Tooting & Mitcham United – a hot bed for talented young local players
It is always a proud moment for any non-league club to see one of their academy players sign a professional Football contract; so imagine having 3 of the academy securing deals within a few just weeks of each other. Tooting & Mitcham United last week announced that academy players Isaiah Jones, 20, Samuel Folarin, 18, secured professional contracts at Championship club Middlesbrough after successful trials earlier this year, while Abraham Odoh, 18, signed a permanent deal at Charlton Athletic after a very successful 3 month trial. The news of the deals begs the question, why is Tooting & Mitcham a hot bed for talented young players?
In the summer of 2018, Chairman Steve Adkins made the brave move of promoting joint managers Ashley Bosah and Cornelius Nwadialor to the first team, as well as keeping their coaching duties within the under 23s and the academy. They were also joined by long term serving player turned coach Jordan Wilson, to operate in a dual assistant manager role and player/coach. The news did raise eyebrows amongst some fans, however the chairman was insistent that the pairs experience in the academy and the policy to bleed young players up to the first team was the most sustainable way for the club.
The coaching team of Ashley, Cornelius and Jordan have seen the players grow from the academy at the club to the professionals they now are and reflect proudly on their accomplishments. Cornelius highlighted the coaching team’s passion for youth development and how the recent news has underlined their hard work as well as the players.
“It is a massive achievement from everyone involved at the club, we are really chuffed with it. We have wanted to see something like this since managing the development and the under 23s; it has always been an aspiration of ours to achieve seeing players come through the ranks”
The club has had his ups and down over recent years from a cup winning season to a relegation, but the coaching team believe, with the backing of the chairman, promoting young players within the academy through the first team is an exciting project.
“I think it kind of suits us now that is doesn’t always work, as some clubs that may try it and they fail it would be seen as going against their club way. With our involvement with the youth, we have played them in friendlies, cup games so we get to see their temperament in that environment and of course we know Isiah inside and out now. There is always a risk playing the younger players, as you don’t know what they are going to give you on the day and whether anxiety is going to take over”.
Ashley highlights the club’s locality aligned with the talent in south London as just 2 of many factors behind the success of the young players at the club.
“Locality helps, players can get here easily and also the fact that south London has always had a pool of talented players. There is definitely an element of bravery from the coaching team to put them out there. It is an element of developing the players and not taking them out of the team as soon as they make mistakes, but coaching them to show how they could of played it differently in those situations. It may cost us a match, points or even a cup which we have experienced as part of the risk”
Fellow coach and first team player Jordan Wilson has coached the players from the start and said he tried to use his own experience in being in the Charlton Athletic academy 10 years ago to give advice to the players.
“I think we (coaching staff) can relate to the players that come to the club, not saying it was terrible but it wasn’t always easy ( growing up in ht surrounding areas) and I think that helps us understand the players as well as them understanding us. We don’t mind having chat with them, staying late and at times boring them to death but I think it works. If they take in 10% of what we say in, then I feel we have done our jobs. I went through the academy system from 9 through to 18; I understand the importance of your coach understanding the player. When I was at Charlton, I was a young and aggressive kid that was fast, skillful and would score goals but I played on the edge and would like to fight, the coaches didn’t really get me and I wasn’t really managed in that environment. All 3 of the lads are technically all good enough to play at this level, it is just that mental side of living like a professional that is the key for them now”
The oldest of the 3 academy players Isaiah Jones, had previously had a trial with Charlton Athletic back in 2018 and despite the club showing interest in him, Isaiah felt it was not the right time for him. It was this season that Isiah really made an impression in the first team which ended the season with 10 goals as well as showcasing some breathtaking performances on the wing at the Imperial Fields ground. Isiah also made the Bostik team of the year, and claims it was a discussion with first team coaches after Charlton showed interest for the second time that
caused him to re-evaluate his approach to Football.
“I think it was after a meeting I had with Jackie (club secretary), Ashley, Cornelius and Jordan about how Charlton came in for me again, and Jordan gave me advice saying you are too good to be playing at this level with the ability I had. I knew I had the ability, but I have to admit I wasn’t consistent with my ability, at times I was lethargic and it got to a stage in the season where I didn’t really care about Football as much. I don’t know what the reason was, I just didn’t care as much. After that meeting though, it gave me points to push my game more and be more consistent on a week to week basis, in training and in all the matches. I have to admit the advice I got from the coaching team was very good, and look at me now I am a professional Football player. This is just the start though; I still got to graft more and try to get to the first team”.
Isaiah will be joined by fellow academy player and good friend Samuel Folarin in Middlesbrough, who didn’t make as many first team appearances in the first team as Isaiah, however caught the eye in the 20 games he did play. Sam admits that when he joined the Tooting & Mitcham academy at 16, he saw Football as more of a hobby.
“I can’t lie, at first I wasn’t dedicated to Football, I just came playing and thinking this is just a hobby as I just don’t think I saw my potential. It was the coaches who said to me that I am actually a really good player; and what really inspired me was that the coaches telling me that this ‘hobby’ can change my life and my parent’s life. It really had me thinking that I don’t want to be staying on Old Kent road, where I live my whole life but living life and be financially free, although I am not saying money is the reason that motivated me, but the chance to earn good money, live a good life and play Football which I like, then why not?”
The young players have had to go a more unconventional route to the professional game via non-league Football, similar to that of the clubs most famous export Michail Antonio, now at West Ham Uninted. Isaiah felt his time in non-league has benefited his game.
“I think the route (non-league) is good, for me I was in the first team at 18 so I could show my talent against older players and see how physical you have to be. I feel, for the next 10 years is the best route in my opinion”
Jackie Watkins, club secretary claimed when she would speak to the clubs after the trials, a lot of then found the players played differently from those based in club academies.
“Since the players have been on trial, they say the one thing the clubs say is that the one thing the lads have from here is a natural flair. When Isaiah went to Middlesbrough, they said he lit up the pitch and brought a new spark to the team. I think a factor is that they haven’t had the academy training, where a lot of known to drill that out of you and you were allowed to express yourself. The coaches here allow them to play their own game, then try to coerce you into being a better player within your own talents”
Jordan believes the non-league route is a more realistic route for players in the local area.
“For players in the area, joining our club is likely to be more realistic route. With the facilities that we have here, and if you want to play Football you have got everything here, with the current coaching team and their backgrounds they are well placed to coach the players we attract. We watched Abraham at Charlton earlier this season, you just knew he has got something these other lads haven’t got. They play a certain way but when you step into the men’s game and non-league you can express yourself but you are getting smashed every week. To go and play against your own age group, it just feels easier. For me, he looked head and shoulders above the other players on the pitch”
With the exits of Isaiah, Sam and Abraham looming, the hard work continues for the coaching team to work with the youngsters at the club to find the replacements; while giving themselves a well deserved pat on the back. The future is bright for all 3 players and with Tooting & Mitcham putting in the work they are, don’t be surprised to see more come through the gates at the Imperial Fields ground in the coming years.