Great prospects for giant-killers

8th February 2008 at 00:00

The tiny club that amazed the world of football by twice going ahead against mighty Liverpool in the FA Cup is working with a college to find the next generation of giant-killers.

Havant and Waterlooville FC, the non-league team that threatened one of the biggest cup upsets of all time at Anfield last month, is backing the football academy at South Downs College in Hampshire. It even has five students aged 16-18 training with its first team.

Those five are ready for selection to the first team, but the academy has its own youth team, SD Hawks, named after Havant and Waterlooville's nickname. It plays in the Conference Academy league, is unbeaten this season and is locked in a close race with arch-rivals Woking for first place.

Stuart Page, manager of the youth team, said the success of the academy's parent club in the FA Cup has been an inspiration to the students. "It was absolutely magical," he said. "The students were supporting them right from the start, even going down on Saturdays and doing odd jobs around the ground.

"What it did mean, apart from the initial reaction that `here we are, up against Liverpool and drawing' - if you ask them to reflect, they would think there's a realistic chance that it could be them, that it's not a pie-in-the-sky pipedream - it's a realistic opportunity, and I think they know it. It's given the young academy players a 100 per cent increase in confidence that they can make the grade."

Mr Page said academies such as the one at South Downs College were vital to English football because they offer opportunities for teenagers to keep playing at a competitive level at a time when too many drop out.

"When a kid gets to 18, there's not a lot left for them," he said. "They have to play in the men's league, but physically and mentally they're still developing. Then there's girls, cars and beer, which can have an effect on them. Between 16 and 19 is the age when they are most likely to drop out - or don't realise their potential."

The Football Association believes too little coaching effort has been put into older teenagers in the past, and the academies - most of which are linked with colleges - are one way of correcting that.

Nearly 200 of South Downs' students cheered on the Hawks as their team of part-timers - among them builders, caretakers and cabbies - twice went a goal ahead in the first half, before succumbing to a hat-trick from Liverpool's Yossi Benayoun in front of a crowd of 42,000. A normal turnout to watch the Hampshire team is just 600.

Yvonne Elliott, head of curriculum in sport and public services at the college, said: "They see themselves as part of the club because of the links. It's been really motivational for the students playing their own matches."

The club is also drawing on the teenagers' talents for its community programme, with students going to local schools to host coaching sessions, using the skills learnt during the Btecs they follow as part of their academy training.

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