Meet the seasoned pros joining youth teams

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October 7, 2021
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    Gary DickerGary Dicker made more than 150 appearance for Brighton between 2009-2013

    If you saw a player over the age of 30 playing in an academy game, you could be forgiven for assuming they were there to regain fitness after injury.

    But there's a growing trend in football that is seeing clubs sign senior players who will never play in the first team, but will instead nurture their up-and-coming talent.

    Manchester United have signed Paul McShane, Southampton have brought in Olly Lancashire and Gary Dicker has arrived at Brighton.

    All three previously played for their present employers and all three are utilised as support players or player-coaches. Their job as senior professionals – with hundreds of games under their belts – is to pass on knowledge and experience to young players starting their journey.

    Brighton are the furthest along in this process with Dicker the second player to occupy that position. Their first, current under-23 boss Andrew Crofts, did it for two seasons and is a former team-mate of Dicker.

    The Seagulls picked up the idea when they played against Bayern Munich in a development match and the German side had an over-age centre-back playing for them.

    Academy manager John Morling says that after the initial surprise – and asking a few questions – the benefits of having someone like that became clear.

    He said: "We thought it was a really good idea and in the first year when Andrew did it he was still playing in the [National League].

    "He was already interested in the coaching side, he'd already done his B licence and A licence and was going to start his pro licence so he was heavily involved in development anyway.

    "It's very hard to find the right person to do it because they've got to be able to train every day and be able to add value on the training pitch add value on the gameday as well."

    The over-age player scheme could cause issues if not managed correctly. In the first year when Crofts was starting out in the role, players went to Morling with concerns about it limiting their game time.

    Morling said: "The players who were worried about game time saw the benefits in training and how he helped them, especially the ones in the same position.

    "In three or four weeks' time it was at a point where the players were really happy with it and they could see what he brought."

    The benefits are clear to see, Brighton have had eight academy players make their first-team debuts so far this season.

    Brighton use their over-age player as part of their player-to-coach scheme, with senior players combining their playing duties with doing their coaching badges and taking sessions.

    Dicker, 35, who made more than 150 appearances for the Seagulls in his first spell at the club, left Scottish side Kilmarnock in the summer.

    "You can see the age of players in our first team is getting younger and the teams I was playing in were getting younger. The game is about young players getting the chance," he said.

    "I've kind of been used to that to be honest with you. I played with a lot of younger players and so that wasn't too hard, maybe the type of music and the general chit-chat [about] what to do at the weekends is a lot different than what I'm doing at home with the kids. I've enjoyed it and it is keeping me young so I've no complaints.

    "As an older player you can feel moments in games that someone less experienced hasn't had and you understand the right decisions to make. The best thing about it for me was Crofty had done the role so I'm not coming in blind and expecting to play every game.

    "But I'm here for training and it's about driving up standards. Can you keep doing the right thing and setting the right example? It's a 24-hours-a-day and a seven-days-a-week occupation."

    Although Dicker can see the advantages of his role, he admits that he still harbours the urges of a competitive first-team player.

    "There is the odd day where I think 'he's naming the team and I want to be in it' but that's just a natural thing that you have as a footballer because it's geared up to playing at the weekend," he added.

    Andrew CroftsAndrew Crofts was showing Brighton's young players the way in a more hands-on role before Gary Dicker's return to the club

    Former Wales midfielder Crofts says there are plenty of challenges to the role.

    He said: "It's tough gig. I think people probably underrate how tough it is.

    "I think more clubs are doing it and more players want to do it because years ago you had that blend of young players and senior players in reserve teams and that has probably been missed.

    "So it is an ideal opportunity to be able to implement that into a young group and hopefully the young lads get those golden nuggets of information and a role model to prepare them for their next steps."


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