“I see myself as the gatekeeper of the academy and I’m very, very proud.”
After a half-an-hour chat with Cardiff City’s head of academy, David Hughes, that quote is about as apt as any to sum up just how he views his role at the club. Of course, given the well-documented success of the academy in recent times, it’s easy to see just why he is bursting with pride.
After many barren years, spanning a decade or more, Cardiff’s production line looks as fit-for-purpose as it has for some time. Hughes joined the club from Southampton in November 2020, initially as head of academy coaching, and was excited about unlocking the clear potential that lay within the Bluebirds’ youth setup.
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“I’ve lived in Cardiff for more than 20 years,” he tells Gist Vile. “From my time with the FAW, we always felt there was potential in the pathway in the academy at Cardiff.
“I was clearly biased towards my perception that there were some really high-potential individuals here. I think Steve Morison and Tom Ramasut six months before had started working with the under-23s and it’s great credit to them for promoting and driving standards and professionalism among the boys. They brought a different and unique skillset to that, which promoted and increased the expectations of what was achievable.
“It was clear there was some potential, but how do we make sure we do everything we can to maximise it? How do we provide accountability to ensure these players get there? It can’t be down to luck, it has to be down to judgment, good planning and keeping the door open to provide the greatest opportunity.
“There was talent in the programme and that was the staff. Equally, there were young boys with some outstanding potential for us as staff to try and maximise.”
Although no one professes the likes of Isaak Davies, Mark Harris, Rubin Colwill, Joel Bagan and so on are the finished article, supporters are genuinely excited about the young players sprouting through and there is a notable thirst for them to want to peak inside the academy and wonder who might be next.
Hughes is reluctant to pluck names out, although he is adamant the talent is there. His job, he says, along with the coaches within the academy, is to present as many talented young players to Morison, Ramasut and Co for them to make informed decisions about who will add quality to their first team.
He is understandably proud to have seen young talents make inroads into the first team, but he staunchly refuses to take any credit. He wants recognition for some of the coaches who have lived in the shadows for too long but have played a huge part in making this pathway to senior football possible.
“It’s an immense pleasure and joy,” he says of seeing the academy graduates in the first team. “Credit has to go to people like [head of coaching] Dane Facey, [youth development coach] Tom Hutton, who have coached those guys through the youth development phase.
“Equally, credit to the staff who have been out and identified potential. Oliver Denham, Joel Bagan, Chanka Zimba has made a debut this year, there are many more.
“There are guys who have come through the academy at a young age and there is also a pathway for individuals who [recruitment head] Kevin Beadell and the recruitment team identify as having the potential for us to try and improve when they come in a little bit later. That’s really important, that we are flexible in our thinking to do everything we possibly can to attract the talent that’s out there to hopefully play in our first team. There’s nothing more enjoyable than seeing young players make their first-team debut in a Cardiff City shirt.”
Hughes was promoted to Cardiff’s head of academy back in November. It came after another investigation into what the club described as non-recent allegations of bullying and a staffing reshuffle, including former academy head James McCarthy leaving his post. “It is has been a challenge which, since the investigation finished, has allowed us to get back to focusing on player development, which is essentially what we are really passionate about,” he says of the investigation.
In the most affectionate way possible, he speaks like an enthusiastic school headteacher, and in truth that is kind of how he sees his job. “You can never get away from the fact that you have the capacity to change a young person’s life,” he adds. “That might sound a bit deep and meaningful, but that’s the reality of it.
“They are young people for whom we have a chance of providing a life-changing experience and great success. Some of those successes will end in the first team and some of those successes will end at university or as a career. There is more than one way to get to a World Cup final. Hopefully for some of our boys that will be as a player, but for some of the guys that might be as a support member of staff or medical expert, or whatever.”
Hughes, who has spent time at Watford, Wales, Aston Villa and Southampton academies, credits Neil Harris with getting the ball in motion and also cites Mick McCarthy’s role in taking it one step further. But he believes Morison and Ramasut ramped things up to another level. They were a breath of fresh air and struck up a fantastic partnership, with Morison having been parachuted in from Northampton and Ramasut having come through the coaching academy setup, they had a striking personality blend which has served to drive standards.
“Steve is a strong character,” Hughes says. “There was no doubt from early conversations with him about his desire to be a manager, which is why there was a driving of standards and promotion of excellence and that filters down.
“The level of the game isn’t going to come down to meet you, so our talented individuals have to make sure they are ready to thrive in that environment. Tom and Steve were an outstanding team and the recruitment team were excellent at polishing what potential our young players had.
“Do you ever know if a young player getting in the first team is going to be successful? I don’t know if you do. Naturally, we are all delighted that Steve, Tom and Mark [Hudson] have done a remarkable job while providing an opportunity for young players. If ever there were young people in the academy who needed motivation to be doing everything they possibly can, it should be the fact we have a first-team manager and assistant manager who have come through our academy. That would reinforce the point to the young players that there are two people there who clearly understand what development looks like.
“Equally, this should reinforce that an academy is as much about developing its coaches as well as the young boys with it.”
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A salient point, that last one. The most recent recruit in the club’s academy is Darren Purse, the former Cardiff captain who tookover at under-23s level from Morison and Ramasut following their promotion to the first team.
Purse’s appointment has coincided with his under-23s squad being practically decimated, but for all the right reasons. Players have either been elevated into the first team or earned loan moves away to seek valuable experience elsewhere.
Cardiff have won only one game in their seven since Purse came in under difficult circumstances. Hughes, though, says that Cardiff must stick to their principles and focus on developing players rather than winning youth leagues, a school of thought with which Purse is fully on board.
“Darren is just a fantastic person,” he says of the under-23s boss. “He has never been too disappointed with the results of the under-23s. He has been really positive about how that has been reviewed and reflected upon.
“He is a really good role model and has a presence with the guys in that age group. He is ensuring our under-23s stay closely aligned with the first team to promote that clarity of message.
“It’s really positive for us. The enthusiasm, the energy, the capacity to come in and be honest but inspire the boys to want to achieve, the understanding that, if it’s tough, we are here to support them and give them everything we possibly can in terms of solutions for the problems they may face in games or on the training pitch.
“We are really pleased with how the season has gone for us in the academy, but it’s one season of many.”
Hughes believes there is nothing to suggest this upwards curve will slow down any time soon. In fact, it’s why he is so optimistic about next season and beyond.
Morison has alluded to the fact that Cardiff will look to the academy more and more in the coming years, wanting a core group of graduates to fill first-team spots, which you can read more about here. That puts a lot of pressure on the production line, but when it is put to Hughes that his job is more important now than ever, he bats it away, insisting that the responsibility of heading up an academy is always of the utmost importance as your ultimate aim is to shape young people’s lives.
But with the long-term goals of the football club now leaning more heavily on the success of its academy, it is unquestionably an important time for the Bluebirds production line. And Hughes is encouraged by the potential City currently have within their ranks.
“I am really excited about the future for the boys,” he says. “That’s why we do it. When you see boys moving through the programme, it’s exciting. The staff can be really pleased with the impact they’ve had.
“Do we have an idea of who can come through and play for our first team? No, I don’t know who out of our scholars or our under-16s could play for the first team, because development takes time. There are some who will be slow burners who need patience and more guidance. There are others who need different support and we are aware of that.
“It’s difficult to forecast but we definitely feel our job is to support the first-team manager by providing individuals who can support what he needs for success. That’s ultimately what it’s all about.”
And, in a typically self-effacing departure from this interview, just as he is wished well and told to continue the positive work, he promptly interrupts.
“It’s nothing to do with me,” he says of the club’s recent academy success. “Genuinely, it’s not. I think the credit should go to Dane, Tom, Matthew [Bloxham, the under-18s coach]. There are many others, over a number of years, that have played a significant part, Steve and Tom with the promotion of the highest standards, and the support staff around them.
“It’s absolutely nothing to do with me and a great deal to do with everybody else.”