Billy Russell and Neil Mann: the double-act developing Hull City's next generation
Hull City reporter Philip Buckingham talks to Billy Russell and Neil Mann about Hull City’s youth development programme ...
BELIEVE the hype and a glorious new dawn has broken across English football this week. St George's Park, built at a cost of £105m, stands as the Football Association's towering monument in a revolution designed to transform the game on these shores.
At domestic level, too, the winds of change are blowing a gale. Twelve months after the Football League agreed to the Premier League's Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP), a move that promised to overhaul youth development, the aftershocks continue to be felt up and down the country.
And keeping their balance in these times of flux are Hull City.
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Led by the fiercely-committed double act of Billy Russell and Neil Mann, the Tigers are finding their place within English football's new framework.
Together, the long-serving pair have amassed 31 years of service with City – most notably as caretaker manager, coach and player – but this, you suspect, has been their greatest challenge yet.
The central aim, to produce youngsters capable of playing first-team football, remains untouched. But the first introductions to EPPP last October represented a watershed moment in youth development.
As well as stripping back the compensation packages owed to a selling club, all the Premier League's big guns are again free to scout in East Yorkshire following the abolition of the 90-minute rule.
Gone, too, is the two-tier system of academies and schools of excellence, and in its place stands a re-designed four-tier academy structure.
An initial audit submitted to the Football League has seen City fall in line with Category Three Academy status. A full audit pencilled in for June 2013 should confirm that standing next summer.
It is a source of frustration that City are not higher in the pyramid.
Five Championship clubs have provisionally earned Category One status, while a further 14 have achieved Category Two criteria. That leaves just the Tigers and four other clubs in the Championship (Blackpool, Watford, Burnley and Peterborough) unable to attain either of the top two categories.
For City, it has not been for the want of trying.
Supporting Russell and Mann are a further seven full-time members of staff and a network of 15 part-time coaches. Together they oversee the development of over 130 youngsters aged between eight and 18, as well as running five development centres and spending time in schools across Hull and East Yorkshire.
But City are forever hamstrung by their facilities, because without a 3G pitch or an indoor training centre, City fall short of the requirements needed.
"It's looking like we'll be a Category Three Academy unless the facilities were to change in the next year or two," explained head of coaching Mann, sat alongside academy manager Russell.
"I'm sure it's something the club would like to do in the future but it all comes back to the facilities. There's a big jump between Two and Three.
"We're not far off in a lot of areas, like contact time and coaching, but things like having an indoor facility and a 3G pitch let us down."
Funding would also need to be ramped up. While the recommended budget guidelines for Category One and Two are £2.3m and £1.5m respectively, it is just £500,000 for a Category Three Academy.
There is a significance to the category system that goes beyond a badge of honour.
While Yorkshire rivals, such as Leeds, Huddersfield, Sheffield Wednesday, Sheffield United and Barnsley all participate in the Professional Development League at under-18s and under-21s level as Category Two clubs, City's rookies play in the Football League Youth Alliance North East Conference against Burton, Grimsby and Lincoln.
"It would be disrespectful to suggest we are any better than any other team but everyone in youth development wants to play at the highest standards," said Russell.
"Would you like to play against Leeds, the Sheffield clubs, Man City, Man United? Of course you would. Because of the facilities we've got, and subsequently, the grading, that's not something we're able to do.
"It's not all about results but we took our under-16s to Aston Villa this season and won. We played Man United last season and it was 2-2. It would be great to have those opportunities every week."
Although lovingly maintained, City's youth development site on County Road North is a far cry from St George's Park.
The immaculate pitches will rival the new base for English football but a humble building, consisting of offices, changing rooms, a recreation area and classroom, underlines the gross lack of investment from the Premier League era.
Talk of a state-of-the-art training facility at Melton was first aired in 2009 but, short of taking out a lease on the land, the plans never got off the ground.
"There was an opportunity missed, no doubt at all," said Mann.
"To have had that one central training ground, where everyone would be based, should have been a no-brainer. For whatever reason, it didn't happen and the consequences of those decisions will affect us for the next few years.
"Quite right," added Russell. "The club missed a big opportunity, but also the whole community missed out.
"The wider net, with all the kids in the area, aspiring to have somewhere to go and train, they're the ones who have missed out too."
The Allam family, City's current owners, attempted to address the problem with plans for a sports village alongside the KC Stadium 12 months ago, but those ambitious blueprints have seemingly been shelved in the face of resistance from Hull City Council.
What the Tigers lack in the facilities of their rivals, they make up for in the enthusiasm of their staff.
Thirteen years after all youth development funding was pulled, as City battled financial troubles at the turn of the century, Russell and Mann have built up a proud empire from the rubble.
Tom Cairney, Mark Cullen, Will Atkinson and Liam Cooper all played Premier League football for the Tigers, while Danny East, Sonny Bradley and Conor Townsend have more recently bounced on to the first-team scene.
EPPP's admirable ideals promise more will follow. Greater contact time with 15 and 16-year-olds can now see them granted time out of school to take part in club activities six days a week.
The threat of poachers has also noticeably heightened in the last 12 months but Russell believes the Tigers can still keep up with the Joneses.
"If you'd have come and seen the youth set-up 13 years ago, this would have been utopia," he said.
"We have made giant strides as a football club in the last decade, but we know we always have to keep improving.
"It's not all about facilities, though, it's about people. You can't not go to some of these clubs and look at their facilities and not be envious, but at the same time we have clubs that come here and appreciate what we've got here.
"Having the best facilities helps but we're very proud of the staff we've got here."
EPPP is transforming the landscape on which they stand, but the youngsters honing their skills at County Road North continue to fill Russell and Mann with hope. In that sense, nothing will ever change.