Elliot Dickman has worked at the Academy of Light since it opened over 15 years ago, and he has seen it all.
Now, his task is to develop the club’s Under-23s players and get them into the first-team picture, but the process of getting the young academy stars into the senior set-up is a long one, and it begins in pre-season.
“Pre-season was really good," he said. The lads came back full of energy and fully recovered for the season ahead, and the programme we put together worked really well.
“For whatever reason, when the season started - whether it was due to other teams having older squads or having more experience - and we found it difficult.”
The key to development for young players is training. Yes, playing games is vital, but a young player develops their skills every day at the training pitch.
“From a training perspective, the lads have been terrific, and the improvements have been there even if the results have not showed it. Hopefully, next season we will be better for what they have experienced this year.
“It has been tough, but in football that can make you stronger. It is still a development programme and I have been very fortunate to be able to watch the lads develop and change from day one to where we are now.”
That development is epitomised by several graduations of Under-23s players to the first team this year, something that Dickman is delighted with.
“The main thing is that we have had Benji Kimpioka, Denver Hume, Jack Hackett, Lee Connelly, Jack Bainbridge, Bali Mumba and others getting in and around the first team, and it is fantastic for them. That is a huge plus – sometimes we don’t realise that. We lose on the Monday, but the players are developing and are breaking into the first-team squad.
“From an academy perspective, seeing players graduate into the first team is what it is all about. Personall, do I want to win games? Yes. Do I want to win trophies? Yes. But it is not about me, it is about the players.”
One of the club’s brightest prospects, Bali Mumba, was in and around the first team despite starting the campaign as a 16-year-old, and Dickman believes that it will be crucial to his development.
“Bali was in the first team at the start of the season and there is no doubting his quality, but he needed time to develop, as it is first full season in the building as a player and he is still only 17.
“He has had a year in the Under-23s, and next season, we will have a look at him and see what sort of level might benefit him to go and play senior football. After a couple of years of playing Under-23s football, you need to go on loan and play first-team football, but there are individual circumstances for all the lads.”
One thing that the Academy has done this season is promote players through the ranks and have them play against older players.
"We do that quite well with the younger ones, as we try to get the players playing above their age group.
“That means the progression and the challenge is always there for the players. So, we are quite keen to make sure that it continues.”
On the pitch, the team struggled in the league but did pick up four victories in the Premier League Cup.
“We had quite a decent run in the Premier League cup," he continued. "I was quite pleased with some of our performances. Stoke were a bit of a bogey-team for us but we played Charlton, Peterborough and we had good performances there.
“It is chalk and cheese, the budgets between some academies and ones like ourselves, but our thing is to get the local lads into the first team, and if not, then get them playing professional football.
“It sounds really simple that the players just need to train well and play well, but we want them to be happy and enjoy what they are doing.
"We want them to know that they need to be disciplined and we drive that as a staff, but to be fair to the players, they have bought into it and they deserve a lot of credit for that."