When the players come into the group it is accepted what it is all about. We have made them understand who they are playing for, what it should mean to them and every time they pull on that shirt they have to earn it.Paul Robinson
He wanted them aligned with the First Team in terms of approach, style, organisation, training regime and mentality.
Paul Robinson was appointed to assist Senior Professional Development Coach Richard Beale.
And the Under-23s got their own designated staff for the first time: Scott Bevan as Goalkeeper Coach, Chris Armstrong (Physical Conditioning Coach), Fintan White (Sports Scientist), Luke van Zyl (Physiotherapist) and Simon Houston as Performance Analyst.
Blues went into the mid-season break top of the PDL North, on goal difference, after a hugely competitive tussle with rivals Leeds United and Burnley.
Blues have conceded fewer goals (14) than all of the other 19 teams in the North and South divisions combined.
They are still in with a shout of progressing from the group stages of the Premier League Cup, too.
We caught up with Robinson for a special bcfc.com feature about the hopefuls who are next in line.
Whilst it is not necessary about results, being top of the league at Christmas must be satisfying for the new-look Under-23s?
Paul Robinson (PR):“A lot of people will look at it and say it’s a development thing. For me and the coaches it’s not. I want winners. I want the players to have a winning mentality and go into first team football. To go into first team football you need that. If you have a losing mentality, at any football club, you are not going to get very far. Simple as that. When the players come into the group it is accepted what it is all about. We have made them understand who they are playing for, what it should mean to them and every time they pull on that shirt they have to earn it.”
Do you think the players now understand more of what you are asking for and what is required?
PR: “I don’t think they’ve not previously thought about it. We have given it to them simple as, this is what it is like to play for Birmingham City Football Club, this is what you need to do. Hopefully they will have that opportunity to go on. If not, then hopefully they will have the maturity and experience about them to go into another football club and take an opportunity to play at first team level.”
You have had a lot of teenagers playing this season, a lot of first year pros and scholars. That has to be another positive?
PR: “Of course it is. What has been the best thing about it is how everyone has taken everything on board, in such a short space of time. Academy football, you can play a different style, you can be taught different things through all the age groups. So for us it has been very important we are linked with the First Team. The Manager wants us to play the same way, so we’ve had to drill that philosophy and style into the lads and they have been first class from pre-season. It has been a lot tougher for the younger lads because the intensity levels have raised. The training loads they do has been lifted. That includes in the gym, the strength and conditioning work they have to do, the power stuff. We have been lucky enough in that we have Fintan White and Chris Armstrong, who are now working with us. Those two together have helped get the group fitter and stronger, and that has been shown as the season has gone on.”
What has been the difference in getting these consistent results, compared to last year?
PR: “I think we have a good togetherness in the group. We have instilled it into them that when they cross the white line, it’s their responsibility. We can coach as much as we want on the training pitch, we can keep them out there for hours and hours and do everything. But when the players are on the pitch, there’s nothing much more we can do for them. As coaches, the players have to show us, show leadership. The dig each other out in training now, which is good. Probably before they felt ‘maybe I shouldn’t say that’. Well, you have to say it. If you don’t, then people will keep getting away with stuff they shouldn’t be getting away with. That togetherness, they have led it themselves, which is great. We are seeing a group of young boys who want to win.”
You train on adjacent pitches to Garry Monk’s First Team and often you will see players going over to join in. There is that carrot there, isn’t there? It is more intertwined than it has been?
PR: “It is great for them. When the Manager is watching the games when he can, and training and they join in, then they have a point to prove. They know they can’t drop from the standards they are used to and expected to produce otherwise they won’t get included again. Or, they know what they have to get to in the next two or three months. When the Manager comes in and says ‘they were good today,’ or ‘I’d like them to work on this in particular a bit more’, then that’s excellent; we know – with the individual work we do as well – what we need to get them practising to get them better and better and to get them doing what the Manager wants.”
You have had 16-year-olds Josh Andrews and Kyle Hurst in the team regularly and even a 15-year-old a couple of times in Jude Bellingham. Do you have to manage them differently than the ones who have a few more years on them?
PR: “I don’t think we have had to manage them any differently because I think they understand. They know that when they come with us there is a line, and that line is you work, give 100 per cent like everyone else does. Yes, we will have our laughs and jokes between the training sessions but on the grass you give 100 per cent and in matches. The lads have embraced it. They have been brilliant. The likes of Josh, Kyle and Jude want to be a part of the group. That’s the way they look at it. They are only young, but they want to be involved. They have to show to myself, Bealey what they are about and then to the Manager, that they want to play for this football club.”
It has been very much a team effort so far this season. But there have been consistent performances from individuals: Kyle McFarlane is leading the scoring charts again with 11, Olly McCoy is a threat, Geraldo Bajrami has made the step up from last year’s Under-18s, Ryan Burke is a regular and just turned 18, Cameron McGilp and Michael Luyambula have made impacts . . .
PR: “I think they are all making good progress. Yes you can single out some players every now and again but I don’t think that’s fair. We have got a great group, everyone is together and they all deserve the praise these six months they have been involved. Individually they have improved and as a team, when it has mattered, they have made the difference themselves. They have wanted to win when they have gone on that pitch.”
What is the challenge now for the second part of the season, in the New Year?
PR: “Exactly the same – nothing changes. I want them to enjoy the break, enjoy Christmas with their families because the deserve it. When they come back they know its full throttle again. We want to carry on the winning momentum. Like we’ve said to them, you’re top of the table lads. You don’t get there for not putting effort in. At the end of the season we still want you to be up there. The challenge for them is to keep those standards very high.”
Blues Under-23s return to action against Barnsley on 5 January at the Trillion Trophy Training Centre, Wast Hills (11am).