“Why can’t one of our young players win the Ballon d’Or? Why not?”

It says a lot about the thinking behind the doors of Manchester City’s training complex that producing a Ballon d’Or winner may not be the most ambitious target that academy director Jason Wilcox has set. But after the success in lifting young players to the standards that Pep Guardiola has demanded in recent years, it is little wonder that those in charge of the academy have moved their goalposts to be bigger and better than ever before.

The failure to produce first team players was an elephant in the room for the Sheikh Mansour era for almost a decade, and — as chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak admitted this week — the arrival of Guardiola didn’t instantly change the narrative; the Catalan was criticised by many for demanding patience around Phil Foden’s development while Jadon Sancho left and thrived at Dortmund, charting a new path for talented youngsters that weren’t getting game time at top English clubs.

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Perhaps inevitably, given the uprooting nature of the takeover, the academy struggled to find its purpose and keep up with the phenomenal pace of the transformation at first team level. In those circumstances, the balance of winning trophies at youth level and producing players for the professional game has been a difficult one to gauge.

However, the last few years have seen a change of emphasis that looks to be paying off handsomely. City have just won the Premier League 2 (the Under-23 league) for a second consecutive year and the Under-18 Premier League for a third straight year, while at the same time providing more first team matchday appearances than at any other period under the current owners.

Wilcox cannot remember a time when they had more players ready to step up to the first team group — one of the best ever seen in English football, it should be noted — as the grand plan has come together. Young players coming through at City can visualise opportunities under Guardiola, who has never valued the work of the academy more highly after a solution was found to the limitations of Under-23s football.

“We’re always evaluating and what happened was at one point we realised that we had boys training with the first team every week and they weren’t possibly getting enough game time,” Wilcox told the Manchester Evening News. “But over the last two or three years they’ve been supporting first team training – which is our priority – and Pep and his staff have been generous enough and understanding enough to know that the kids need these regular games in the 23s.

“That’s really helped, I think, because sometimes they might drop in the day before or the day of the game but the most important thing for us is they’re continuing to get minutes because ultimately what we want is when Pep calls on them they’re ready. That’s a big ask.

“Pep is aware of the players but he is a serial winner, we shouldn’t expect any favours from him. He’s the best manager in the world and he is being judged on winning. What we’ve got to do is produce a product that helps him and Txiki [Begiristain, sporting director] win.

“I would hate to win knowing we’ve gone with older players and have no talent. The biggest achievement I think we’ve got is we’ve won without compromising our style or values in terms of dropping players down from the 23s to the 18s. We’ve pushed 16s up into the 18s, the only time the lads have dropped down from the 23s is they need minutes and there are first team players dropping down.

“The 23s are an average age of 18.0, the [joint] youngest team in the league. We’ve got Callum Doyle out on loan [on loan at Sunderland, who won promotion from League One] — he was eligible for the Youth Cup and we could have kept him. We’ve got James Trafford out on loan [at Accrington and then Bolton in League One], who we could have kept for the youth Champions League. That is always going to be a very difficult tournament for us just because with the size of the bench in the Champions League we’ve had four players on the bench.

“We’re realists and what is really important for me is I have the trust of the board and Txiki so no one has ever said why we are not winning. Txiki is interested in the individual players and seeing talent and that is the most important thing that we keep developing our talent and getting the most out of them and teaching them about life and what is coming next.”



Liam Delap and James McAtee have enjoyed first-team experience under Pep Guardiola this season.

The danger of predicting a boom coming next is that City are enjoying such a golden crop of youngsters coming through. Wilcox sees parallels to the group that were produced by Chelsea a few years ago, and admits that it is hard to keep on turning out potential superstars when some age groups will naturally be stronger than others.

However, the successes enjoyed by the academy after Foden have encouraged staff. Cole Palmer has nearly established himself as a first team star despite nearly dropping out of the academy in his teenage years, James McAtee is another to have come through from Under-9s while Luke Mbete, Liam Delap and Sam Edozie are all examples of players recruited from other English academies that have developed and flourished at City.

Changes to recruitment in the post-Brexit climate have made the battle for young English talent tougher than ever, but if City can continue to bring in prospects at the level they have been — from U18 all the way down to U9 — then Wilcox sees no reason why they cannot aim to continue their upwards trajectory. That belief has been bolstered by the success over the past two years; the U18s and U23s have won consecutive league titles with different squads and different managers, showing that the system can withstand departures.

“Everybody is looking for UK talent and we’re no different. Sometimes you get a crop of players come through all at once, if you think about the crop at Chelsea that came through,” said WIlcox. “Our aspiration is to continue this cycle of players that are coming through our academy that are either going over there or into the world game.

“They’re going to go to all clubs across the world. Our aspiration always has to be over there to the first team and complacency is a word that you will never hear in the academy.

“Our aspiration is to get everybody there, and we should never kill the dream of any child that comes through our academy that they’re not going to go over there because it is all about belief.

“It is about parents and staff really giving their kids the belief that with talent, hard work and dedication anything is possible. Why can’t they achieve their wildest dreams, why can’t it be them? You try telling Phil Foden at eight he won’t play for Man City’s first team — we have to instil the belief.”

As much as Wilcox lauds everybody he works for, it is clear that he sets the level of effort that will be needed across the academy. He has spent the last three months watching Under-8s football so that he knows the next group coming into the academy and behind his desk are the faces of every youngster in the building, divided into age groups from Under-9s to those out on loan to show more than 10 years of succession planning.

City’s academy director prides himself on his staff producing top people as well as top footballers, and his drive for the personal touch has extended to ordering prints of academy triumphs to be plastered all around their headquarters to give a warmer feel to players and parents. Until they arrive, they have been blown up onto A4 paper and stuck onto walls.

The work that has been done in the City academy in recent years has not gone unnoticed; coaches and other staff have been tempted away to the City Football Group (CFG) and beyond through the development that has taken place. Wilcox himself has been linked with a senior position in the Newcastle project, among other roles.

Since officially becoming academy director in October 2017, Wilcox has effectively built a network that can continue to flourish with a different figurehead. To listen to the enthusiasm with which he goes about every aspect of his job, though, and to hear the latest impossible ambition he has set his staff, he does not sound like somebody yearning for another challenge.

“We’re in the process now of pressing the reset button again and our aspiration dream is to be revered as the number one academy in sport worldwide,” he said. “You can’t dream bigger than that and I don’t think we’ll ever be able to say we’ve cracked it because to be revered as the number one academy worldwide is about opinion.

“But that is our aspirational dream, and we won’t do it without great people, talent, hard work, dedication and belief that we can achieve it. I just think it’s an exciting and unique period of time for every member of staff that is here at Man City where you can only see things going forward.

“That’s what everybody across CFG is trying to do and me being the custodian of the academy I have to make sure we push it forward as well for the next person that comes in.

“It’s up to the people to keep taking it forward through hard work and through being trailblazing, innovative, courageous but never losing our sense of who we are — that’s humble hardworking people that want to be No.1. We shouldn’t be embarrassed about saying we want to be No.1.

“That means we have to be No.1 in everything we do, whether that is walking through the gate to the food to the facility to the IT to our processes to the way we communicate. We need to be No.1 at everything, or aspire to be No.1.

“And if someone is doing something better than us, we need to nick their idea! Nick their idea and make it even better — that’s innovation. I’m interested in what other academies are doing but we’ve got some really good ideas here on how we can move forward, some key projects and we have to remain focused.

“If we can keep our discipline and our standards as high as they can possibly be, I don’t think we’ll go far wrong. We will have churn of staff but what we have to do is every time we lose a member of staff get somebody even better.

“That’s something that we’re aiming to do on a daily basis. All this work that you see now just doesn’t happen, it comes from years of work and we have to make sure that in 10 years time when we look back we look back at real pride with things we’ve achieved: players playing all over the world and achieving some amazing things.

“Why can’t one of our young players win the Ballon d’Or? Why not?”





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