Paul Reid: Managing a Category One Academy in League One
Written by Simon Austin — September 10, 2020
WE’RE used to hearing that results are everything in football, which is why last season looked so grim for Sunderland’s Academy.
Their Under-23s drew one and lost 16 of their 17 matches in Premier League 2 Division 2, while the ledger was even worse for the U18s: played 16, lost 16.
Such tallies are unprecedented in modern elite youth competitions and have inevitably clouded commentary about Paul Reid’s two-and-a-bit years as Academy Manager of the club.
In his first interview since leaving the Black Cats in June, the 38-year-old tells TGG: “I was devastated to keep losing at that level. It was painful to watch and I felt for the players and staff, who I was constantly having to pick up off the floor.”
Do results always tell the whole story about the performance of an Academy though?
In the case of Sunderland, a League One club competing against the big beasts of Category One, perhaps not.
When Reid arrived at the Academy of Light from Eastleigh in June 2018, owner Stewart Donald had just committed to remaining in the top tier of Academies.
Reid describes that as “a brave decision”, but it did lead to some seemingly insurmountable problems.
“We simply weren’t able to compete against the clubs with big resources at U18 and U23 level,” Reid tells TGG. “There were players at other clubs on exceptional contracts who had been signed for huge transfer fees, even if they don’t get the press coverage that first-teamers do.
“To be Category One in League One, I think it’s almost impossible to compete. In terms of overall Academy expenditure, we were by far the lowest at Category One and weren’t even in the top five at Category Two.
“When you see Manchester United buying an U18 player for €10m - when we weren’t even signing players for that money at first-team level - it gives you an indication of where we were.”
Although Reid doesn’t name that particular player, he’s referring to the French-Tunisian midfielder Hannibal Mejbri, who moved to Old Trafford from Monaco in August 2019.
The fee was reported to be an initial €5m rising to a possible €10m with add-ons. Mejbri started off in United’s U18s in 2019/20, before being promoted to the U23s, and there are suggestions he could feature for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s senior side next season.
Not only were Sunderland handicapped when it came to signing players, they were also vulnerable to losing the best of their own crop. During Reid’s tenure, a succession of highly-rated youngsters, who had been with the club throughout their footballing journey, departed for bigger teams.
Joe Hugill, a highly-rated 6 ft 2 forward, and midfielder Logan Pye both signed for United earlier this summer. Midfielder Luca Stephenson moved to Liverpool in September 2018, with goalkeeper Luke Hewitson following him in January of this year.
Striker Sam Greenwood (above), who had been scouted by Juventus and AC Milan, joined Arsenal in July 2018 and has just moved to Leeds United.
New Sunderland Chief Executive Jim Rodwell has said that holding onto top talent will be a priority for Reid’s yet-to-be-announced successor, but many of the sales were agreed above his head.
“We were devastated to lose our top talent,” Reid says. “The decision to give permission for clubs to talk to the players and to sanction deals for them was made at Board level, so we had to focus on what we could influence.
“None of us wanted to lose our best talent, of course we didn’t, but we had to find a way of changing the narrative. So we used it as a recruitment tool - ‘we've developed these players to such an extent that the biggest clubs in the country want their signatures. We could do that for you too.’
“Them leaving was nothing to do with the environment at the Academy, it was the simple fact of where the club was at and the attraction of joining clubs of that stature.”
Sunderland continued to perform well at the younger age groups on Reid’s watch - “not only competing at U9s to U16s, but winning matches and tournaments” - yet it was at the older age groups that a chasm opened with the rest. Suddenly the bigger clubs were recruiting the best talent from England, Europe and further afield and the Black Cats were left behind.
IN AT THE DEEP END
Reid arrived at the Academy of Light in June 2018, having previously been Head of Recruitment and Administration at Eastleigh, the former club of chairman Stewart Donald.
His appointment raised eyebrows (including mine), as Reid had no previous experience in youth development, let alone at a Category One club.
“From the outside, it might have seemed a left-field appointment,” he admits, “but I would like to think there was a background that equipped me for the job.
“I’d been a player, an agent and a Head of Recruitment. The chairman knew me and understood that I had motivation, integrity and, hopefully, a degree of intelligence.
“I’d gone through a journey myself as a young professional and had just come off the back of completing a Masters in Sporting Directorship (he gained a distinction) and understood the framework of leadership in sport.”
His journey as a player was an interesting one and “greatly influenced the way I think about players”.
At the age of 17, Reid broke into the first team of his hometown club Carlisle (pictured), and attracted interested from Leeds United, Liverpool and Arsenal, before joining Glasgow Rangers for £600,000 at the end of his first senior season.
“I went from a streetwise kid at Carlisle to completely out of my depth in Glasgow,” he admits. “The experience taught me about the importance of a holistic approach to development - that there’s a lot more to consider than how someone is performing on the pitch, including their wellbeing.”
The centre-half didn't make a senior appearance during his two-and-a-half seasons at Ibrox, but went on to have a 20-year professional career for teams including Northampton, Scunthorpe and Barnsley.
He ended his playing days at Eastleigh and, after a brief stint as an agent, moved upstairs at the National League side. After that, Donald asked if he'd join him at his new club. As when he moved to Rangers as a young player, the switch to Wearside's sleeping giant was a massive culture shock.
The club had just gone through the turmoil of back-to-back relegations and its Academy had been placed into special measures.
“Fantastic club, fantastic Academy building, fantastic history of developing players and fantastic staff, but the realities of the challenge soon became apparent to me,” Reid remembers.
“There had been a lot of instability, with several different managers at first-team level and a couple of changes at Academy Manager, as well as a short period of time in which there was no Academy Manager at all.
“That meant decisions weren’t being made and that things weren't moving forward. The club had dropped down to the Championship and then League One and attention had been focused on the first team.
"The Academy hadn’t been seen as a priority”
The interim audit in 2018 had identified a lack of a vision and performance plan at the Academy, so this became a key priority for Reid and his staff.
“The first thing I did when I arrived was to ask the staff what the club values of the club and the Academy were,” he says. “No-one could tell me.
“So it wasn’t a case of amending the values or vision, it was a case of starting from scratch. It’s one thing to talk about these things, it’s another to actually implement them and live and breathe them across multiple departments.
“We spent a lot of time working on that and I was so proud of the staff that we managed to do it."
In February 2020, it was announced that the Black Cats had retained their top tier status.
“That was our biggest achievement - both as an Academy team as a whole and for me personally - to get that Category One status after the club had been put into special measures 18 months earlier. It was an unbelievable team effort."
Despite this accolade - achieved while reducing Academy operating costs by more than a fifth - results at U18 and U23 level remained the monkey on Reid’s back.
He asked people he respected for advice and tried to use lateral thinking to solve the problem, but to no avail.
“We looked at taking the U18s and U23s out of their respective leagues, because it was becoming counter-productive for both the staff and players to have them there, but we weren’t allowed to do that," he reveals.
"We looked at signing three experienced players, aged 33, 34, to help the young players around them. Brighton have done that with Andrew Crofts, but no-one has brought in three before.
"It’s easily said, but we didn’t manage to find the right players and people before lockdown. We needed experienced players who were willing to step away from first-team football into a coaching, mentoring and playing role and didn’t manage it.
“We also looked at getting players in from the Academies at Liverpool and Manchester City, where I have contacts, on work experience, but the clubs preferred their players to remain in-house or to get first-team football on loan.
“Everything we looked at, there was a barrier.”
Instead, he decided to “control the controllables” and focus on player development. This included sending some of Sunderland's best young players out on loan to gain first-team experience and essentially damaging the chances of his own teams.
“Despite the fact it would weaken the older age group squads, I wanted to send players out on loan for senior experience,” he says.
“One example was Jack Diamond, who helped Harrogate to gain promotion to the Football League last season. He would have been an obvious one to keep around the U23s to give us a better chance of winning games at that level, but we felt that for his development it would be better for him to get that loan experience.
“He will come back into the first-team squad now and be knocking on the door of the first team. I am absolutely delighted with that and think it vindicates the decision we made.”
The end of Reid's time at the club came in May.
“With the possibility of a takeover and a change in ownership on the horizon, I felt it was the right time to move on,” he says. “Myself and the chairman and (executive director) Neil Fox all have an excellent relationship and will continue to do so.
“If the chairman sells the club and moves onto another project then there would certainly be the possibility of working with him again.
"I've learnt a lot and am excited to take that knowledge into a new role”
Should he have accepted the job on the terms he did? Could he have pushed harder for more money for signings - or to keep his best players? Would he have been better holding onto players like Diamond instead of loaning them out?
Reid says he’s spent a lot of time asking himself the same questions and wouldn't have done anything differently.
The only thing he would have changed, in hindsight, was to be more clear with the fans and media about the pain that was to come for the U18s and 23s.
“If there is a point of learning,” he says, “it’s that I should have been more transparent at the start about the short-term pain we were going to have to endure.
“With the best of intentions, I came out and tried to defend the young players and say that the results at that level weren’t important. It got to the stage where we weren’t competitive and it was misconstrued as me not seeing that as important.
“I could have been more candid and said what was going to happen. I should have said 'there's going to be pain but the bigger picture is that we'll develop players capable of playing in the first team.' And I think that did happen.”