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Welcome Festival helps our U9s progress

Youngsters introduced to football through Premier League festival

6 October 2017

Thomas Kabza, 8, comes off Pitch 6 at Warwick University frustrated that his Reading team have lost to Manchester United. The feeling is made stronger by the fact that Thomas is a big Manchester City fan but it is tempered by his excitement at playing in the Premier League Under-9 Welcome Festival.

Furthermore, Stoke City are waiting on the adjacent pitch for the next game in five minutes so there is no time to dwell on the defeat.

Marcus Herron, Reading’s Foundation Phase coach, explains the holistic appeal of this welcome to the world of nationwide academy football as Kabza runs off to restart the action.

“It is a brilliant day, the boys get loads of football,” Herron, 24, a UEFA B coach, says. “They play lots of different teams, especially northern clubs who they do not get to play in the games programme.

“It is a good day for the parents as well because they get to come down, watch loads of games, get involved in the workshops and find out more on what the academy programme is about.

“For us, it is about seeing the boys in a different environment in a tournament. Even though it is not competitive, they want to beat the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea. It is a fantastic day for everyone.”

Kabza, hailing from Oxford, idolises Raheem Sterling because the City playmaker is “very fast and skilful”. “A tournament like this is going to help me become a better footballer,” he says.

He speaks excitedly about staying overnight with his team-mates on the eve of the action at Warwick University. They could not rest initially.

“When my friend was talking to me in the night, I just told him to go to sleep,” he says with a smile.

Agnieszka Kabza, 32, points out the previous night had provided her with a challenge, as well as her son. “Me as a parent, that was kind of weird, because I’ve never stayed away from him, and he’s never stayed away from me,” she says.

“But as a parent I wasn’t worried about that because you want your child to be a bit independent. I found out he was OK away from me so that was fine.

“It makes him grow up a bit quicker, which is partly sad, because you want them to be kids longer, but that was also good.”

Herron recognises that this kind of event will help the young players develop, however long they stay in the academy programme.

“For me, a lot of it is about learning about the boys,” he says. “Especially with the overnight stay, learning how they cope with that, being away from home and having to grow up a little bit earlier.

“Hopefully, they all go on to have successful lives, whatever that may be and hopefully we would have played a part in that with our development at Reading.

“That might be as a professional footballer, but it might not. It might be as a lawyer or a banker or a doctor. That is just as important to us as the footballing side. We have to develop good people as well as good players.”

Thomas’ mother is impressed by the Premier League’s caring approach while wishing to take nothing away from her son’s aspirations.

“At the moment, he is a big dreamer,” she says. “He says he is going to be a big footballer in the future. I’m trying to balance it. The Premier League and Reading care about their schooling as well so it’s good.”

Herron jokes: “I did say on the inventory to bring teddy bears but we didn’t have any!”

But he adds “the boys were great - went to bed on time, ate really well too.

“I think it is nice for the parents to know that they are comfortable doing that and they can be independent and away from them for a night. It is a good experience all round.”

Neil Saunders, the Premier League’s head of youth, watches on from the touchline, enjoying the technical excellence on display among the 546 players from the 29 clubs divided into 53 teams. Each game is competitive in its own right, but there are no league tables.

“A big focus for us is the holistic development of the player, so making sure that, yes, we develop and educate them on the pitch, but also give them opportunities to grow and develop as young boys,” Saunders says.

“So coming to stay away from home, from mum and dad, for the first time is a small step and a small part of that as they move through the academy.

“What’s great at these tournaments is when you see the great skills the boys have on the pitch, it’s easy to think they’re older than they actually are.

“But when we return to the hotel, they’ve all put their onesie pyjamas on and you realise they are 8 and 9.

“Having their mums and dads here today does add reassurance for them so while it’s a new experience for them, they do have some comfort as well.”

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