Nurturing young stars: Why senior players are signing up to play academy football

Between 2009 and 2013, Gary Dicker was more than 150 times a Brighton visitor
You could assume that if you saw a player older than 30 playing in an academy match, they were trying to recover from injury.

However, there is a growing trend to see clubs sign older players who won't play for the first team but will nurture their young talent.

Manchester United signed Paul McShane. Southampton brought in Olly Lancashire, and Gary Dicker arrived at Brighton.

All three of them have played for their current employers, and they are now used as player-coaches or support players. As senior professionals, they have hundreds of games under their belts and their job is to share their knowledge with young players who are just starting out on their journey.

With Dicker being the second player to hold that position, Brighton is the farthest along. Andrew Crofts (current under-23 coach) was their first boss and was a former team-mate to Dicker.

The idea was first brought up by the Seagulls when they faced Bayern Munich in a match for development. Bayern had an over-age centre back and this was available to them.

John Morling, Academy manager, says that once he was surprised and started asking questions, the benefits of having someone like him became apparent.

He stated that he thought it was a great idea. Andrew was still playing in [National League] the first year he did it.

"He was already interested, he had already completed his A and B licences and was about to get his pro license. He was also heavily involved in the development of the sport.

It's difficult to find the right person because they have to be able and willing to work every day, add value on training pitches, and bring value to the gameday.

If not properly managed, the over-age player scheme can cause problems. Players went to Morling in concern about the over-age player scheme limiting their game time the first year Crofts started the role.

Morling stated that players worried about their game time saw the benefits of training and how he helped, particularly those in the same situation.

"In three to four weeks it was at a stage where the players were really satisfied with it and they could clearly see what he brought."

It is clear that the benefits are evident. Brighton has had eight academy players make first-team debuts this season.

Brighton uses their over-age player in their player-to coach scheme. Senior players combine their playing duties with their coaching badges.

Dicker, 35 years old, made more than 150 appearances with the Seagulls during his first season at the club. He left Kilmarnock, Scotland, in the summer.

"You can see that the players on our first team are getting older, and the ones I played in were getting younger," he said. He said that the game is about young players having the chance.

To be completely honest, I've gotten used to it. It was fun to play with younger players. It's been fun and keeps me young, so it's not a problem for me.

"As an older player, you have the ability to feel things in games that a less experienced player hasn't had. You also know how to make the right decisions. Crofty was a veteran player so I don't have to assume that I will play every game.

"But, I'm here to train and it's all about driving up standards. Can you continue to do the right thing and set the right example? It's a job that requires you to be available 24 hours a day and seven days a week.

Dicker is able to see the benefits of his role but admits that he still longs for a first-team player.

He said, "There are days when I feel like he's naming the teams and I want to play in them' but that's normal for a footballer as it's ready to play at the weekend."

Andrew Crofts was a mentor to Brighton's youth players before Gary Dicker returned to the club.

Crofts, a former Wales midfielder, says that there are many challenges in this role.

He stated, "It's a tough gig. It's hard work, I believe.

"I believe more clubs are doing this and more players are interested in it because years back, you had that mix of senior and young players in reserve teams. That has probably been lost.

"So it's an ideal opportunity to be in a position to implement that into young groups and hopefully the young boys get those golden nuggets information and a role-model to prepare them for what lies ahead."