How Do You Solve A Problem Like Junior Football? The PRIDE may have the answer…

Back in November, the British American Football Association announced changes to the age ranges across various levels of competition, including Junior (U19).

The move received mixed response, but the general consensus was that this was a superficial move, and unless other changes – whatever they may be – were forthcoming, the Junior landscape would continue it’s slippery slope downhill.

A graphic shared by BAFA officials that did little to calm those concerned with the state of U19 football.
A graphic shared by BAFA officials that did little to calm those concerned with the state of U19 football.

Too few teams around the country consider Junior, or even Youth (U17), football to be of any significance. Why bother, when Youth players can now graduate straight to Adult football?

So what options are there for our young athletes to progress naturally and steadily post-Youth football? One such option is that of South Gloucestershire and Stroud (SGS) College.

SGS, formerly Filton, offer top class facilities and opportunities. The PRIDE (Personal Responsibility In Developing Excellence) is the only school program of its kind in Europe. It has two full time coaches (along with one very dedicated volunteer) who get up to 16 hours face time with the team each week. This covers team meetings, gym, film review as well as practice. This time is worked into a 9am-6pm school day, Monday to Friday.

Unlike University teams, PRIDE students must maintain a 95% attendance in class and be up to date with all school work in order to play and train. At Youth, Junior and University football in this country there are no reprimands or suspensions for players based on their commitment to academics.

This is one of the major reasons I think that we have now had nearly 20 former players progress to the USA to continue their sport and education – Coach Ben Herod

Taking a look around the facilities available to the players, coaches and staff, they are on par with the major sporting universities such as Stirling, Loughborough and Birmingham. This includes a full sized 4G indoor and outdoor 3G training fields, changing rooms with ice baths, 2x full time sports therapists and a state of the art gym.

All student athletes have to be on a full time course, and be at least 16 years of age. They can choose from A-Levels and BTEC to Higher National Diplomas (HND), access courses and fast track degrees.

lion-w-shield-logotypeThe PRIDE is just a small part in a long line in very successful sports Academies at SGS. Rugby, basketball, golf, football, women’s football, cricket and table tennis teams were already national champions in Academy leagues.

SGS approached Coach Herod with the idea of running it in American Football in 2008. For the first few years it was just Coach Herod relying on Coach Pete Jones to volunteer his time for games to help. A little further along, and Coach Herod was lucky to have three exceptional graduated players to help in Dave Jennison, Shane Prosser and Daniel Maher. They now have the additional hands of Gary Gardiner to help with the lines as a volunteer, and have benefitted from assistance of interns such as Jack Lloyd, Josh Edwards and Dan Davies.

 

Such is the success of the programme at SGS, they have claimed some fairly impressive scalps during a short period of time, including victories over France, Holland and Great Britain. Incredibly, the PRIDE have never lost to a University team, despite having played many Premier sides, including a 22-12 victory over Swansea Titans back in November. In 2016, the PRIDE defeated Loughborough Students twice, Swansea Titans, Bath Killer Bees twice, Cardiff, Bristol twice, Exeter Demons, Bournemouth Bobcats and UWE Bullets.

Before withdrawing following the 2012 season, the PRIDE also won the DODDS Europe D1 Northern conference and twice made the DODDS D1 Semi Finals (losing both times to the eventual winners). They have long tested themselves against the best teams that would play them, including games against Canadian Prep Team Greendell (in Ireland at Shamrock Rovers Stadium), Kent Prep School from Boston, Hamburg Huskies of the GFL and even a friendly against the Tamworth Phoenix adult side.

The focus for Coach Herod is always on playing games that give the student athletes an opportunity to get game film that will help them get recruited.

We want to play games that American coaches will look at our opposition and see 11 guys on the field and 11 who look athletic. – Coach Ben Herod

The PRIDE do not compete in the BAFA National Leagues. Not only are they a school side, and therefore not aligned to the BAFA summer season, they also look to play 11 man ‘ball, rather than the BAFA stipulated 9-man at Junior level. However, Coach Herod and the other coaches at the PRIDE actively encourage their players to go back to their club teams and get more game experience during the summer.

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With Junior football struggling for a number of years, and with Coach Herod having a very different opinion of how Junior and Youth football should be played, the Bristol Academy Community League (BACL) was formed 5 years ago. Originally, all the teams were ran by the Bristol Academy of Sport (BAOS) themselves and have always had 11-man games in the older age groups. The set up was such a success, it has been replicated up north by Robbie Paulin of the Highland Wildcats, though on a smaller scale with 5-man football.

This year, the community league has lowered the age groups dramatically; removing the U21 age group to focus on U18 and U15. At points, the BACL has had as many as 225 members playing football. In the last year they welcomed both Swindon Storm and South Wales Warriors into the league and reduced the number of teams they ran accordingly. Including the players in the new squads, the numbers this year will be around 150-200 members across both age groups.

All of this has been achieved with minimal college funding. The college gives Coach Herod a small budget each year (though far less than most University programs) and most of Coach Herod’s job role over the last few years has been to bring to support the roles and what they do. There are other schools now out performing SGS in other sports using the same models because they can offer scholarships and housing such as Hartbury and Ivybridge, but no other school offering sports Academies has shown any interest in American Football. Furthermore, Coach Herod can not get lottery money as they work outside the NGB. That did change a year ago, but Coach Herod has not  submitted a lottery grant as they do not meet a lot of their criteria as in their eyes we are essentially a school team.

The PRIDE in action against Bath Killer Bees in 2016. Image courtesy of Bristol Academy of Sport. Image used with permission.
The PRIDE in action against Bath Killer Bees in 2016. Image courtesy of Bristol Academy of Sport (Flickr.com). Image used with permission.

The PRIDE currently have Josh Keys, Tom Samonig, Tom Clancy, Neville Jadel, Rory Jones, Cris Wasylciw, Orlando Victor, Kadel King and Max Charman in the USA as former students. This is on top of Alex Jenkins and Cameron Graham, who both came through BACL. Alex has just signed with an agent in preparation for the NFL Draft, and will work out in front of NFL scouts and coaches at the combine.

The likes of Samir Adrissi, Daniel Maher, Mitch Wilson, Jordan Crouch, Connor McPherson, Aston Richards and Tunde Akindele all completed their studies in the US. In terms of preparing players and providing them with a platform to progress in the sport, the opportunities presented by SGS/The PRIDE/BACL are unrivalled in the UK.

I fully expect that many more of this team will make the jump as well. We have also had Chris Green, Denzel Harmitt, Jack Verling and Dave Jennison move onto semi pro contracts in Europe and many all DC players including Idrissa Forfanna, Elliot McMahon, Thomas Campbell, Jordan Crouch, Dave Jennison and of course Ashley Hopkinson. – Coach Ben Herod

Not content with running the PRIDE and BACL, BAOS also run skill development camps where some of the best coaches in the country are invited down to help aid the development of any players that want to take advantage (something they will be doing again in 2017).

Later this Academic year, the PRIDE have a rematch versus France in Bristol (having beaten them on their own turf). This game will take place on 18 February, the same day as the trial for next years team. They then welcome Selwyn House from Canada in March and end the season against ‘Team Stars and Stripes’ in April. This is an all-senior, all-star team of Americans put together by Global Football. Not content with these fixture, the PRIDE also welcome into this we mix some friendlies against Cardiff, Brunel, Exeter and Bristol Universities.

Whilst Junior football is in the gutter across many areas of the country, it is absolutely thriving at the PRIDE and BACL. Which begs the question; why aren’t more sides up and down the country looking to replicate what Coach Herod has achieved with BACL?

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Rob Amor

Rob somehow fits Britball around a hectic life of work, newborns, and rare, blissful, moments of quiet in which to nap. Rob stepped down from the Birmingham Bulls committee at the end of 2016 and walked away after 10 years at the club. He leads DC's Adult league coverage and dabbles in a bit of BUCS. Follow him on Twitter - @RobAmorDC