick’s two deputies, Ryan Mason and Chris Powell, should have a similar appreciation of the club’s traditions. Mason will know better than most what it takes, having graduated from the academy to the first team before his career was cruelly ended by a head injury having moved to Hull City. He has been promoted from under-19s coach to become head of player development for under-17s to under-23s.

Powell, a former Charlton Athletic and Huddersfield Town manager, is the only external hire. He grew up supporting Tottenham and joins as a coach to run alongside his duties supporting Gareth Southgate with the England national team. Appointing such an experienced coach and former manager is seen as a major coup.

“It’s the perfect role for him and, if anything, he’s probably over-qualified,” says Alan Pardew, the former Newcastle United, Crystal Palace and West Ham United manager who hired Powell as his assistant at Eredivisie side ADO Den Haag last season. “Spurs can feel very confident that Chris will deliver.”

Supporting the Rastrick, Powell and Mason triumvirate will be existing staff Matt Taylor (under-18s coach), Wayne Burnett (under-23s coach), Paul Bracewell (senior academy coach) and Perry Suckling (academy goalkeeper coach) in what Spurs are calling their “academy leadership team”.

Elsewhere at the club, promoting those with Spurs connections was also part of the reason for Ledley King joining Jose Mourinho’s backroom staff earlier this month. And it’s a policy that has been well received by the club’s supporters. “Spurs haven’t typically focused on people with a Spurs background, but what they’ve done with these appointments is appoint people who are Tottenham fans or have a real connection with the club,” says John Wenham, who covers the Tottenham youth sides for the Spurs website Lilywhite Rose.

“Taylor is also a Spurs fan, and it’s about having people who really care and who want the club to do well.”

How much these intangibles matter and translate to success will only become clear in the next few years — and a cynic might suggest that appointing from within is also a more cost-effective approach.

But for now, Spurs feel they have a system in place to smooth the pathway from the academy to the first team and return to the period when the likes of Kane, Mason and Andros Townsend stepped up in quick succession. There was then a relatively fallow period under Mauricio Pochettino after Winks’ accession until Tanganga was given his chance by Mourinho in January.

In a post-COVID-19 world, developing young talent will become even more important, not just to save money on buying players but also to help Spurs return to the period in the last decade where they sold academy graduates for sizeable sums.

Mason himself fetched £13 million from Hull and Townsend moved to Newcastle for £12 million. Alex Pritchard, Steven Caulker and Jake Livermore all went for around £8 million each. Contrast that with Marcus Edwards and Josh Onomah leaving last summer for undisclosed, but much smaller, amounts. Midfielder Luke Amos joined Queens Park Rangers for around £500,000 on Monday — though with add-ons and a sell-on clause.

Kyle Walker-Peters did bring in around £12 million when he was sold to Southampton earlier this month but there’s a feeling that had he been loaned out sooner than shortly before his 23rd birthday he could have been sold for more or established himself in the first team. One of the few criticisms of Pochettino has been his reluctance to let young players close to the first team go out on loan.

Broadly speaking, Spurs, like all clubs, need to be producing first-team players or bringing in decent transfer fees for those that don’t quite make the grade. Youth development is hugely dependent on the quality of the players available and often circumstance, but allowing more fringe players to go out on loan earlier in their development — as Oliver Skipp (to Norwich City) and Troy Parrott (to Millwall) are doing in the upcoming season — is seen by many as a positive step towards achieving those goals.

For those not on loan — such as the highly-regarded trio of midfielder Harvey White, left-back Dennis Cirkin and central defender Malachi Fagan-Walcott (all 18) — there’s plenty of talent to be maximised among the youngsters who will be at Hotspur Way this season.

With the new coaching set-up in place, Tottenham feel confident they can do just that.

Speak to pretty much any player who passed through the Tottenham academy between 2005 and this summer and they will speak extremely highly of McDermott: his dedication, his toughness and his personal touches. Replacing McDermott was always going to be a big ask, and though Tottenham were linked with external candidates such as former Arsenal defender and academy coach Steve Morrow, they’ve chosen someone in Rastrick who they feel shares many of the same qualities as his predecessor.

Nineteen-year-old midfielder Skipp for instance, who is one of Tottenham’s brightest academy prospects and on Monday completed his loan move to Norwich, thinks very highly of him. Rastrick was his under-18s coach and looked after Skipp and his contemporaries with the sort of care that was McDermott’s calling card. “Dean gets on with most people, is a people person but like John (McDermott), he doesn’t suffer fools,” as one former Spurs youth coach puts it. His ability to connect with young people is seen as a big reason Rastrick has been so successful as a youth-team coach, having also enjoyed spells at Luton Town, Derby County and Norwich City.

Hard-working and a thirst for knowledge are other ways his colleagues describe him, and there is a sense that though he is his own man, Rastrick has learned a huge amount from working so closely with McDermott.

“He’s been embedded in what’s going on, and seen everything that’s happened at the club over the last few years,” says Les Ferdinand, the QPR director of football who worked closely with Rastrick after joining Tottenham in 2010 to help run the under-21s and development squad.

“We always used to have conversations about different players and he’s someone who’s been there for a long time and knows the history the club has in developing young talent. He’ll work hard to make sure that continues.”

Powell may not share Rastrick’s longevity at the club, but he certainly shares his knack for personal touches. This personability is part of the reason he got the job, since he has always got on well with Rastrick and long been identified as the kind of individual who would fit in well at Spurs.

Throughout his career, Powell has possessed a skill for forging close relationships. “He has great personal skills and great affinity with young people — always has,” says Pardew, whose connection to Powell goes back to their days playing for Crystal Palace together in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “He can get on with people from all different backgrounds, so I think it’s a great move for Spurs.”

Johnnie Jackson, the Charlton assistant manager and former Spurs midfielder, was Powell’s captain at the Valley when the side won promotion from League One in 2012 and remembers the way Powell would instantly develop close relationships with his players. “More than any other manager, he really got to know you,” Jackson says.

“I can remember being on a pre-season trip. We were out socialising and he made every player go over to the staff table and talk for a minute or two, non-stop, telling them about themselves. It couldn’t be about football. So it was like, ‘Tell us something about you that we don’t know’.

“He did it with every player, and it was done socially so it was a laugh, very informal — it was his way of getting to know us. Because they know about you as a player but they don’t know about you as a person or what your family life is like, or where you come from.”

Given how much of youth coaching is about the mental side and connecting with players on an individual level, Powell’s ability to build a rapport with the Spurs youngsters could be crucial.

“He’s a lovely fella first and foremost — and that’s not to say he isn’t a hard taskmaster,” Jackson says. “By no means is he a pushover. But he is someone who can have a normal conversation with you.

“I grew up an Arsenal fan, he’s Spurs. So he’d rib me about Arsenal if they’d had a bad result and vice-versa, still does it to this day. We still stay in touch and if Spurs beat Arsenal, there’ll be a little message winding me up. Some managers can be very stand-offish and not have that sort of rapport but he was keen to do that.

“His man-management style and how personable he was meant he had a way of making you want to win for him. You felt disappointed if you let him down — it’s hard to make players feel that. He managed to create that.”

Anti-Arsenal jibes will be well received at Hotspur Way, but first and foremost Spurs are appointing a highly-respected individual with a decade of experience as a coach and a manager. It’s hoped as well that his current role working with the England team will be beneficial for the Spurs players. “Doubling up for England means the Spurs players know they’ve got a voice quite close to Gareth shouting their corner. So that’s all good news as well,” says Pardew.

Pardew also feels that Powell’s experience as a manager will give him extra gravitas when recommending young players to Mourinho. “I’m sure Jose will lean on him, especially when he’s looking to promote young players to the first team,” Pardew says. “It’s always good to speak to a fellow manager. Jose will know that Chris appreciates it’s not just about playing ability but also, ‘Has he got all the credentials in place to be playing for the first team?’”

One concern is that Powell may leave if a potential managerial opportunity opens up, like Scott Parker before him. But even here, there could be a bonus for Spurs. Should Powell move on and take a management job at a lower-league club, his relationship with the Tottenham youngsters could open up loan opportunities.

His vast experience in the game should also help satisfy Spurs’ ambitions of “developing talented players for our first team and the wider game”, as the club said in a statement confirming Powell’s appointment.

Producing players who have careers in football, not just at Tottenham, is an important part of the academy’s philosophy. And Powell, a veteran of 750 club games as a player at eight clubs and five different teams as a manager, brings that kind of wide-ranging knowledge.

“The other thing he brings is that he’s worked at every level professionally, and don’t think every player who comes through the Spurs academy is going to end up at Spurs,” Pardew says. “Ninety per cent of them will work their way up further down the leagues. You’re also there to help players who don’t quite make the grade at Spurs to be able to cope lower down.

“Chris will make sure they know what to expect when they’re out on loan and that even when they’re released, they will still follow through with the traditions of being a Spurs player. So that message is very important and he’s the perfect person to deliver that.”

Tottenham blogger Wenham adds that Powell will be someone to whom all the players can relate. “It’s great to have a coach from a BAME (black, Asian, and minority ethnic) background as well, especially for a club based in London,” he says. “It’s so important and gives players of BAME backgrounds inspiration to see a player who has played for England and done all he has. He’s also not that old, played in the Premier League fairly recently (until 2007) and so is someone the young guys can relate to.”

Given that he spent five years bouncing between loans and didn’t establish himself in the Spurs first team until he was 23, Rastrick’s other deputy Mason seems well-qualified for his new role. Especially as those loans were a decidedly mixed bag — including a character-building spell at French side Lorient, where he didn’t play a single first-team game.

Now 29, Mason is someone the youngsters can easily identify with, and given the horrible end to his career, he knows how fleeting opportunities at the top level can be.

He has also impressed since taking over as under-19s coach last summer. Spurs didn’t make it out of their UEFA Youth League group but produced some encouraging performances — not least the Parrott-inspired 9-2 win over Red Star Belgrade.

Even as a young player breaking through, he always demonstrated leadership qualities and an interest in coaching. “From a very early age, he always wanted to ask why things were happening and why you’d asked him to do something,” says Chris Ramsey, the QPR technical director who was one of the most senior figures in the Spurs youth set-up when Mason was trying to break through.

“He has the potential to be a top coach. He can empathise with the players without being soft. He has steel about him even though he comes across as quite a gentle person.”

And returning to the original point about Spurs’ “DNA”, Mason is full of the stuff. “He has a wealth of experience to bring to the young players, and having been at the club since he was eight, he’s seen Tottenham go through so much,” Ramsey says.

“Don’t be surprised if he ends up being a first-team coach somewhere — he’s a genuine scholar of the game. Could he be a manager? Why not? I think he’s more of a coach but who’s to say?”

Mason will be supported by more experienced coaches such as Burnett, 48, and former England midfielder and Sunderland assistant manager Bracewell, 58, who have been at Spurs for a few years. So too has Suckling, 54, who in his role as goalkeeping coach, nurtured many of the club’s young keepers, forging a close bond with 21-year-old Brandon Austin, who hopes to one day fight his way into the first team.

Closer in age to Mason is former Portsmouth midfielder Taylor, 38, who only joined Spurs last year as the under-18s coach. Having lost many of that age group’s best players to the under-23s (including Parrott) last season, he will look to improve on the team’s fourth-place finish in the 2019-20 Under-18 Premier League.

Trying to predict what will happen to young footballers is difficult. The best any team can do is put proper structures in place and hire the right people. Spurs feel they have done that and, as Ferdinand puts it: “There is talent in the system that just needs to be given an opportunity. Hopefully, Mason and Powell and all those boys can help bring it through.”