Connah’s Quay Nomads are top of the Cymru Premier League and looking like strong contenders for their first-ever top flight title.
But the club is also building a bright future too through its flourishing academy, headed by founder Jay Catton.
Jay spoke to Grassroots North Wales about one of the most progressive academies in Wales.
GNW: Jay, I think it is fair to say Connah’s Quay Nomads now has one of the very best football academies in Wales, but its beginnings were humble. Just one under-16 side under your management when it started back in 2009. Did you ever envisage it would go on to be such a success? What were the aims at the start?
JC: The progression of the whole football club and academy over the last decade has been an incredible and remarkable journey to date.
When we began the academy in 2009 we had no teams, no home or training venue and no staff. Our first team had just been relegated from the Cymru Alliance and for three seasons we received zero funding which was another huge hurdle.
It was a complete blank canvas. I was finishing my degree in Preston at the time in Sports Coaching and travelled home most nights the first few years to really get it off the ground in those initial years and coached numerous sides also.
But from starting from scratch it also gave the club an opportunity to create something unique and aid thousands of young players’ progression in football and create numerous experiences, opportunities and life lessons which we hope have aided all both on and off the pitch in their futures.
From this point we began our first season as an academy with a single U16s side which included five players that went onto play in the Welsh Premier League. From here the academy grew to have three academy cup sides at U12s, U14s and U16s the following the seasons.
In more recent seasons the club has grown even further to have mini phase teams U8s to U11s and then in the latter years a full time scholarship program linked in with Coleg Cambria at U18s and U19s levels.
The simple aim at the start was to create an academy to give local players in the area a professional environment to aid individual players development and give them the best coaching and experience possible.
The three key aims have always been the same from when we started which was to move players onto professional football league and premier league clubs, progress players to gain Welsh international honours and produce players who can play in the Welsh Premier League for Connah’s Quay Nomads.
These three main targets have never been swayed from and we have aided numerous players to achieve these targets. To date we have seen 39 players make Welsh Premier debuts, 37 sign for professional clubs and 26 players represent Wales across numerous teams at schools, colleges and international level.
We have always had amazing and committed coaches who have been key to the academy’s development. This has always been an integral part of the club our retention and longevity of coaches which is a huge component of academy success.
Special mention from myself to certain individuals who have been key across such a long period at the club in progression and aiding of the academy who still work within the set up to date include Leighton Sumner, Mark Rowlands, Neil Ebbrell and Gemma Bamford.
GNW: You now have teams at all age groups from under-8 to under-19 and a full-time scholarship programme in partnership with Coleg Cambria. How vital has the college’s input been over the years? It must have been hard work to build up all those teams?
JC: The scholarship program has been a huge addition for the football club without question. A lot of clubs have attempted to run a scholarship program and lasted 12 months if that as it is not an easy program to set up and sustain without a doubt.
We are now entering our sixth season of our elite full time program with what is a very unique model and something the club are extremely proud of.
Our full time program is based on an American Student Athlete model which places our players education at the forefront of the program. Unlike other traditional scholarship programs where all players can only do sport level 2/3 courses ran from football clubs our players are able to choose any courses they desire that Coleg Cambria can offer at the Deeside campus which is adjacent to the Deeside Stadium and Quay 3G.
We have full time players undertaking a range of subjects from A Levels, diplomas in sport, engineering among other subjects. All players must maintain a minimum of 95% attendance at college and have all work up to date or are unable to train or play for the football club.
We take no more than 20 elite players per year and across two sides on average of 40 players per season we have teams operating in the North West Category 2 and 1 leagues which play on Wednesday afternoons along with U18s side in the Welsh National Reserve League and U19s in the Welsh Premier Development League on Saturdays and Sundays.
To date over 70 students have graduated with over 30 currently studying or graduated from Universities in the UK studying degrees with a further 10 students gaining degrees in USA on American Scholarships!
A very demanding program which sees players train four times a week along with analyst sessions, Strength and Conditioning Program and operate in four leagues along with cup competitions.
The scholarship has seen 12 players progress to first team level and play in the Welsh Premier League for Connah’s Quay Nomads FC and a huge number currently playing in the top two tiers of Welsh Football also.
A special mention to Daniel Reece who was a key aid to myself in setting up the program back in 2015 and Iain Bennett who was a coach and also led the program last season and was a superb aid in recruitment and set up for the 2019/20 season.
Both coaches have progressed to full time roles working abroad for Liverpool FC and gained UEFA A License whilst at the club which is also testament to the progression of coaches as well as players from the full time scholarship program.
This season we have appointed Gareth Richards in a full time position leading the scholarship program. This full time position is the first in program’s history and he along with assistant coaches Richard Cusato, Anotonio Maghales, Matt Sampson and Kevin Manley have progressed the program immensely to date. Gareth has brought an incredible level of expertise and professionalism to the scholarship which we hope will continue for future years.
The U18s and U19s currently sit top of both their respected leagues which is testament to all the players and staff involved. A further 8 players alone this season have been selected for Wales Schools and Colleges and four have made Welsh Premier League debuts also.
GNW: Since 2010 more than 35 players have played for the first team in competitive fixtures, while in excess of 35 academy players having moved on to be signed by professional Football League and Premier League clubs. Can you highlight one or two of the success stories? Rhys Healey springs to mind.
JC: Rhys is always the pinnacle success story, not just for Connah’s Quay Nomads but arguably for the Welsh Premier League.
To have come through a Welsh Premier academy all the way to first team level and progress to Cardiff City and play in the Premier League like he did against Chelsea is an incredible story for all young players in the Welsh system.
What is most pleasing is seeing Rhys’ continued development and he is having an incredible season at MK Dons and is living out the dream of so many being a professional player in the Football League.
Most recently this season former academy player Ben Thompson, who left our academy for Bury three years ago at U14s level, made a first team appearance last season for the then Football League club. Although Bury’s situation left Ben without a club for a short period in the summer he has recently signed full time scholarship with Fleetwood.
In the last month we have also progressed Louis Lloyd from our U16s who has signed scholarship forms with Shrewsbury Town. We will be watching both players progressions closely over the coming years and hope both can emulate in Rhys Healey’s footsteps.
The further positive for Welsh football and all clubs whose players progress to higher level is new UEFA Training Compensation rulings. Clubs are now financially compensated for players who are taken by higher level clubs with all income for these players completely re invested back into the academy and aiding the next generation of young footballers.
The new compensation fee ruling will be huge aid for all Welsh Academies who progress players on and reward clubs for their great youth infrastructures who develop top young talent.
GNW: Of course it’s not just about the academy with the Nomads. You also engage with youngsters in the community to increase interest in football. Tell us about some of your schemes.
JC: Our community program has really progressed in recent years and is in a fantastic place at the start of 2020.
Our community program really began in 2017 and was set up and led by former head Lee Breeze who did an incredible job getting the program up and running. Following Lee, the community section was led by Leighton Sumner, who continued the great work and progressed numerous programs over 2019.
The community program now operates numerous projects including weekly school sessions at our four partner primary schools in Deeside area, including Caer Nant, Golftyn, Bryn Deva and Wepre along with running half-term camps for all local children at our Quay 3G facility.
Along with this we have Soccer Tots 2-4 sessions, junior sessions 4-6, walking football sessions and teams with players ranging from 50 to 80 years of age and a vets team also competing for a league title in their respected league ran by Mike Salisbury.
Another huge addition to our community program this season has been the introduction of our girls and ladies programs. We had never ran teams across the female section in previous seasons but had a huge push on this section for the 2019/20 campaign.
Led by new Head of Community Jordan Parry and assisted by girls coaches Stephen Boyes, Elise Hughes and Andy Molyneux the girls section now trains weekly every Thursday from 5-6 at The Quay 3G and operates girls sides at U8s, U10s and U12s age groups. These sessions are open to any girls who maybe interested in getting started in football.
The future of these young girls is even more exciting with the addition of our newly formed ladies team led by head coach Sara Hilton and assistant Cassie Thomas. The women’s side is pushing for promotion in their first ever season and recently defeated Port Talbot to make the semi-finals of the Women’s Welsh Cup where they face Swansea City.
Lots more exciting programs and initiatives to come in 2020 with a lot of great work to date by Head of Community Jordan Parry and his team.
GNW: How much input does first team manager Andy Morrison have with the academy? Do the youngsters look up to, and get inspired, by him?
JC: The day Andy entered the club everything changed from top to bottom. The demand, professionalism and expectation was altered immediately across all sections – and the academy was no different.
Everyone knows how infectious Andy is with his passion for the game and his football knowledge, understanding and desire is something we have pushed across all teams at the football club.
He is a born leader and all our academy players strive to play for him at Connah’s Quay Nomads first team level and he is an incredible inspiration to all our young players no doubt.
Like any top-class modern-day manager Andy takes a huge interest in the youth section of the football club and this season alone he has rewarded Welsh Premier League starts to Connor Harwood vs Barry Town at home, Eric Merner vs Airbus away and substitute appearances and debuts for Sam Williams vs Barry Town away and Max Moore vs Airbus away.
The key change since Andy arrived is these debuts are not token gestures to give the club good PR for example by just throwing on a youth player for the sake of it for a handful of minutes if a team is losing heavily. These players have merited these performances through performing regularly in the U18s and U19s sides and training well within the first team training environment.
It has never been more challenging time to represent our first team with the demand for Europe and currently competing for three competitions. Young players now have to be able to step into the first team environment and not just play for our first team, but also perform and aid the team in gaining winning results which is key.
What is most pleasing in these four debuts in particular is all players contributed in a positive manner to all the games they have played and aided the first team in securing four wins across these fixtures alone, amongst others which was fantastic to see.
New addition to the senior coaching staff Craig Harrison, who like Andy can also boast being a former Premier League player and UEFA Pro License holder, has also been a huge aid for our younger players and is another key member that our young players can utilise and call upon when needed for support.
All first team staff regularly attend U19s and scholars fixtures and aid players in individual and unit sessions within first team training.
There is no question our young players have coaches in the first team who care and want them to develop and progress with both Andy and Craig being huge parts of this since being appointment at the football club.
Another key component at our club is our keeper department led by Neil Ebbrell. An unbelievable servant to the club Neil oversees all phases and personally coaches and leads all senior phase sessions including scholars and first team keepers. The goalkeeper set up and has produced a number of top level keepers who have progressed on from the club and represented Nomads in Welsh Premier League action.
GNW: Tell us about some of the academy’s most notable achievements – honours won etc….
JC: This season the academy is competing and firing on all fronts. This season alone a further five players have progressed to professional clubs and eight have represented Wales at Schools, Colleges and U14s level also.
Our U12s, U14s and U16s all qualified this season for the FAW Academy Cup Super Six with our U12s and U14s also crowned Northern Futsal Champions and will compete in the Nationals in Cardiff next month. Great work to date by these three sides in particular and big credit to their coaches Ben Nash, Anthony Weaver, Leighton Sumner, Mick Nickson, Dale Johnson and Matt Griffiths.
Our U19s and U18s both currently sit top of the Welsh National Reserve and Welsh Premier Development Leagues, which highlights the success and competitiveness from all of our sides from top to bottom leading into the first team set up.
Our academy trips over recent years have been well documented and we have travelled all across Europe having played clubs such as Feyenoord and Ajax in Holland, Bayer Leverkusen in Germany, Benfica and Sporting Lisbon in Portugal along with Barcelona, Getafe, Athletico and Real Madrid in Spain.
Still arguably one of the greatest weekends to date for the club was May of 2018 which for the first time in Welsh football history saw all four sides including our U12s, U14s, U16s and first team make the National Finals across the weekend in Newtown.
On top of this we managed to win three out of four and boast national title wins across U12s, U14s and first team age groups. A very special weekend and one that we strive to emulate and even surpass in the future.
GNW: Finally, how do you see the academy’s future? Can you envisage more success down the line? What about club academies in North Wales in general? Do you feel there should be more of them? Should the FAW be providing more assistance in this regard?
JC: Academies futures in Wales have never been more exciting. With all clubs now either boasting their own or renting 3G pitches, games across North Wales are played in top class environments with surfaces to match. This ensuring the highest standard of sessions and games across all clubs.
The well-documented increase of UEFA monies to Welsh Premier League clubs has allowed all clubs to have at least one full time member of staff to lead academies in Head of Coaching roles also which is something the academy program could of only dreamed about seasons prior.
The backing and support FAW and FAW Trust have given to these leads of academies has already shown their commitment to the future of Welsh football. With numerous training days, dialogue and support their has never been as much support for academies across the country.
Special mention to Andrew Howard of the FAW and newly appointed technical director of the FAW Trust David Adams who are really leading the development of all academies across the country and the academy program itself which will only be to the the benefit of all clubs and its younger players.
Personally, the key for academies in Wales is not about the number of them but the quality of them. Key considerations on the quality of academies at any club includes key elements such as the training program/curriculum, quality and qualifications of staff, academy structures, games programs and facilites among numerous other factors.
This season at Connah’s Quay Nomads we boast the highest number of coaches and most qualified we have ever had at the football club with our club set up including 3 UEFA Pro License Holders, 3 UEFA A License Holders, 16 UEFA B License Holders, 4 FAW C Certificate Holders, 3 UEFA B GK Holder coaches, 2 Sports Scientists, Club Physio and Club Doctor. This level of staffing now surpasses a number of Football League which really epitomizes the growth and development of the whole football club.
The key is quality and with the new auditing system in place by the FAW and with the new addition of Comet for all clubs there is no question this will continue to progress across all academy set ups and in turn develop academy set ups, the standard of the Welsh Premier League and ultimately the quality of the Welsh national team for many years and generations to come.
For an academy to work and really progress it most importantly must have the full backing and support from those above who lead and run the football clubs in owners and or chairman.
We are and have been so fortunate at Connah’s Quay Nomads to have an owner in Gary Dewhurst who has fully supported the academy from day one. Gary has always backed, aided and took a full interest into the development of our younger players and his passion on this section in particular has always shone through.
An academy is the foundation of any football club and arguably not many better feelings and sights to see than to a young player develop through an academy system and represent the first team. An exciting time ahead for Welsh academy football no doubt and ourselves like all clubs will be looking to improve and progress our program and produce more top level players for Connah’s Quay Nomads FC and Welsh football.