“It’s a really exciting project.” Those were the words of Chelmsford City defender Michael Spillane as he was announced Head of Academy with the Clarets in April. Five months on and the former Football League central defender is looking forward to the future with the Essex club just as much.
Having watched his young Clarets beat Haringey Borough 4-0 in the FA Youth Cup, their first competitive outing since Spillane took over, the former Norwich City defender could be seen beaming with confidence and delight from the dug-outs.
It is clear what style of football the 31-year-old is attempting to instil on his academy side, beckoning “pass” and “hold on” regular – Spillane certainly has a talented crop of youngsters under his guidance.
Taking over from Rod Stringer in January, Robbie Simpson’s philosophy has always been to provide a pathway for young, talented footballers to progress from youth football into the first team. Spillane – with his managerial partner of Elliott Ward in the academy – has laid the first markers for that to take place.
“I’m really excited about the future,” Spillane said. “I didn’t know what to expect from my team against Haringey, I know they’re good players but that doesn’t mean a lot.
“I’m still really excited based on what I’ve seen today, but it’s only one game. We can’t rest on our laurels and the next game will be just as tough. They’ll have to play the same or better to progress again.”
“We want to play like the first team because we want to get them into the first team, so our goal is to play like that,” he continued.
“It’s not always going to work – there were mistakes tonight. But it’s about them having the confidence to keep doing it and, on the whole, it worked.
“When it doesn’t work it’s about keep getting the ball and making them mentally stronger.”
Talking about his new role with the academy, he added: “I felt like I had unfinished business having reached the play-offs each year but falling short.
“I had unfinished business in wanting to complete it, but when this job came up it was a no brainer.
“There is so much potential that has always been spoken about now it is about trying to release that potential.
“There’s no point just saying ‘it’s a big club’. We’re actually trying to prove it is and doing that.”
Chelmsford has had a short-lived history of producing stellar players – Aaron Greene and Joe Ward proving the most recent players to have gone through the youth system, into Chelmsford’s Conference South competing side and eventually step into professional football.
— Brighton & Hove Albion (@OfficialBHAFC) June 3, 2015
But it is almost certain, however, that many others young stars will have fallen through the cracks. What is more concerningly, though, is whether potential gems have instead been tapped up by local rivals such as Heybridge Swifts, Braintree Town or the money-splashing set-up at Billericay Town.
And, as fans were allowed to return to Melbourne Stadium for an FA Youth Cup tie with Haringey Borough, they were treated to a spectacle and glimpse into what the future could be like for the Clarets.
Centre forward Kieran Smith had no haste in showing his ability early on as he went bursting forward, chasing a long ball from goalkeeper Sam Kingston, before being denied at the final hurdle in the first minute.
But it was clear from the onset that the attacking trio of Anisius Lewis, Aaron Willett and Smith would prove to be so crucial. In the end, each of them netted and – along with a fourth goal from John Thain – proved deadly and composed in front of goal.
It may well be Lewis who is remembered from the 4-0 victory as he beat the Haringey ‘keeper with a powerful overhead kick from inside the penalty area, but the trio all contributed excellent performances during the victory.
Chelmsford City’s blistering pace on the wings – courtesy of the athletic Lewis and skill full Willett – enabled them to grab a second goal in two minutes as Smith converted expertly beyond Alex Charalambous. Smith could well have had added another goal to his tally when he burst away from the defence, but his ferocious strike left the woodwork shaking.
The tall forward, who has a preference towards his right-foot, does not match the usual stereotypes of a largely built forward. Whilst towering over some of his team mates and competitors – making him an obvious threat from set-pieces – the teenager can switch into sport mode with a click of the fingers, chasing down long balls and rapidly pressurising defenders.
Willett wrapped up the tie, setting up a meeting with Walthamstow in just two weeks’ time, firing past Charalambous – nicking off the crossbar on its way in – after an initial strike rebounded to the winger. John Thain added a fourth and final goal for Chelmsford on 79 minutes as his long-range effort crept past Haringey’s keeper to ensure progression to the next round.
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— Chelmsford City FC (@OfficialClarets) September 7, 2020
The FA Youth Cup has proved the ground marker for several youngsters who have gone on to greater things – Billy Gilmour (Chelsea) and Bukayo Saka (Arsenal) are prime examples. It is highly unlikely that Chelmsford City will go all the way this season, but the competition continues to be a useful tool in the development of young players.
Spillane, who has played in the competition himself while with Norwich, appreciates the benefit it could have on his squad.
“It’s a massive competition,” he said. “I’ve played in the FA Cup and you always remember where you got to, who you lost to, because it is such a massive competition.
“And that’s not just to non-league clubs but league clubs too – it’s their bread and butter.
“I’m not too sure how many of them have played in front of a crowd. Tonight, you could hear them and I’m sure that gave them that extra buzz to help them.
“Sometimes playing in front of a crowd can make you go the other way, but they were the 12th man and certainly helped the players.”
The performances on show may have left the onlooking first-team players – of which included striker Alex Teniola and shot-stopper Lee Worgan – ponder whether they could soon be lining up alongside the teenagers in the final two pre-season friendlies, at Bishop’s Stortford and Bromley, before the season’s league curtain-raiser on October 3.
One thing is for certain though, there is an exciting future ahead of Chelmsford City.