By Matt Bishop
DESPITE all the joy and excitement it can bring, there is nothing more stressful than football, and Ilkeston chief-executive Nigel Harrop would be the first to agree.
The Robins CEO is currently recovering from heart surgery, not helped by the club’s off-field troubles and big money transfer dealings with the likes of Sheffield United, Birmingham City and Fleetwood Town.
However, despite the stress that these transfers may bring, they are a shining example of the tremendous work being done at Ilkeston and within its Academy, alongside partners SCL, who provide the education programme for the Academy’s young stars.
For nearly a year now, Harrop’s Evo-Stik Premier side have worked closely with SCL to carry on improving a great academy set-up that has produced talent such as Ash Hunter, now in League One with Fleetwood, and Che Adams, currently plying his trade with Birmingham in the Championship.
The rise of Hunter and Adams are two of meteoric proportions considering their humble footballing beginnings, but Harrop is far from surprised to see the young-stars thriving in the Football League.
“Both Ash [Hunter] and Che [Adams] are brilliant examples for all the young players we have at the club” Harrop told The NLP. “They worked so hard to be where he is now, and deserves it all. They have so much talent.
“For Che, it didn’t come easy, and we let the Academy lads know that. He was annoyed Leicester and Coventry didn’t sign him, but came to us for a second chance – and now look at him.”
But is not just Adams who went to Ilkeston hoping for a chance in football – many do, and that is because of the work the club is doing with SCL.
“I was made aware of SCL who had a big presence down south and after a few meetings, we had everything signed and ready in two weeks.” said Harrop.
“Other places, such as local schools and colleges, had contacted us about working with us but SCL were so organised and were way out in front of the rest.
“It is such a brilliantly run organisation, and makes things much easier for us. We no longer have to worry so much about the day-to-day wellbeing of our academy lads – all 60-70 of them – because SCL all have it so well under control.”
The organisation of SCL means Harrop can concentrate on the day-to-day running of Ilkeston, because, first and foremost, Ilkeston is a football club that harbours dreams of playing at the highest possible level.
With money tight, their impressive Academy is an integral part of providing them with good players, and SCL’s work is priceless.
But just from speaking to Harrop, it is obvious that with SCL’s help, the club are doing things in the right way to provide the young players at Ilkeston with every chance to reach the best of their abilities.
With classrooms at the stadium, and boys from the academy going on to study at college and University here and in America, the Academy work being done at Ilkeston is clearly more than just football based.
Players train together, and travel to and from games together, creating a close-knit bond and brilliant camaraderie between the group, but the boys also know that hard-work in lessons is what is needed to take them to the top.
“The boys in our Academy are young lads, and their education is vital, so the balance between that and football is critical.” said Harrop.
“We want the best players to join our system, but alongside SCL, we also recognise the bigger picture, and that is why I think our partnership is working so well.
“At the end of the day we are a football club, but qualifications for the players are very important, and luckily the players themselves know that too.
“Their training standards and workrate is great, but so is their work-rate and enthusiasm in the class room with SCL.
“The lads join our Academy as 16-year-olds, and by the time they are 18, I feel confident they are all highly employable – in or out of football.”
Sadly, not every player in the Robins’ academy will follow in the footsteps of Adams and Hunter, but Harrop can relax knowing he and everyone at SCL are doing the best they can for Ilkeston’s youngsters.
“Signing for a football club and playing almost every day is a huge part of a young lad’s life, but even the best don’t make it,” concluded Harrop.
“It is a one-in-a-million chance, and there is nothing wrong with dreaming, but thanks to SCL we are giving them something to fall back on if they need it.
“We believe in youth, but we are very real with them. Whether it is in football or not, we are looking for a bit of good within these boys and want them to leave us as better lads.”