My views on academy football will be no secret to anyone who has read this column or listened to the radio over recent years – and it’s a subject that isn’t going away.

If you look at Carlisle United, I would say that 90 per cent of young lads who have come to the club from bigger academies have either been sent back or have proved to be just not ready.

We have seen a few cases when the player has really taken to first-team football. Think of people like Tom Lawrence, who was here in 2013/14 and has really kicked on since.

For every Lawrence, though, there have been many others who have had an absolute wake-up call.

Martin Smith came on loan from Sunderland in the 2015/16 campaign under Keith Curle. He had a good name and was thought to have lots of potential. He struggled, though, and after his release at the Stadium of Light has done the rounds at a few lower-league clubs.

He is at Salford now and when we saw him playing a few weeks ago at Brunton Park, nothing had changed. I felt that if you got an opposition midfielder close to him who has been around and done it, he wouldn’t like it. He was subbed after 60 minutes and it just underlined how some players find it difficult to adapt when moving from the academy scene to the first-team game.

It is false football at academy level. I have watched enough under-23 games to know that defenders don’t defend, or head the ball. Midfielders have ample time, and forwards aren’t up against big, ugly centre-halves.

The players travel to games on the first-team coach. Sometimes they even fly. Results are treated within the club like first-team results. Young players I have known at clubs like Newcastle have bought cars off the back of it and lived the life of a professional footballer without having actually played.

Those players are the ones now twiddling their thumbs in non-league, scrambling for a club at any level, and I just feel there is a flaw in the system that needs to be addressed.

I would start by knocking the under-23 scene down to under-18s, maybe allowing a small handful of over-age players, up to the age of 20.

At 20, you are a man and shouldn’t need three more years in the system before risking a move for first-team football.

There have been cases in Carlisle’s league of players coming out on loan at 23 who have only played seven or eight senior games.

I compare this with people like Brad Potts, who is the best example of a better route. He came through as a teenager at Carlisle and now, at 25, has played well over 250 games.

That is a proper CV. It has come from playing, from wanting to play.

If I was the parent now of a lad of 16 or 17, I would want him to sign for a club like Carlisle, get in the team, stay for a good spell and know that if he was good enough, he would get scouted anyway.

Not jump immediately at the first glimmer of a big club and disappear into the system.

When Neil McDonald was manager at Carlisle, Gary Madine came into the club’s youth team. He was a raw lad who hadn’t been in that academy environment, and Neil said he liked him, because he was different to all the other young strikers who you saw in the system.

Even back then, the difference was noticeable and when I talk to people in the game today they describe many young players as ‘robots’, because they are all the same. They can all handle the football, are all technically good, but the minute they are put under pressure, they can’t deal with it.

This is why Mo Sagaf has caught the eye at Carlisle. He has had a grounding in non-league and looks more streetwise than other young players.

He has been in a position where he has had grown men fighting to get the ball off him. He knows where to look, can anticipate when they are coming, and that awareness is something you can only learn the hard way.

Surely training young lads in a way that is realistic for first-team football, rather than the academy way, is far better.

Those who don’t make it at the top clubs can vanish when they are released. They find the football they are used to is completely different to the football they now face.

That’s why you see so many not drop from the Premier League to the Championship, down to League Two and then below.

They can’t hack it in the bottom tier, they struggle in the National League and more often than not go further down.

There is a lad now at Whickham in the Northern League, Connor Newton, who came through at Newcastle, had loans at St Mirren and steadily moved down the divisions. He is now several levels below the Football League at 27 and there are many other examples.

Next week we will see Wolves’ under-21s at Brunton Park in the EFL Trophy. It is a shambles of a situation if anyone thinks that three games against men is suddenly going to make a player more rounded.

I would sooner see them scrap the Trophy and see bigger clubs have closer ties with smaller clubs with regard to loan players. Do something genuinely useful, instead of reinforcing a system which isn’t delivering what it should be.


Forest Green are a decent team and sit third in League Two as they head to Brunton Park tonight.

This comes after United got an important win under their belts at Stevenage.

A week after the poor display against Exeter, this sort of inconsistency is what you are going to get this season.

That is what League Two is all about.

Forest Green will try and play football and that might suit Carlisle. Steven Pressley’s team has to be ready to pounce on any mistakes they make.

Even the best can come unstuck this way. Manchester City, against Norwich, tried to play their way out of trouble and more often than not they do this comfortably, but on this occasion they were caught.

You see the game being played like this at all levels now and Carlisle themselves have got into trouble at times when trying to play themselves away from danger at the back.

Stevenage were caught by Carlisle in the same way, and there will be opportunities to catch Forest Green.

First and foremost Carlisle have to be careful about their own game. If the ball needs to go, it goes.

Harry McKirdy provided the key moments for United at Stevenage and the two first-half chances he ran onto showed the value of a measured long ball, rather than more passing in your own half.

The two balls forward, from Gethin Jones and Christie Elliott, got the opposition facing their own goal.

That made life much less comfortable for Stevenage than playing in front of them. As soon as Carlisle knocked it in behind with quality, it was a different game.

Sometimes you can invite too much pressure on when you are playing at the back.

Carlisle have enough to beat Forest Green, to go on a good run and really get their tails up.

It would be a great time in the season to find that bit of consistency at last.