Plan B: Kids United?
It was on Match of the Day in August 1995 that Alan Hansen made his famous assessment – “You can’t win anything with kids”. He was commenting on an early season defeat for Manchester United at Villa Park, when the Reds started with four players under the age of 21 – the Neville brothers, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes – and two more – John O’Kane and David Beckham – brought on as substitutes. Those who know their football history will be aware that the team went on to win the Premier League and FA Cup double that season, with five of those six (O’Kane only made one other appearance) playing leading roles. So much for TV punditry.
There remains however the perennial question for many a team from Premiership contenders to park footballers: what is the best mix of youth and experience. And for those in the boardrooms of pro and semi-pro clubs who have to meet the costs of transfer fees and wages of a potentially itinerant playing staff, there is the more commercial question: how much of the budget is to be spent on tried and tested players bought in from other clubs, but liable to move off again to a higher bidder, and how much on developing home-grown talent. What if the talent is grown at home but still moves away when opportunities beckon elsewhere?
Hastings United have always sought to recruit local youngsters, but it is fair to say that over the past couple of seasons experienced managers – first Garry Wilson, then Darren Hare – were encouraged by a new board of directors to use their connexions in the wider hinterland of Kent and East Sussex to bring in more seasoned performers who could spearhead a serious promotion effort. Eastbourne Borough has obtained . National League status – why not Hastings? The projected move from Pilot Field to a modern stadium at Combe Valley reflects this ambition. The budget for players was stretched accordingly.
Well, Plan A might have worked. Garry’s side played good football on occasion. Unlucky with injuries and a fixture backlog, it finished just outside the play-off places in 2016. The following year Darren re-modelled the team, toughening it with imports from Gillingham and other Kent clubs where he had coached or otherwise maintained a watching eye. It played even better football, scoring record numbers of goals and reaching the play-offs, only to be beaten on penalties by eventual winners Dorking.
Supporters were hoping for, and perhaps expecting, more of the same. But Darren resigned in May, citing personal and business reasons, and a lot of his players went too, despite the United board trying to keep them. The free-scoring forward line of Fran Collin, Matt Bodkin and Jack Harris all remained in contract at Hastings, but they wanted out after Darren’s departure, other clubs were prepared to buy them out, and at all levels of football – think Diego Costa at Chelsea – there’s no mileage in keeping players whose hearts aren’t in it.
The player turnover at this level, at least in this area of the country, is bound to be high. There are a myriad of opportunities among all the competing clubs; some are bound to offer better rewards than others. And Hastings may be at a particular disadvantage, finding itself located at the edge of the football map and served with relatively poor road communications whichever direction you drive out, whether west towards Eastbourne, north up the A21 or east over the marsh to Kent. It is difficult then to attract players who live or have part-time jobs away and have to combine twice-weekly training sessions in Hastings with maybe a midweek away game far round the M25 or up the Kent coast. As director David Nessling quipped to me recently – “our local derby match should be in Calais”.
The problem is just as acute for managers, though, who not only have to man the dug-out at every match home and away, and direct training sessions in between, but also keep tabs on players at other clubs who might be in the market for a move. The pressures seem to have overwhelmed both Garry and Darren, each after a single year in the job. Adam Hinshelwood, appointed less than four months ago on a three-year contract to replace Darren, left last week, as reported above. An obvious factor in his opting to work in Worthing rather than Hastings was his commute from a home residence in Selsey – who wants a two hour drive to work?
There is however a Plan B. In September United joined with a coaching unit Skiltek to set up a football academy based at Sussex Coast College, taking promising players from age 16 and aiming to develop them for future pro or semi-pro careers. The academy team plays in Division B of the National League Under 19 Alliance which features, in the main, clubs from tiers two or more above the ‘U’s. And, for what it is worth, it is getting good results on the field: they won 4-0 away last week in the first league game of the season against Bognor Regis Town, whose parent club plays in the National League South. Above them there is a development squad for under-21 players. They too are showing considerable promise.
Adam was doubling as coach in the academy, which is headed by former United legend Dean White. Newly appointed boss Chris Agutter (see above) will replace Adam in this academy role as well as in first team management.
But here’s the issue for Chris. Are these youngsters really equipped, physically and mentally as well as in skills and enthusiasm, for current action in the uncompromising adult arena of the Bostik League? Five of the development squad – Bradley Pritchard, Tom Climpson, Ansu Janneh, Davide Rodari and Sonny Dullaway – were given starting places by Adam against Herne Bay last week. Their average age is barely 18, more than two years younger than the Manchester United fivesome, mentioned above, when the latter burst onto the Premier League stage in 1995. It may be indicative of Chris’ realism that only Davide (who had scored both goals) was retained in his first selection for the line-up against Molesey four days later.
And David Nessling is aware that Plan B will be a long haul. He has asked supporters to be patient. “It’s not going to happen overnight”.