WITH much of the focus at St Neots Town on the club’s progression in the Southern League, little attention has been paid to what is going on behind the scenes at The Cozy Stadium. RICHARD HUGHES talks to Iain Parr and discovers the manager’s hopes for the future of a club he once played for as a youngster...
THERE are white boards full of squad lists in Iain Parr’s slim office at The Cozy Stadium. First team players like Dan Jacob, Ben Mackey and Adrian Sear are listed alongside youth team players like Tom Payne, Joe Parr and Jordan Brown.
No one player is any more important than another at the St Neots Town these days, since chairman Mike Kearns found a manager, on his doorstep, who is more than qualified to restructure the ambitious club – from top to bottom – and safeguard its future.
“Every kid has their own identity at St Neots Town – they each have their own squad number, they are all individuals,” says Parr, who talks as passionately about the club as its development officer as he does its first team manager.
Don’t forget the past – and those two successive titles under Dennis Greene – the focus now at St Neots is on the future: the future of the football club, the future of the town’s young footballers, and restoring its links with the community at large…
Kearns, of course, has been ‘banging on’ about this all season – but often to ears only interested in listening to his views on the first team. However, only the most selective of partisan supporter would fail to hear the passion in the manager’s voice when he talks of his plans and hopes.
Parr, the former Peterborough United youth coach, was named Greene’s successor during the summer. As I chatted to him, it quickly became obvious that Kearns’ recent words are more than just the bluster they are sometimes perceived to be.
“It is paramount for the future of the club that we have this scheme in place,” says the chairman when I ask for his thoughts on Parr’s behind-the-scenes work at the club’s Love’s Farm base.
“Our blueprint is to run our club on the most professional basis possible and our youth set-up is just one example of that.”
Prior to Kearns becoming actively involved with St Neots in early 2010, Parr had talked to the previous St Neots chairman John Delaney about restructuring the youth set-up, but his plans failed to excite at that time, and Parr continued with his coaching role at Peterborough.
When a second opportunity to sell the idea presented itself, Parr was no less enthusiastic and laid out his plans once again. This time his words weren’t so lightly dismissed.
“I met Lee Kearns [the club’s managing director and Mike Kearns’ son] and he asked me to have the same conversation with him,” he said.
“I told him that any kind of long term stability at any club has to come from the ground up. I put together a presentation and a syllabus using the knowledge that I have picked up over the years at Peterborough and other clubs I have coached at and from coaches I know.
“In pre-season we were in the process of talking to people when Dennis Greene left – so from my point of view I can now oversee the whole process from top to bottom.
“In a nutshell, my remit is to build up the youth side of things here, fill up the kids’ teams, and introduce educational programmes.”
With bridges between the club and community, perhaps not burned, but certainly charred, a rebuilding process is also in progress with the Lee Kearns working harder than ever to create links with local schools, colleges and other youth teams.
Unfortunately, this isn’t an easy job, and Parr acknowledges that it may be some time before relations are strong again.
“In the long term we need a core of home grown players and I think you need that core to get the community thing back. The kids going into the 16s and 18s will be more local – and in the education side of things, that will be open for young local players too.
“Two or three local players might make the first team but you have given other kids opportunities and an education along the way.
“We have a massive amount going on here.”
Parr thinks it will take three to five years to fill up the age groups with players of a certain quality. Competition is part of football, of course, and there will be times when youngsters are left disappointed – but it was always thus in a game that thrives on finding the next big names: the next Messi, Ronaldo or Lewis Hilliard.
In the meantime, says Parr: “It is important to have experienced first team players in place to help the younger lads.”
The club are currently running six youth teams. There is an under-13s team competing in the Hunts 9v9 League, and another under-13s team playing its football in the Cambs & District League. Also in the Cambs League are under-14s and under-15s teams, while another under-15s team is playing in the Eastern Junior Alliance League. Then there are the under-18s: they play in the Ridgeons Youth League.
There is also a fledgling under-21s team which the club hope will mature next season and bridge the gap between youth and first team football. That team had a game against Maidstone at the club on Monday night.
There are plans in place already for next season when there will be further teams – under-8s, 9s, 10s and 16s – all added to the roster.
“There is a natural progression at any football club but we are still mindful that everyone needs to play and it won’t be a case of fielding the strongest team every time – we will be rotating teams fully,” says Parr.
“Sometimes the strongest players aren’t the players that develop. Even so, now we have an under-21s squad which will be more prominent next year with more regular games because some players haven’t developed by even then.
“It used to be a case of players reaching 16 and then a decision was made. It was a case of ‘see you later’, and then those players would haunt you, popping up at the likes of Ipswich and ending up at Man United. People would say ‘why did you let him go?’ – ‘well, because he had a growth spurt and lost all his coordination and we thought he was rubbish.’
“But with modern coaching skills and technology that has all changed.”
There are current ties with Huntingdon Regional College and Tresham Academy in Northamptonshire, and there have been approaches from a number of professional clubs, including Peterborough, Cambridge United and Norwich City, the latter sending two teams to St Neots recently for games on the club’s 3G pitch. The Premier League club’s coaches were very impressed with the infrastructure.
But Parr is determined that any link with an outside institution doesn’t result in a dilution of his and St Neots’ influence.
“Whoever we deal with I am mindful that I want contact time with our players and their coaches,” he says. “We are in the process of talking to service providers and FA tutors and funding people just to see how we can make that happen in the future.
“It may take a year or two years but we could potentially offer our 16s an apprenticeship with a programme being delivered by the correct people.
“We had Norwich here which was fantastic and the head of recruitment at the club said to us ‘don’t speak to anybody until you have spoken to us’ – so already we are seeing what happens there.”
It’s all inspirational stuff – and it’s difficult to imagine the club’s previous manager being so passionate about another team under the one he so dramatically led to those two successive promotions. But Parr, who is a UEFA B licence qualified coach, has already taken part one of the A qualification, and he will be at a youth game on the Sunday, whatever his first team duties were on the Saturday.
Recently, the manager had an operation, so had time off from his day job (yes, he has one of those too) and was able to get through a ‘hit list’ of tasks that had built up.
He enthuses as he talks me through this hit list. He ticks off the jobs one by one.
“It does take up a lot of time and I have to balance it because I have a young family and a business to run,” he said.
But, Parr, who is 44 and remembers playing for St Neots as a kid himself at the old Shortsands ground, adds with a smile: “I have an understanding wife and it’s like anything you enjoy – you just do it because you love it.”
● The club are currently looking for players and coaches with new teams being added to the roster for next season.
There are currently 13 volunteer coaches working hard to develop young players at the club – but Iain Parr says he wants to hear from anyone keen to lend a hand. The current coaches are Terry Sargeant, Grant Ager, Zayal Gray & David Wilson (Under-14s); David Naylor, Ben Cook & Jon Stump (Under-14s); Darren Fairbrass, Matt Rivers, Reg Upton, Mark Whammond, Pete Fairbrass & Michael Rae (Under-15s).
Coaches interested in helping out in the younger age groups should be minimum level 1 and looking to progress on FA youth modules 1, 2&3 and possibly FA level 2. Coaches who want to get involved with the under-16s and 18s should have a minimum UEFA B licence. For more information email email@example.com