• Josh Schneider-Weiler

Developing Character, Playing the Long Game and Best Practices from One of Top Academies in Denmark

Updated: Jun 8, 2019

21.36. That was the average age for line-ups for the third best team in Denmark in 2017-18. Most clubs emphasize how much they value their academy and speak of its importance. Undoubtedly it can be a tremendous asset for a club, providing a talent pipeline to the first team and revenue in player sales. However, for FC Nordsjælland having a thriving academy is a necessity. They value the academy as much as any team in Europe. In 2018, FC Nordsjælland had the youngest line-ups in all of Europe by nearly a full year (21.36) according to CIES Football Observatory (NK Rudeś of Croatia was second at 22.25)

Academy Director Jan Laursen

They may not churn out superstars like Ajax or Barcelona but they expect their academy to produce players for the first team. So far in the 2018-19 season, Nordsjaelland has had eight ex-academy players start a minimum of 21 games for the club.

However, this reliance and importance placed on youth has not come at the cost of results. Nordsjælland sit in 6th place in the Danish Superliga and recently drew 2-2 to Danish powerhouse FC Copenhagen. The club has also produced a number of players to leave the club and play at top teams in Europe such as Emre Mor (Celta Vigo), Mathias Jensen (Celta Vigo) Runar Alex Runarsson (FCO Dijon) and Jores Okore (ex-Aston Villa).

It may come as a surprise then that their academy is only around a decade old. I sat down with Academy Director Jan Laursen to find out how they’ve been so successful.

Building an Academy Philosophy

"To be honest, when I think back then it's just like we didn't have much knowledge, we didn't have much experience. But I think the key quality here or our key competence, you could say, is that we believe in young players and we wanted to you know develop our own. Sometimes we make a reference to the very famous Danish restaurant Noma, that was voted the best restaurant in the world for couple of times, and I don't think we are there at all, but it's just the inspiration - because it's based only on food and dishes from the Scandinavian kitchen.

You look at what you have in your own garden and then you build it from there and then you make it better and better. And I think for us it was the same. We were looking for identity because we don't have hundred years of history."

"So how could we make our own identity as a developer, and it was from developing players and also look at how our competitors are doing and what are their strengths and weaknesses, but basically focusing on ourselves. And someone told me a long time ago I heard a good quote that

“a football club without a strong academy is like a person without a soul."

"And I got that into my mind and I think it was important to give players a chance to get a good education, both on and off the pitch and then believe that, that would also like pay off in the end in the first team. So from the start we couldn't buy expensive players so we never had like that choice or nothing - it got ingrained in the way we think here that it's like we don't buy stars. We try to develop our own stars you could say."

"I was just seeing the same kind of team formation all over, with the same average age and pretty much playing the same way. So all the way 10 years back when our current head coach Casper Human came here, then we spoke about a lot about it. We wanted to win something but also on how we can be strong in our own playing philosophy."

"So when you're clear about what you do then over time then you also normally achieve bigger things than you do when you just vary from year to year from one kind of strategy to another. And that's been a key thing here that we stay true to that we decided to do."

Keep the Blinders On

"Well be honest I don't feel we look too much at other academies you know. We, of course, get a lot of inspiration from different places. And we also go to visit different clubs and academies, but I don't spend much time on thinking about why are we so special. I mean for me every academy and every club is special."

"Otherwise it's all about working hard every day and being focused on that. You have to keep developing and improving. If you think you know everything now because we were youngest [team] and then we don't have to work as hard as we did before, or work as well together, then we'll lose and then then you will have problems."

"I think that's the best thing you can do. Not try to change the strategy, because now the result is not there for a period."

Very Young Youth Teams

"I would say it's an ongoing thing, and it's not like we say all U-17 players is actually U-15 players. It's like we have to look at each individual on where they are, where the development is and how comfortable they are. It's case-by-case."

"I'm not saying everybody will be promoted one year before their normal age chosen. So as we realized that we were playing with the youngest team in Europe, and having the youngest first team then of course we have to prepare them as well as possible for this."

"So if the best players that will get into our first team they play with their own age group all of the time, then it will be too, you could say too normal and too comfortable for them."

"So they have to start at an early age to be ready to play against the stronger and more experienced opponents. So that's what we changed a bit the last couple of years that we push it a bit more."

"We have good discussions around that, and we don't always feel exactly the same and I think it's one of the things that also makes us strong that we have different opinions on this. There's not a single person that just decides now he will go up, or now this player will be promoted. We have these discussions and then the best argument should win."

Developing Character and Character Coaches

"Twice a week they have half an hour where we have these character sessions. They can both the on the pitch and off the pitch, but the character coaches have planned like in school - they plan the lesson and then we have different subjects and topics we talk about."

"That could be for example talking about initiative. That's my personal opinion that we give the players all the answers and we take care of everything, we wash their clothes and they get everything served, they get an agent who takes care of all their things. So we talk a lot about the players and students thinking about taking the initiative themselves."

"Not just why didn't the coach pick me or why is this not done for me? So you think about how you can influence your own future you could say. We talked a lot about give back about who has helped you, or who can you help doing projects or maybe doing a fundraiser for someone who needs help. So different things that will help your life after your football career, and makes you more independent of other people that are doing everything for you."

"And then you put it also into football content so they understand that these things they can also use on the pitch."

[Note from me: When I sat in a character session, the focus was on role models. 13 year olds were asked to present a role model and why. Juan Mata and Kylian Mbappe were the most popular and were chosen for their charity work.]

Eliminating ‘Instant Gratification’

"I think when you work together with the players and staff and everything every day, it's like with your own kids, it's difficult to see a change from day to day. But for me that is not what I'm looking for. I think the big, you could say results, or concrete things, you can see will happen in five and ten years and for some players it's even longer. It's after their career they realize a lot of things."

"In modern societies it's much about instant gratification. That you want the like here now and you want to get, you know football is also full of that - why am I not picked? I trained with this thing for two weeks why I'm not playing in the starting line-up? So our focus was just to influence as much as possible and then it varies when you have something concrete. So I'm not looking when they go to Ghana and they come back. Oh, he totally changed or something like that."

"It’s more about that you've done things that will step-by-step influence these young people, like you could say in the right direction. But just give them some insight into life and outside the normal Danish comfortable life where you know you live in a nice house, and you have a contract in the club and you get your kit and all these things."

"So for me it's all about long-term influence or change, it's not something that happens instant. And you know it's also that's why it's important that we don't talk too much - every week is this player getting better? You know it's like with your personality, it takes time. So just make sure that we are focused on helping these young boys and girls, and then we'll see where it ends."

Players and a Academy as a Reflection of Society

"I think it's a part of society today that so many things are possible. You can see if you want, you know on a normal evening you can see maybe 20 top matches from around Europe and everything is possible."

"So it's about again you want these things to happen here and now, so I think that's why we have - I don't know if it's an obligation- but we have an opportunity to work on the mindset of the players. That the good things take time. And if you want to achieve big things then it's not about being promised something, it's about setting up the possibilities to develop within an environment."

"So if we are focused all the time also on why is he not delivering this week, why is he not succeeding, then it will be the same mindset that the players have, why don't I get this, why didn't I get the contract? I think when you are in our academy we for sure have a lot of things that we can improve, but we've shown that we dare to give young people a chance."

"For me it's like- kids will be a reflection of how the environment is. So if we only think about ourselves or we only care about - if we only had one player getting into the first-team per year, then of course there will be a lot of negativity. But I think there is a feeling inside our academy that we believe in young people and we want to give them a good chance, and that reflects in their effort I think."

"But the industry is very much influenced on a lot of people thinking about how they can make a lot of money out of the players. So I think many players will at some point feel that they are just a product. And I think that's the thing that we also work on being better and better at, is to see the person before the player."

In Hindsight

"I think the further you get in the development of a club and academy, the more you find out that you don't know. So that would be so many things, and I think it's a key thing that you realize that you will never be a real expert - you need to look for new knowledge and new things that you can learn all of the time, but if there is something.

I think the whole thing of working across two continents and two cultures, how different or how many differences there is and how much you can improve on knowing other culture is something that I think players in the future will benefit from."

"It's like most things in Scandinavian are very nice and comfortable and you are in your comfort zone, but when you have to work across these different borders and continents then you find out so many things which is totally different. And I think that will be a key thing that will help you, and not just in your football life but also in general."

"So many things are pretty easy - we all have our challenges and difficulties, but to just try to work in this way has been such a learning experience, and also challenging, extremely challenging. But I think that's what also life in the academy should be about, and how can you open your perspective as much as possible."

Best Practice at the Academy is…A Girl’s Academy

"I would say that it's not something that you can put into a KPI and say okay we have succeeded in this - but after opening or introducing the girls academy it's given the environment a lot. That it's not just the boys you know walking around here and going into the trainings, but you see both boys and girls. I think it's something that- we have had girls football in our environment in the amateur club, but now we also put it into the professional academy as well and I think it's fantastic. It’s important for the boys to understand that of course the girls also should have the chance to train as much as they do, and go to International competitions and all of this. So I think it's - again it's something where you help the mindset of the players."

"I think it gives real dynamics when you have both genders in your environment. football players tend to feel better than others. Because there is so much attention on football and it's the top sport, most resources are put into this. You're much more privileged as a footballer than compared to smaller sports, or individual sports where you have to take care of everything."

"So everything where you try to do things where you can see it's like your normal life outside football. So if you only go to school with boys and then its only boys in the academy, then you'll think 'oh we are special'. And again I think it's just the mindset of the players to understand that football is also a kind of reflection of society. Where you work together no matter what cultural backgrounds you have or what religious background or what gender you are."

"So I feel like we have to keep working on making the football world as normal as you would say - instead of making it like it's something special, that because you can score five goals in a match or something, then it's like you have invented something that will help a lot of people around the world."

"No, the football is a reflection on society, and the players we have to educate them to have them understand that through their football career they can influence a lot of other people if they want to help others. And look not only on yourself, you don't just put your own stuff on Instagram but you think about how can you influence the younger boys and the younger girls."

"And that's why our first team players also have a mentor role where they sometimes come and they have to talk to the academy players and do some training sessions with them. So to think about how they can be positive role model."

Making Mistakes

"I have to say one more thing, that we make mistakes every day. When you have so many players in your system - and I have to say that we've seen players that we decided not to give a first-team contract and he's doing well. And we have even a player in the Bundesliga but that's a part of it you have to make decisions, and it is the most difficult thing to say this player will make it or this player will make it."

"So we try to tell all of the players you know don't trust our decisions, trust that we want the best for you but no matter whether you get into the first-team or not, believe in yourself that you can achieve big things both on the pitch and off the pitch."

Final Thoughts

"I would just like fans and spectators to have expectations for the players - they shouldn't look at them as being perfect people or anything, but when you look at how much money the top players get and how much attention they get, then I would like the media and people around football, and also those who invest in football to have - you know… set high expectations on how they perform off the pitch, and how much they do for their community."

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