The Ayr United Academy is now in its ninth season running as a separate entity from the club itself and over that short period of time, in terms of academies, it has come on leaps and bounds.
There is a great youth setup installed at the club, community programmes have brought the club closer to local residents and there are plenty of promising youngsters in the pipeline. The future is certainly looking promising for Ayr United and its Academy.
David White, Head of Youth and Football Development, caught up with me to discuss the forward thinking and innovative programmes being run which are creating such success at the Academy.
The ethos the Academy has adopted since it was formed has been to be a provider to the local community and, in terms of developing youngsters, the club wants to be able to offer youngsters somewhere to play football whether you are three or 15 years old looking to make it as a professional.
David White expanded further on the aims of the AUFA.“The general message is just about developing local players, for either to be part of our pro-youth set up or to be part of our community programmes. By doing this we are looking to become a community club and provide as much activity for the children and local people.”
Obviously choosing the route to become a community focused Academy has bonded the club to the local people.
“One of the reasons the academy was set up was to have a closer relationship with the community and our main objective is to engage with the community and to make sure we are out there in the community. The amount of activity we have brings us closer to the people and the club as there is more operational stuff happening.”
The main reason for this is the simple fact that there is more activity within the community and the Academy are providing a whole host of programmes to all age groups, from walking football for over 50s, to night leagues for kids in deprived areas.
However, White believes there is no single program which stands out as more successful than the rest as all are beneficial in their own way.
“Our community programme as a whole is the success. We have a good range of projects and there are now opportunities for everyone in the local area. We have social improvement projects, we are working with the national government bodies for example with mental health and men’s health classes. There is not one project that is labelling us as a success, it’s the range of projects we have and the reason we have that is because we want to engage with as many people as we can.”
The programmes that the Academy are providing to the community are highly inclusive and provide absolutely everyone with the chance to get involved in at least something. For example, the “Everbody active/ Children in need” programme provides football sessions for young people with a wide variety of disabilities. It currently runs in schools and the Academy are in the middle of setting up a disability football club.
Another operation that is highly laudable is the club's association with Community Jobs Scotland. This work placement scheme provides persons under 19 with employment at Ayr United FA for six to nine months. These can be in various roles from coaching to clerical and admin.
Looking at the pro-youth side of the Academy, a message is also delivered to the kids that Ayr United are developing and bringing through the ranks, and that is simply to enjoy themselves within a professional environment. “It’s about enjoying themselves, it’s about being professional, it’s about having standards and simply allowing the players to be themselves. There is a certain style that we want the kids to play but you have to let them be their own person whilst maintaining a passion to play for Ayr United.”
From delivering this simple but effective message to the kids, White agreed that the general standard of football has improved over the nine years that the Academy has been functioning which can be put down to adding a bit of structure to the set up.
“Initially when I first came here we only had three teams, and they were good teams, but now we are nine years down the line and run seven teams plus working with young players in the junior academy.
"We are seeing more players now, so that alone allows me to say the quality is better and the standards are better, so much so we have gained promotion to the Elite Initiative League which has contains the top 14 academies in Scotland. That for us is probably one of the biggest successes as it allows us to challenge ourselves against a better standard of player which then allows your players to get better.”
What comes with a positive message and professional structure at a football academy is success stories and the biggest one that stands out at Ayr United is Alan Forrest, younger brother of Celtic and Scotland star James. Forrest has progressed up through the Ayr United academy since joining from Celtic at the age of 13 and is now a first team regular and a tricky, exciting player to watch.
The hopes are that although Alan is doing a brilliant job with the club at the moment, he will move on to bigger and better things, which is a positive for Ayr as it goes a long way to proving the excellent work that is going on behind the scenes to develop positive, natural footballers.
There are a number of other players who have also progressed through the academy and signed professional contracts elsewhere - for example, Jackson Longridge has recently signed on at Livingston while Davie Mitchell, who played nearly 200 professional games for the club, is now at Dundee.
There is a steady stream of positivity flowing from Somerset Park in Ayr and White believes the next step for the pro-youth area is to get a young player to break into a national team and secure a big move. “We would just love to see one of our young players break into a national team and it would be great if somebody to get that big move.
"I think from the academies point of view and for the profile of the club and to promote what we are trying to achieve here it would be great to get a positive move away from Ayr Utd."
In terms of moving forward, although the Ayr United Academy is evidently in a good place at the moment there is always still room for improvement and a determination to maintain the high standards that have been set.
“We have to maintain the good standards", says White. "We are locked in for the next three years to be an elite academy and there is a lot of work going into ensuring to preserve our status as an elite academy once those three years are up. The other goal is to continue to drive forward the young players, to continue to deliver quality sessions to the kids and community.”
Ayr United have adopted the correct ethos and standards and it is driving them in one direction at the moment - and that direction is forward.