There’s a sense of optimism in the air at Oakwell as the 2019/20 season kicks off.
After gaining automatic promotion back into the Championship at the end of last season, the Reds’ fans are singing just that little bit louder in the Ponty End.
And, eager to bask in the glory of playing for a professional football club, this hopeful spirit has ricocheted around the club with the signing of a promising new cohort of young players to a successful Shadow Scholarship programme.
Run by Reds in the Community, the charity arm of Barnsley FC, the Shadow Scholarship is an education-based scheme aimed at 16 to 19-year-olds looking to progress in football or a sports-based career.
The perfect platform for late developers, players who have gone under the radar or those with borderline ability, it was launched at the beginning of last season with players having the chance to compete for Barnsley FC in the National Football Youth League.
And what a fantastic inaugural season it was.
Finishing fourth in the league, the young squad also reached the final of the National Football Youth League Cup at Hillsborough Stadium, missing out on the trophy to league and cup double winners, Carlisle United.
Three Shadow Scholarship defenders were also picked for the NFYL’s National All-Stars team, with Callum Walmsley, Dom Claxton and Jack Tinker joining a score of talented players from across the country. Shadow Scholarship head coach, Mark Tinker, was also chosen to lead the national squad.
For 17-year-old Callum Walmsley, his season highlights didn’t just end with the All-Stars; he was also the first Shadow Scholarship player to earn a contract with Barnsley FC’s professional academy just six months into the season.
Having previously been offered a two-year deal with another club, Callum turned it down in favour of joining his boyhood club, Barnsley. Callum’s transition to the academy team gives yet more hope to the shadow squad that a professional football career can be in sight if you have the dedication and drive to achieve it.
Reds in the Community have formed a unique relationship between the Shadow Scholarship, Barnsley FC and the Academy. The teams work and train closely together, with coaching staff putting both shadow and academy squads through their paces. This fluidity across the youth teams gives players hope and motivation for progression and breaks down any barriers between ‘us and them.’
“When we started the Shadow Scholarship, we set out to never promise the earth to these young lads. They don’t come in under the false pretence that they WILL make it as a professional footballer. First and foremost, this is an education programme where the students work towards a BTEC in sport. But they can see it is achievable if they put the effort in,” head coach Mark Tinker says.
Along with playing at Oakwell, the Shadow Scholarship players were also fortunate to experience two international tours, visiting Malta in February and Barcelona in April.
In Malta, the students spent two weeks coaching in schools, taking part in cultural trips, and facing local opposition in competitive fixtures. During their trip to Barcelona, players graced the FIFA-standard pitches at Futbol Salou sports complex for an intensive five-day training camp.
Due to all of this and more, Reds in the Community was named as one of the country’s best youth provisions for sport education.
Industry experts highlighted the exceptional facilities and training on offer, which includes exclusive goalkeeping sessions. They also praised the varied and in-depth syllabus taught which covers everything from sports science and physiotherapy to sports media and match analytics.
To keep building a culture of excellence down at Oakwell, the coaching staff are constantly working to evolve and improve on the course to meet the needs of the players and remain as one of the best youth provisions in the UK.
This includes working with Sheffield Hallam University to offer a degree programme for an influx of international players who have joined the team this season. This will run alongside the existing foundation degree in coaching for under 23s.
Following the trip to Malta earlier this year, two Maltese players have officially signed for the programme. Lee Ciantar moves from Matlock Town FC to join the coaching degree programme and goalkeeper Miguel Spiteri, former captain of Malta’s U17s, has transferred to the Reds from the youth side at Getafe CF of the Spanish top division, having faced the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona before heading to Oakwell.
They will be also joined by four American footballers from as far wide as Kansas and Hawaii who are also eager to experience the unrivalled culture of the English Football League along with university life.
“Soccer is on the rise in the US but it’s not the most popular sport over there for college students. We work closely with Challenger USA which is the biggest soccer company in the States and they have pushed these four new players to us here in Barnsley.
“One, because they know the youth league in the UK is the best outside of the professional leagues. And two, because they believe we have the best provision in the National Football Youth League’,” Mark says.
In return, our Yorkshire players will have opportunities above and beyond football in the UK once their time at Barnsley has finished, with Mark and the team working to offer international scholarships in the US, Australia and India.
For more information about the Shadow Scholarship, visit www.barnsleyfccommunity.co.uk