Training Ground Guru | How a new role is helping Luton to achieve their Academy ambitions
Written by Simon Austin – February 2, 2023
A MODERN Academy is a formidable affair, even at the Category Three level.
“We have 24 full-time employees and 25-30 part-time employees in coaching, recruitment, analysis and sports therapy,” explains Dale Brunton, Academy Operations Manager at Luton Town. “There is one coach per age group from U9 to 14 and two in the 16, 18 and 21 year olds.”
The Bedfordshire Club have almost 150 players registered in their academy: 21 scholarship holders, 14 U21s and 110 spread across the other age groups, plus several trialists at any given time.
These numbers explain why Luton needs an Academy Operations Manager. It’s a relatively new job in football, but an increasingly important one. When we think of academies, we think more of coaching, but the logistics are also extremely important.
Brunton took up his new role in August last year, while also serving as Luton’s head of education (which was his previous role) until a permanent replacement is found.
“This job has grown tremendously in recent years,” he tells TGG. “In American sports, team managers and operations managers are a huge thing.
“With the academies expanding, I think it’s really important for everyone in the company to know where they are and what they’re doing. Everyone needs to know what side they are on and what they are doing weeks and even months in advance – and that is my job.”
What exactly does the Academy Operations Manager job entail?
“My job is mostly operations and logistics,” Brunton explains. “It’s about arranging transport, getting the equipment ready, organizing the staff and keeping the accommodation in order for longer away games.
“I’m the main point of contact for the under-21 games and trialists and work closely with our Academy Administrator Emily (Howes) who does that for the 9’s through 18’s. Emily is excellent.
“She works with the other academy administrators to set up the facilities and send out all the paperwork and it’s my job to make sure we have minibuses and drivers on site and the kits are all washed and ready to go.
“Every six weeks we have Academy management team meetings where all department heads come together and discuss their goals and progress.
“Then we update the Academy Performance Plan (a requirement of EPPP) over time. It is an evolving document. I also have monthly budget meetings with the finance team and report back to the academy director on where we are and if we’re hitting the target.”
KAIROS: A ONE STOP SHOP
Organization and communication are obviously an important part of Brunton’s role, which is why the Kairos operations and planning platform has become invaluable to him.
“We’ve been knocking on the club’s door for two or three years and said, ‘We need something to house all our communications and logistics in one place,'” he says.
“We started using Kairos at the academy early in the season and it has been invaluable. Paul Watson, our Chief Operating Officer, really helped us get it through the line.
“Kairos is a one-stop shop that allows us to have everything in one place. When we have an away game we put all the details in there and parents can just click in to open Google Maps and get directions instantly.
“From a communications perspective, it has helped reduce WhatsApp group usage, which is important in terms of both organization and protection. I used to have to ask: Who wants a minibus at the weekend? Then my phone would jump off with 15 messages: “Yes, no, yes, no.” At Kairos, we just set up a poll and it collects everything. Emily and I can then click in and see who needs what.
“There is a calendar function so that, for example, the Head of Coaching (Paul Benson) can see the appointments and everything is centralized.”
Parents can also access the Kairos app.
“If the boys are late for training, they can put it in Kairos, whereas previously the staff were called at 10am and said, ‘I want to talk about my son.’ This is not the right time. We also use it when we do screenings – parents can choose a suitable time slot without staff having to organize it.”
Kairos is also valuable for maintaining perspective, which is vital for any academy.
“Parents can use the app to report protection concerns anonymously or with their name attached,” Brunton says. “If someone under the age of 18 sends a message to an employee, their parents will automatically be included in the message. When an employee sends a message to one of the boys, his parents are also included.
“And if there was ever a police investigation, they could have those conversations right away, whereas on a private phone it gets more difficult.”
The club can assign different user levels, which is important for security and organization.
“The majority of users only have access to messaging and scheduling because those are all the features they need,” says Brunton. “Me, Emily and Wayne (Polson, the Player Care Officer) are super users and have access to all bits in the backend.
“You can also link certain people to certain teams, so the U10 coach only sees what’s happening with the U10s – he doesn’t see information about the 14s, 15s, 16s. We classify who sees what.”
Kairos has become such an integral part of the Academy that it is part of the onboarding process.
“Whenever we get a new trialist, Wayne does an induction with them and as part of that he adds them to Kairos,” explains Brunton. “He gives them a quick guide on how to use it – and luckily the app is very easy to use.”
AMBITIONS FOR THE FUTURE
Luton have made no secret of their intention to go into Category Two, which would allow them to have a better gaming schedule, attract more players and draw on higher central funding.
However, there was a delay in obtaining planning permission from the local council for a new indoor dome, which is a requirement of Cat 2 under EPPP. At the time of writing this article, the club is still waiting.
Brunton says the club already operates at Cat 2 in terms of line-up and run an Under-21 squad, although this is not required at Cat 3.
And in Rob Edwards – who was replaced as first-team manager by Nathan Jones in November – they have a boss who believes in youth.
Edwards previously coached England U16 and U20 sides with assistant Richie Kyle and oversaw Wolves U23.
“The first-team staff that came in were fantastic,” reveals Brunton. “We are considering doing some CPD for the academy staff with the first team. They’ve been watching our Youth Cup games and we’re all pulling together, which is fantastic.
“All we need is Cat 2 and Premier League status and we take off. The number of guys we’ve had in training with the first team since Rob came in has been incredible.
“Zack Nelson and Jayden Luker have both been promoted to the first-team squad and there have been a few others on the bench over the past few weeks.
“We send the 16’s and 18’s results to the first-team staff and we always get the message ‘Well done, great result’. They are very supportive.”
The first-team are also set to come on board with Kairos from the start of next season, which will only improve the connection between the academy and the seniors.