“I felt like I’d lost my spark, for whatever reason, but now I enjoy going to work again,” says Darren Edmondson, explaining why he has stepped aside from the professional football scene and into a new role with Park View Academy of Sport – an organisation which has links to his former club, Carlisle United.
Edmondson is now head of football at Park View, which combines education with full-time training and aims to help teenagers who the pro game has either discarded or not yet picked up. The idea is to equip them either for a return to football, or a different future.
In the National Football Youth League, their under-19 side play as Carlisle United Park View through a formal connection established in 2018. This also gives the Blues first refusal on the best young players the institution helps. Those involved believe it is a bridge that can prevent some late-developing talent from falling through football’s cracks.
United’s fans often ask, when they read social media updates about the academy’s apparent successes, where the tangible benefits are for the Blues. While some Park View graduates are now on the books of other clubs, none has yet materialised on Carlisle’s first-team scene.
It is part of Edmondson’s remit – although not exclusively so – to help create such opportunities. The former Carlisle player and academy manager recently left a post as head of academy coaching at Rochdale in favour of this new position in the north east (Park View are based at the Riverside, Chester-le-Street, and also have development centres for women’s football, rugby, swimming, cricket, netball and rowing, for people aged 16-19).
Edmondson, director of sport Lewis Pendleton and director of coaching John Gamble are working together to further develop Park View, to rebuild some young players and, hopefully, send them back into football, whether at United’s level (or higher), the non-league environment, or even in overseas leagues.
“Since Lewis and John came across to Carlisle to establish the link three years ago, I’ve stayed in touch with them,” Edmondson says of his move. “The relationship on a personal note was always there and I’ve tried to keep it going on a working basis too, at Carlisle and with Rochdale.
“Last summer, lockdown gave me a lot of time to think about my feelings towards pro football and where I wanted to take myself personally. Sometimes in pro football there are people who want to climb that ladder for themselves. At some clubs it’s done the wrong way, in my opinion.
“After some discussions at Park View, I decided to jump ship. It’s the sort of environment I wanted to be in, where everything’s up front, everyone knows where they stand, and it’s all about the players, education, personality and football-wise. It’s not for the coaches or the staff – it’s about the players, solely.”
Pendleton says Park View aim to recruit well and then develop carefully. “What we look to do, first and foremost, is identify and recruit the best boys’ clubs players in this area,” he says. “We have good social media and marketing campaigns which have even attracted players internationally. We haven’t really solicited that, it’s come to us.
“Then we look at players who get released at 16 – we’ve got a good relationship with Newcastle, Middlesbrough and Sunderland in this area, and a lot of those boys at 16 don’t always get fixed up.
“We’ve got a few good lads who’ve perhaps been released because they’re a bit small, and we can physically develop them. At 18, we work with the same clubs – and Carlisle. If Carlisle have got Geordie boys in their programme who are getting released at 18, the aim is for Carlisle to send them back to us.
“We play Carlisle’s academy two or three times a year, and that gives the boys a standard as to where they are. In normal circumstances we also put on an under-16 development centre so we coach the boys once a month and showcase games, and get to know them before they come into our programme; we operate teams at under-17, 18 and 19.
“Our job really is to be the scouting network in the north east for Carlisle; whether they always use us or not, we know all the clubs and contacts in this area. We’re not here to compete with Category 1, 2, 3, and 4 academies [at clubs], but to provide a programme that is as close to the training volumes and loads they get, so that, boys could move onto other clubs, and hopefully Carlisle will pick a couple up in years to come.
“That is the ethos of it. Getting Darren in was a no-brainer. I’m from Cumbria – Millom – and I knew of Darren’s playing career and background. From our perspective, what we’re looking to try and do is always bring the best people in to continue to drive things forward.
“A massive appeal for us with Darren was that he can teach and coach, and wanted to return to the teaching side of it. Darren’s undoubtedly an excellent coach and man-manager, but he has those same characteristics with the kids in the lessons. That helps them improve and get them where they need to be.”
Pendleton and Gamble talk about players who have come through this kind of college environment, such as Sheffield Wednesday’s Adam Reach and Sheffield United’s Chris Basham. “Jon Mellish is another,” Gamble says, referring to the Carlisle midfielder. “I coached Jon at Gateshead College [after he left Sunderland] and I’m so pleased to see how well he’s doing now.
“There is a pathway for lads who sometimes don’t get an opportunity when they’re 16 but mature later. Or sometimes they’re lads who’ve had the disappointment of being released.”
“A good example from Park View is Ryan Wombwell,” Pendleton adds. “When Darren and Gav [Skelton] were at the [Carlisle] academy, they took him for 10-11 games. He probably pushed a couple of scholars out, but his ability shone through. They had that foresight to play him. Unfortunately there wasn’t the budget there to offer him something.
“Was he ready for the first team? He was a lad who needed to develop as a second-year scholar, but he’s done well at Sunderland and has now got a pro contract there, with their 23s.
“We always make sure Carlisle are aware of players. We speak to David [Holdsworth] and Nigel [Clibbens], give the information to the club, and it’s up to them whether there’s a space for them, whether they want to look at them or they don’t.
“They’ve looked at some, not at others. But our job doesn’t then just stop. Sometimes we get criticism on social media from the fans, asking ‘What’s the point in sending them there?’
“You can say the same about an academy – two players signing through is a success, but what about the other 16 boys? I’m sure Darren, and Eric [Kinder] now, look for opportunities for those boys when they get released. We’re no different in that sense. Carlisle’s our first port of call, and if they see a need or demand for them, they’ll take them in, but we’ve had success, because of the contacts we have, to get them into other clubs.”
Covid has impeded the usual ways of working at the academy. Of late it has been remotely-delivered sessions, while Zoom calls have seen players such as Adam Armstrong, Grant Leadbitter and John Burridge pass on their expertise to the young players.
“We can’t do anything in terms of training at the moment, which is frustrating, because I think we’ve got some lads on the cusp,” says Pendleton. “So we’re calling people and getting them to tell their stories. John and Daz have done pieces on defending, that kind of stuff – trying to keep them as motivated and switched on as we can, until we can get them back in.”
The pandemic has also delayed efforts to arrange more games and have Park View players training with United and other clubs, but this will hopefully resume in due course.
“We produce the stats and videos, and provide information; it’s then up to David as director of football to decide whether those players are what they’re looking for,” Pendleton adds.
“There’s been a change in focus, I think, under Eric, which is around the under-17s and 18s, and I think they’re going to monitor those boys in our programme at 17 or 18 with a view to asking whether they are good enough to do pro games.
“Before Covid, David’s idea has been to trial players before pre-season, to try and get a bit of a settled squad, so you didn’t have trialists coming in and out. We’d agreed that our 19s would play a first-team/trialist team to screen and identify those players. That puts boys in the shop window. But then Covid hit and that didn’t happen.
“It’s been frustrating because of those circumstances. But our phones and emails are always on. We play regularly, we get scouts from Man City, Man Utd, Newcastle, Arsenal, Chelsea, Celtic. If any of them want to take them on a trial, the first call is into Nigel at Carlisle to say, ‘Have a look at this’. If any of the players catch their eye, we’d hope the club will get in touch and invite the boys in.
“What’s great with Nigel is there is an ownership there from the club, but they don’t stand in the boys’ way. We let Carlisle know, but if we could get a player into Man Utd, Man City, brilliant. You would just hope that Carlisle would spot that, sign them and make themselves some money along the way.
“But it’s not just about pro contracts, it’s giving boys job opportunities, helping them to become personal trainers, gym instructors, getting their coaching badges, to become referees. It’s that university angle, and we take them abroad to look at teams. They might be able to play, for example, at non-league levels here, but why not go and play in Sweden, which might be at a similar level, but you get paid and have a chance to play in Champions League qualifiers?”
Scholarships in America form another possible route. “We never stop trying to find opportunities and angles for players,” Pendleton adds.
While the under-19 side have been successful against similar academies in National Football Youth League competitions, Park View also formed Chester-le-Street United as a way to test their young players in men’s football; they play in the Wearside League and are managed by the former Celtic striker Didier Agathe. “We own the club, and it’s run for the boys,” Pendleton says. “If Carlisle release boys, and some of them aren’t ready for levels where the likes of Workington and Kendal play, this can also be the ideal pathway.”
As for Edmondson, he was a college tutor in between his various football roles of recent times, which included three years as Carlisle’s academy chief until 2019. The 49-year-old says he is happy to be heading back into the educational environment, as well as this new opportunity on the training pitch. “It’s about helping the youngsters of today and trying to make them fitter, healthier, better people,” he says.
“I enjoy teaching, being in the classroom with the lads. You see a different side of them, that whole circle of their personalities, along with the football.”