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Crystal Palace aiming to entice local talent with new academy centre

Crystal Palace have revealed plans for a £20m academy centre they hope will make them the destination of choice for talent in the most fertile of breeding grounds for Premier League footballers, south London.

Sometimes called the Football Factory (or a “concrete Catalonia”), south London produced more than 14% of the English footballers in the Premier League last season. Others from the area – such as Jadon Sancho and Ademola Lookman – are forging impressive careers abroad. Palace consider themselves the “Pride of south London” but have yet to make the most of the diverse and hungry talent on their doorstep. This new facility is an attempt to change that.

The club are awaiting planning permission but revealed plans to local residents on Thursday. They involve developing playing fields in the suburb of Beckenham that have long belonged to London’s biggest banks. Where HSBC once played Lloyds, Palace will coach eight- to 18-year-olds, introduce Desso pitches (synthetic pitches with natural grass aesthetics), classrooms, lecture halls and a medical centre.

With these changes, the club hope they will move their academy from category two to the coveted category one status, becoming part of an elite English system that the chairman, Steve Parish, believes is “the best in the world”.

Why is south London so special? In Parish’s words it boils down to a dense population and the positive impact of immigration. “It’s a simple numbers game,” he said. “There are nearly a million people in just Bromley and Croydon. Croydon has Lunar House [a Home Office site that is headquarters to UK Visas and Immigration] and you get a lot of people from a lot of different cultures who have settled around there.

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“Football is at the heart of what everybody loves, what all young people love in that area. I don’t want to use the word poverty, but there’s a lot of working-class people struggling to try and get out of their situation and football is a way out. There’s a lot of hunger and desire.”

Parish sees the academy proposals as a chance to expand Roy Hodgson’s first-team options, proposing that within three years the current squad of 18-19 senior pros will be expanded to 25 by including academy graduates and development players (those around the age of 20) who have been brought into the club but are not yet ready for the top flight.

Though Parish insists he is not in the business of raising talents for other clubs, there is also the prospect that good academy graduates can fetch substantial transfer fees. Aaron Wan‑Bissaka is proof of that formula, after he joined Manchester United for £50m this summer.

“You can see with clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City they’ve got this long tail of talent, while our aspiration often isn’t even to get to 25 players, because if we’re buying elite talent we can’t afford it, quite frankly,” Parish said. “To have a 25-man squad would be a massive, massive plus.

“For managers there’s so many positives in bringing through young talent because they don’t expect to play. You can use them sparingly, you can bring them on and off, use them in the League Cup. That’s our aim. That’s as key to this as anything.”

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So the business case is clear (and Palace might kick themselves for not having adopted it sooner, with not only Chelsea but Millwall and Charlton doing their best to acquire south London talent). But Parish also speaks well on the pastoral side of academy work, echoing the belief now widely held in football circles that well-rounded young men make for better professional athletes.

“What you are seeing are different types of young men, not just different footballers,” he said. “How adept and mature these guys are is really impressive. Being thrust into the limelight at 19, 20 years old, it’s a lot more than just about football and you only really know what they’re made of when they step out in front of 26,000 people.

“That mental strength comes from a lot of places and for some of the boys in our care these aspects are as important as the coaching. Many of them have got all the footballing ability in the world but the only place they feel at home is on the pitch. The care that has been put in place, genuine care, is exceptional. We’ve got the best academy system in the world. We just want to be on that.”


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