There is something of a footballing revolution going on at Berkhamsted FC at present – and it’s playing a big part in the development of young players in and around the town.
Back in the Summer of 2011, Comrades reserve team coach Joe Sweeney decided that something needed to be done to bridge the gap between youth and senior football more effectively and decided that he would be the man to take up the challenge.
His vision was to nurture the players of the future by making them the focal point around which reserve team football at the club was based. He set out a four-year plan and now, three years later, the project is paying dividends.
“After watching reserve football over the last 10 years, it was clear it was all wrong,” said Sweeney. “Players who were too old to progress, or with not enough time left for improvement, left me thinking there was no point in a lot of reserve teams.
“I knew that the Hemel talent pool is very good but, like all areas, between 17 and 20 is where a lot of lads lose their love of the game, and don’t want to give the level of commitment needed to continue to progress.
“However, local football should always be about local lads, and the clubs will all benefit from that, as more people will come through the gate. I know about a dozen lads who could be playing Spartan Premier standard, who have just fallen away from the game.
“These young, local lads need to get the opportunity to play for their local clubs.”
With his vision in place, Sweeney approached the club and outlined his plans to revitalise the reserve team at Berkhamsted – and he says that the club were soon fully behind his ideas.
“The club were superb, and very supportive,” he said. “First team boss Mick Vipond thought I was mad at first, but as he started to get little nuggets through to him, he started to believe in the process.
“In the second year of the project – the second in youth football – we only lost the league to Hemel with the last kick of the last game.
“That growth in only 18 months really allowed everyone to believe in it fully, and allowed us more time last year, when it was difficult results-wise in the first season in men’s football.”
Since the project was launched, players from the development squad have made more than 200 appearances for the Comrades first team, while players such as Connor Toomey at Kings Langley and Kieran Turner at Tring Athletic have gone on to become established first team players.
So what was it that allowed Sweeney to make such an impression in a relatively short period of time?
“A good scouting system, a good network of the right football people, and forging relationships with schools and football college courses was all a help,” he said. “But I had been coaching in Hemel for five years, so that allowed me to start with an excellent nucleus of players.
“For the players themselves, an awful lot of work – physical, tactical, mental and emotional – and commitment is all needed.
“But more than all that, you need to find the players with a really deep love for the game, and the enthusiasm to carry them through the tough times.
“They need the ability to listen, to be selfless, to understand that their decisions on the field are for the team, and not themselves.
“You need to create an environment where the boys enjoy their football, enjoy each other’s company, and they want to do well for each other.
“Footballers play better and feel better about themselves, when they have a smile on their faces.”
But while big strides have been made by Sweeney and his team, the coach knows that there is still plenty more hard work to come.
He added: “The next step is for the boys to win something as a group, which will show they have learned how to compete in men’s football.
“It will then be to go and get first team experience, as playing with more experienced players, at a better level, is the one area where we can’t help them as a group.”
One thing is certain, though, the future is bright for young footballers in Berkhamsted, and there promises to be much more to come.