Great article in the Athletic on our London Recruitment


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Saturday afternoon in the north London postcode of N22: on White Hart Lane a steady stream of fans make their way to see Tottenham Hotspur versus Nottingham Forest in the Premier League. Their path takes them past the New River Sports Centre where, unknown to all, a third major English club — who may be in the Premier League again next season — is studying a different kind of football.


On fenced-in Astroturf, the teenagers of the MG Elite academy are pushing themselves in intense five and six-a-side matches of short duration and snappy competitiveness. Watching approvingly from behind netting is a man called Martin Carter.

The exhaustive nature of modern scouting means we may be only slightly surprised to hear that over the past four years one club in England has taken 14 boys from London’s grassroots, from scenes such as Saturday’s in N22. What will raise eyebrows is that the club is Middlesbrough, 250 miles away in the north-east.

Carter, 42, is Boro’s head of academy recruitment. He has forged this policy, set up a network of connections that sees Middlesbrough represented in London’s non-League at clubs such as Tooting & Mitcham and Kingstonian FC, at the growing number of private academies in the capital and on plain old-fashioned park pitches — Carter was due at Hackney Marshes on Sunday morning to watch one promising 15-year-old.

“London,” Carter says, “is a hotbed of young players.”

It is a phrase long-familiar in the north-east — Arthur Appleton wrote Hotbed of Soccer about the area in 1960 — and Boro’s home region remains the club’s scouting priority.

But, on one particular visit to London, the explosion of talent north and south of the River Thames over the past decade hit Carter and his impression this could benefit Middlesbrough has been supported by the club.

One Londoner who went to Boro, via a more circuitous route, was of relevance on Saturday. Djed Spence was scouted by Carter, signed by Boro, loaned to Nottingham Forest and sold to Tottenham. The initial £14million ($17million) Middlesbrough received for Spence may not vindicate the entire London-Boro idea, but it helps.

Following Spence was Isaiah Jones, from Tooting & Mitcham. So, too, Sam Folarin. Pharrell Willis and Bryant Bilongo bring the number of London-scouted Boro first-team debutants to five. There will be others.


But Boro’s longer-term project is also to recruit for their academy, to bring London boys into their Teesside system and numbers 15 and 16 will be along soon.

This is Boro’s London boroughs.

Martin Carter first joined Middlesbrough FC when he was 12 years old in 1993. He comes from Trimdon, 15 miles away. He was always a dedicated Boro supporter. Thirty years on, those early days at the club in the 1990s may seem of questionable significance, but Carter explains why they are not.

“I was just a steady-away player as a young boy,” he says. “Then overnight, aged 12, I changed into a man. People would talk about my sudden improvement on the pitch, how quick and strong I was.

“But it was because I’d hit puberty earlier than other boys. Developing physically breeds confidence and I had a great couple of years — interest from Preston, Portsmouth, Southampton, then Manchester United. But I’m a Middlesbrough fanatic and I signed for them at 12.

“I was OK, but my early maturation and early physical performance has made me understand why I didn’t progress. As a scout you should be looking at potential over performance. It’s given me an understanding of identifying what players could be, not what they are.”

Carter’s personal experience and his understanding of it fed into his work when he rejoined Middlesbrough, first in their newly-opened developments centres around 1998, then as a youth coach and scout under the leadership of club legend Ron Bone.

“I was coaching but I quickly drifted away from that to identifying players,” Carter says, “Ron was very good, he’d give you licence.”

Carter moved onto the staff in 2000 and Boro continued to generate first-team players from Teesside and the north-east — before Steve McClaren left to manage England, there was his famous last Middlesbrough Premier League game in 2006 when he selected 10 local players in his starting XI at Fulham. The five substitutes were also from the region.


In Michael Carrick’s team today there are places for Dael Fry, from Middlesbrough, and Hayden Hackney, from Redcar. On Saturday in Tottenham Carter was delighted to pass on that Sonny Finch, 17, had been selected by Carrick on the bench at Swansea. Finch got on for four minutes, his league debut. He comes from Easington Lane, north of Middlesbrough and Carter first brought him to Boro when he was 12.

“That’s brilliant,” Carter says. “I’m so chuffed for him.”

So Teesside and the north-east continues to produce players capable of making the club’s first XI. But there are salient facts as to why Carter was relaying his happy news in Tottenham: Teesside’s population is approximately 400,000, which is around the same size as London’s largest borough, Croydon. The north-east as a whole has 2.6million people; London’s metropolitan population in 2022 was 9.5million.

These demographics and the developments and demands of the academy system have challenged and do challenge Middlesbrough as a club. They have a category one academy, which places them in the same tier as Chelsea, the Manchester clubs and Liverpool — whom Carter refers to as “super-clubs”.

Boro are not a super-club. They have to compete while knowing they cannot compete, especially when it comes to signing talented teenagers. A club of Boro’s resources may have one or two exceptional boys in any given year group — Chelsea and Manchester City will have 15. Those 15 mean the standard of training and matches is constantly high.

The unfortunate reality for other clubs is that their one or two talents need pushing and if the boys around them do not hit a certain standard, then the talent is not pushed up through the levels.

Such thoughts were on Carter’s mind when he attended England vs Croatia in November 2018 in the Nations League.

“Believe it or not,” he laughs, “my little girl was mascot for England at Wembley and the night before the game we were walking around London and my brain was ticking over. I was just struck again by the vastness of the place and the population and its make-up. The difference from the north-east was clear.

“The grassroots scene on Teesside has always been strong and it still is. What has an effect is the academy programme. If you’re a category one academy with a full-time programme, you can recruit nationally, you can ‘host’ players from under-14. But you’re up against the best clubs in the country and the finance of these super-clubs. It’s impossible to compete against. In a one-off game we can, but not in the long run.

“Unfortunately you have to take others as a vehicle for your better players and because of the standard at category one, they find it difficult to develop. So if you find a Hayden Hackney on Teesside, you have to complement him with players who will raise his bar.

“You can do that on Teesside; however, you do need players to drive the programme. You cannot take players now with less potential as bodies to help your programme; because the calibre of the programme is so strong, they fall short. So it doesn’t help your better players. It’s not fair to either party.

“So I had to start thinking outside the box about how to help the programme and move the recruitment department on. I always had a high regard for our coaches and thought if we could bring in more physical potential, I was certain our environment could develop players outside our demographic. But how would we do it?”

In London that night, Carter saw an answer.

“I got it into my head that there was an opportunity there. People at the club got on board. I said to myself I’d give it six-12 months to make inroads. You can’t just go down randomly, you have to establish links and relationships, trust.

“I did some research, trying to find which clubs and leagues feature young players. If you go too high in the pyramid they don’t play younger players because there’s too much pressure on results; if you go too low, the standard ain’t great. I remember seeing the Bostik South Central League (the seventh tier of English football) and I managed to make inroads with clubs.

“The first game I was invited to was Tooting & Mitcham vs Uxbridge. After five minutes I’d already seen Isaiah Jones. He was 19, raw, but he had this ability to run at defenders and come away with the ball. He had speed and bravery. So you can look at the league and think, ‘Yeah, this isn’t great,’ but you’re not looking at the league, you’re looking at the player. You’re looking at potential.

“We actually invited the Tooting coaches, Ashley (Bosah) and Cornelius (Nwadialor) up to the training ground. Great guys, so enthusiastic. I wanted to show them our environment so they could see what we could do. They loved it and watched Tony Pulis take training.

“I then watched them train and I saw Sam Folarin. He was the quickest I’d ever seen. He had his deficiencies but he’d been a late starter. At the end of that season we signed Isaiah and Sam and they both made first-team debuts.”

Middlesbrough were already benefitting from one previous London signing — Spence.

“I was watching a Youth Cup game at Huddersfield, where I was checking on a player,” Carter says. “They were playing Fulham and I was blown away by the athletic prowess of their right-back — Djed Spence. He just caught the eye, but also with his tactical deficiencies and reactive rather than proactive tendencies.


Djed Spence spent time on loan at Nottingham Forest before joining Tottenham and, after a lack of first-team opportunities, is now on loan at Rennes (Photo: Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images)
“I looked him up and thought if I ever got the chance to get him here, I’d jump at it. At the end of that season Fulham were not extending his contract and we got him here the next Saturday, played him against Wolves in the under-18s and against Newcastle on the Monday, and we signed him. Obviously a lot went on after that with our coaching staff, but we’ve taken a raw diamond and turned him into a polished one.”

Middlesbrough won on the pitch and off it financially with Spence and, by then, the Boro-London connection was in full flow.

Carter began to think about the next phase: “Izzy (Jones) was 19, Djed was 18, so I wondered if we should go a bit lower age-wise.

“I wasn’t going into clubs. I was looking at the grassroots, private academies. For example, there’s a park in Lambeth with so many games on it, like the old recs (recreation grounds). The smell of it, the enthusiasm, the football, all of it was just excitement. I was tipped off about a game but the standard was so loose, kids just enjoying themselves. Then I saw a couple of moments from a player — so brave, technical — but he didn’t overly exert himself. And he was small, a dot. But I loved his way with the ball, his potential. It was a boy called Pharrell Willis. He made his debut against Blackpool in November.

“I love him to bits, great personality, but he ain’t easy! He’s always asking questions. He could really shine, he has elite capabilities. But he needed time when we brought him in; he played against Everton and everyone was unsure. But I was saying we had to wait, let him grow into his body. He’s got individual brilliance, but they didn’t see it for another two years. I’m pleased we waited.”

Willis has been injured, otherwise we may have seen and heard more of him. But the patience Carter refers to is crucial, and it is not just with injuries, it is cultural: in N22 he was looking at a 16-year-old who, if he makes it, may not make his debut until 2027. The teenager is unlikely to be watched by bigger clubs or may have been passed over already.

“There’s such a population in London that the super-cubs can rule boys out,” explains Carter. “We’re trying to rule them in.

“They’re going for boys at this level — high — and we’re going for those at this level — medium. Realistically, we aren’t getting the highest level but we’re looking for a boy who can get to that level.

“That’s what scouting is.”

“Once people in the London boroughs saw Djed and Isaiah and what they did with us, the number in contact was huge.”

Middlesbrough, this club which has finished seventh, 17th, 10th and seventh in the past four seasons of the Championship — and had the profile to match — had muscled its way into grassroots London.

Shane Branch-Gilkes of the MG Elite Academy has played an important role in this. Branch-Gilkes, 33, was at Millwall as a young boy, then played in non-League for clubs like Ware. Recognizing the volume of unscouted players on his doorstep, he set up an academy in Enfield nine years ago.

Along the way, Branch-Gilkes wrote a letter to every club in the UK offering his thoughts and access to players. He received just one reply. It was from Carter.

“I told the clubs about the profiles of players we had in London,” Branch-Gilkes explains. “Martin took a gamble, came down and immediately spotted Pharrell Willis. We connected.

“The thing with Martin and Middlesbrough is there’s a development process. They’re not going to get the finished article, the players will need help and support and that’s what Boro give.

“Selling Middlesbrough at first wasn’t easy, but now, because there are a lot of boys in there, London boys are thinking that’s a place to go — there’s a pathway to the first team. And if they don’t get it at Middlesbrough, there’s a pathway into the game.”


Carter watches on at a session in London last Saturday, on the lookout for talented players with the potential to make it at Middlesbrough (Photo: Michael Walker)
Other British clubs have taken note and Branch-Gilkes says European teams are now active in London in a way they were not before. Stuttgart have enquired about one of his players. “Clubs are beginning to look at the model and formula of Middlesbrough in London, 100 per cent. But Boro are one step ahead.”

Carter has built links with other private academies such as Onside in east London and, while the distance between there and Teesside is less than three hours on a train, the cultural and demographic difference feels greater. Teesside voted 64 per cent for Brexit; London voted 60 per cent Remain. In the most recent census the north-east was 90 per cent white British; London was 37 per cent. The pace of life, which is harder to measure, is different too.

Demonstrably, this has not affected Boro’s recruitment. But difference has to be considered. Carter points to one of the younger boys signed as an example of how the club approach this issue.

“Some of these boys had never even played 11 vs 11 before. Yacou Traore only really started playing organized football when he was 16. He’d played in the cages around south London. He played one game in this private academy, it was at Rayner’s Lane in London and I was there. Everybody was talking about him, I was emailing his coach asking if we could get him on trial — tomorrow.

“Now he looks like he has been in the system. He was 18 in November and played for the first-team in a friendly at Hibs during the World Cup break.

“He comes from a strong Muslim family. His dad, a fantastic guy, wanted Yacou to go into education. So we got Barry Dawson, our education and welfare officer, to help.

“We have good friends in the local mosque in Middlesbrough. We brought the dad up to show him and Yacou and to say, ‘Look, we don’t want to change you or your culture, we want you to develop here as a footballer’. We invited the family up. They looked around the training ground, then they came up again, and to the mosque, just to make sure they were comfortable. Yacou signed his first professional contract a few weeks ago.”

Traore has joined the others, housed in the village of Hurworth, two minutes from Boro’s lush Rockliffe training ground. It may or may not matter to anyone, but that all 14 boys are black is noticeable.

“Here, within the building, we don’t look at players as black or white,” Carter says. “Sometimes when black players come in, they maybe have an initial doubt: ‘How will I fit in?’

“I openly say to them that the demographics of the area are white. We also tell them that they are not black players, they are Middlesbrough players. We don’t look at race or creed. They’re just coming from a different environment and they’re coming to ours, so we should give them time. If your system and environment is strong, they will integrate.

“I think the mix and the daily environment makes them comfortable. When the parents come up they’re delighted to see so much greenery. It’s a great place to develop, it gives the players a sense that it’s up to them.

“And I think they quite like that it’s quiet. They go to the cinema, to Nando’s, they mix well. Sometimes I say to the boys in London that they could be closer to the culture of the south of Spain than the north-east, but it’s only two-and-a-half hours away. In London everyone is in a rush; here it’s calmer and people are more realistic. In London there’s a lot of big ideas, unrealistic ones.

“We are different, but we’ll get each other.”

This geographic movement amounts to an historic reversal. There was a time when the north-east was known as English football’s “nursery” and clubs from London would flock there to recruit.

Carrick, Boro’s manager since late October, made that journey from the north-east to London, where he signed for West Ham. He can tell a great story about going to Wallsend Boys’ Club matches on the back of a milk float — one of the coaches was a milkman — and the camaraderie bottled on those journeys. He remembers another, on the back of a lorry with a banner that read, ‘Wallsend Boys’ Club, suppliers to the football industry’.


Michael Carrick has led Middlesbrough into the Championship play-off places following his appointment in October and his side are in contention for automatic promotion (Photo: George Wood/Getty Images)
In Hurworth, Middlesbrough hope they see the same kind of togetherness and pride among their London boys, modern suppliers to the football industry.

“When you take a boy from a different environment you’ve got to allow them time to adjust,” Carter says. “There are ups and downs, sticky situations. They’re also adjusting to being professionals, not part-time with jobs or college. They have to change habits. They have to realise that. And they’re young. It can be difficult for them to manage, and at times for us.

“And initially you don’t see consistency from the players, you just see moments. You have got to hang onto them, because you might not see it again for a few matches. Eventually it comes back.

“You hope your environment allows that. It requires great patience from the club, but the progression of players has allowed people in London to talk about us and point to us. They trust us and what we do. They know we’re looking longer-term, whereas other clubs are looking for now.

“Winning an academy match at 14, forget about that. If you’re recruiting players for the future, you accept inconsistencies and people here accept we’re bringing in players today for years to come, 2027, 2028. It requires a mature attitude. Craig Liddle, our academy manager, has that.

“I think, I hope, we’ve established an environment that players from outside can call home.
Absolutely brilliant that. We are hopefully on the verge of something very special. Reading that I instantly thought of Ajax. Now imagine we could grow an academy like theirs!
Really interesting. I had of course heard about the links with London non-league teams, but there is a lot more to it that I was aware of. When you think about the impact that Jones and Spence have made in such a short time, this is defiantely something that the club need to press on with.
Great article. Just shows how much good the club is doing.

Feels like after the great period of players coming through the academy upto McClaren leaving, we really lost our way. Not being able to build on that by supplementing a good set of local lads with a higher standard of lads from further afield. More importantly, we had a string of managers - strachen, karanka, Pulis, etc… who did not appear bothered about developing players for the first team.

Most encouragingly of all seems to be the support we are wrapping around these players. I wonder how much the start of the downfall of our academy from its heyday was lads loosing there way and being in with the wrong crowd. Certainly under Southgate it seemed to cost us some players who had international potential.
I like the audacity of it. It would have been easy to say 'Chelsea will hoover up all the best prospects in London, no point in looking'.
I like the audacity of it. It would have been easy to say 'Chelsea will hoover up all the best prospects in London, no point in looking'.
We aren’t looking for “the best prospects “, that’s the thing, that’s our way in. We are looking for those already bypassed by the bigger clubs and being deemed “not the best prospects “.
Cracking read that. Impressed how the club is moving forward and trying to get ahead in the game. Having Carrick at the helm and showing how he can develop players is only good for the younger up and coming players to follow
Superb read, very encouraging. Hats off to Mr Carter, I admire the innovative approach and the hard work he’s doing for our great club! Very well done indeed. UTB