Inside Middlesbrough's academy exclusive: Academy manager Craig Liddle explains how the club are building for the future
Following his appointment as Middlesbrough head coach, Jonathan Woodgate spoke about promoting from within.
The Teessiders have a strong reputation when it comes to bringing players through their Category One academy, yet the work that goes on behind the scenes goes far deeper than what you might expect.
Academy manager Craig Liddle, a former defender for Boro, oversees the whole operation, with the club identifying players as young as six years old.
“Our youngest age group is under-9s,” Liddle tells the Mail. “We have age groups all the way up to under-23s, we do start bringing players in now around about six, seven, eight but officially they can’t sign until under-9s.”
You may think that’s incredibly young but, as Liddle points out: “Obviously it’s all about fun with the younger age groups.”
Of course not all the youngsters who step into Boro’s academy go on to have a career in football and only a small minority will make it in the professional game.
It’s therefore essential for the club to provide educational support and not simply focus on footballing ability.
“We have a day release programme for the boys who are at school so from the age of 11 they’ll come in one day a week,” explains Liddle.
“They’ll do a set time in the classroom and then they’ll go out and train, have lunch, then they’ll go back into a classroom and train so it’s a full day for them.
“We have an educational officer who takes care of the classroom day stuff and we have a number of part time teachers who are specialists in the areas that they teach.”
And while the club are trying to produce the next generation of professional footballers, Liddle is clear about what comes first.
“Education comes first,” he insists. “We have a contract with the schools, if a boy is misbehaving in school or falling behind with work at school we will withdraw them from the programme.
“Everyone who comes into the academy we always say to the boys and their parents, it’s a fantastic opportunity for you to come in, learn and develop as a footballer and as a person.”
“But the likelihood of your boy making it as a professional footballer, there’s not many who make it through so it’s important that education comes first.”
That duty of care runs throughout the academy, all the way up to under-23s level, when players are within touching distance of carving out a professional career.
One of the hardest parts of Liddle’s role is letting players leave the academy, especially when they have progressed all the way though the system.
However, Boro do have a set-up in place to try and keep careers on track.
“We have a transition team in place, we have a loan manager Neil Madison and our head of education Barry Dawson,” adds Liddle. “When the boy leaves the system, we all meet with the boy and their parents to discuss their pathway away from the club.
“We keep in contact over the year to see if they are still on track, can we help them out? Can we help them with trials at other clubs, different education pathways?
“We are in contact with the boys and their parents once they leave the club, it’s not just once they walk out the door that’s just them finished with, we still have a connection with the boys and we try to help them in whatever career path they are planning on.”
Boro are certainly giving their young players the best chance to succeed and are one of just 24 British clubs with Category One academy status – so what does that mean?
“Category One is a lot based around facilities so as you can imagine we have one of the best facilities in the country here,” adds Liddle. “The staff in place where we can deliver an elite programme.
“You have to have a certain amount of coaches, teachers, scientists, medicine, it’s basically having all the staff in place to deliver the best possible programme for our boys.”
The task for Boro is putting those facilities to good use and, in the last few years, the likes of Dael Fry, Ben Gibson and Marcus Tavernier have all progressed through the system.
Former Boro academy and first-team coach Paul Jenkins, who left the club in 2017, recently told the Mail: “There is still a lot of good staff there. One thing during my time there was that there was continuity.
“There was continuity within the staff and when you have good staff it’s important you keep hold of them so the players get the right development.
“A lot of the time with academies in the country they make a lot of changes with staff and it does have a negative impact on the players.
During Woodgate’s unveiling in June, head of recruitment operations Adrian Bevington spoke about a ‘golden thread' running through the heart of the club, which involved building an identity throughout the club’s youth teams.
Liddle, though, says a philosophy has been in place for a number of years, with an aim to play a possession-based, high-pressing game.
“As part of your triple P you have to produce a coaching and playing philosophy so we’ve had that in place for a number of years now,” adds Liddle.
“Jonathan taking over as manager, he’s obviously worked in the academy, knows how we do things so we know that it will filter from the top right the way down in the future.
“It’s always been possession-based football in terms of the way we set up in terms of high press, the tempo. Everything is lined-up from the top all the way down.”
In the last few seasons, due to their desire to win promotion to the Premier League, Boro have sanctioned big-money transfers in the hope of returning to England’s top-flight.
This season, though, the club appear to have made a conscious decision to try and maximise their well-respected academy, which continues to develop players both on and off the pitch.