Ammanford AFC: A Hot Bed of Local Talent
With the emergence of TV deals and multi-million contracts in the British game in the last 20 years, footballers have been thrust into a world of fame and riches. Whilst the English game has become one of the most lucrative and appealing for the world’s top players, it would be easy to assume the comparatively smaller Welsh system would be comprised of mainly local talent, however that is not such the case for an abundance of teams. However, Ammanford AFC have gained a reputation for themselves of growing their own wood and Gruff Harrison is at the heart of this.
Having been a fierce competitor in the Welsh Premier League’s former League of Wales days, Ammanford have plied their trade in Welsh League Division 2 for the majority of recent years. Despite a recent slip into Division Three after a lost relegation battle with the FAW, they immediately returned to Division Two in a promotion winning campaign which included a 15 game win streak to start their delayed season. The man who masterminded this win streak? Gruff Harrison. And local youth is at the core of his principles.
“We have a starting Xl mainly of local players and have had one for the last few years due to the simple fact we have the quality within the town. It is very important to me to have a majority of the squad to be made up of players from the locality or trained within our junior set up.
This year we probably have more ‘outsiders’ than in years gone by which is not a problem as these are good people that have embraced the club and understand our values.
So in short, I believe that the importance of locality within the team is imperative to the ever lasting existence. I’m in love with the club and have been for 15 years as are a majority of my team. My players fathers’ played, their uncles, I have brothers in the team, their cousins, best friends, it’s a family. The heartbeat of the team. With this ethos we at least are breeding proud people who are willing to fight for the cause. The importance is massive for me. I have no problem or criticism for any other clubs doing things differently. But while I am manager of my hometown club this is the way we will always try and do things, if we get any success on the way it is a bonus!”
Whilst it is Harrison who preaches the use of their own youngsters, it may well be a club philosophy. Ammanford appointed Gruff Harrison as their manager in December 2012, after Craig Maloney stood down due to work commitments. Harrison was tasked with continuing the overhaul of the squad to see an ever growing emphasis on local talent. A bold move by the club, but thrusting their trust in and untried and untested 23 year-old, probably the youngest Welsh League managerial appointment in history, who has spent his life in Ammanford was exactly what they were asking Harrison to do. And in the long-term it has paid off.
“When I took the job to be the assistant of Craig Maloney, who I owe much to for where iam today, 6 years back. we both agreed from the offset that the club had to regain its identity first and foremost and in those first few moments we had a big clear out and we only wanted people that were going to at the very least fight for the club. We assembled a team of 95% local players, some making their Welsh league debuts or certainly in their infancy of their Welsh league footballing careers.
I have given over 30 debuts to players from our youth system and any players I have brought in I have given them every chance to embrace what we are about. For example 3/4 ‘outsiders’ within our starting Xl last week have been with us for over 2 seasons now and I like to think they Love the club as much as the next person.”
Despite their drop into Division Three, Harrison has stabilised the boys in black and white and after their promotion winning season, guided them to a fifth placed finish, ahead of the likes of Llanelli and Cwmamman United, whose squads are vastly less focused on youth talent it seems.
In their 19 competitive matches this season, the Ammanford first team squad has been made up of on average, 9.5 youth products. It is an impressive feat to achieve such an average whilst maintaining their respectable league standing, whilst maintaining the commitment of their players in spite of other clubs seemingly offering cash for players’ services. In every cup or league game this season, they have had a squad comprised of at least eight academy products and have ever had 11 youth products in their squad on no less than five occasions.
The stats make for impressive reading and this is merely taking into consideration the players who have been developed through the Ammanford academy system. However, the first team squad is also comprised of four other players who live in close proximity to the club, but merely didn’t come through their junior ranks.
In addition to the local senior players, the club has already included their younger prospects in the starting line-up. The primary youngsters on the fringes of the first team, Aaron Butler, Nich Arnold and Tim Chapman have accumulated 26 inclusions in the first team squad this season, in all competitions, with six starting appearances between them. With all three combining to make an average age of just 18 years old, Ammanford clearly have an eye on the future with these three prospects.
“I believe we have more than a dozen 18-21 year olds that with application can eventually break into the first team. I’m a big fan of our current U16’s and a few of them have already been training with the first team in preparation for their step up next year. I try to watch as many junior games as possible and the talent we have is great. From U6s up we are strong. I have to mention Alan Jones and the work he and the junior committee put in. Without him and his committee the conveyor belt would dry up. They are a credit to our club.”
Whilst the money may not be as present in the Welsh Leagues as it is in the comparative English divisions, it shows immense effort and commitment from the club and by Harrison’s coaching team to have developed and maintained a first team squad with a focus on local players. The ability to keep the players grounded and not tempted by the offer of pay from other clubs and other divisions shows the Ammanford and Harrison’s philosophy is clearly effective.
“The aim is to get as many Ammanford footballers into the first team and to do that the players are under no illusions they have to be better than who is in their position in the first team, we try to create a competitive flourishing environment. Not everyone makes the grade and some decide to move on and if that’s the case I always wish that they reflect on their time and hope they see an improvement in themselves.
I want to leave the club in better shape than when I started and leave a system that gives every first team hopeful every chance to try and fulfil their potential.”
Harrison and co are guiding the club to a healthy future provided they continue to follow the club’s motto and philosophy of the last four years.
“The Future Is Bright, The Future Is Black and White.”