Watford break the mould in youth development
Harefield Academy, Uxbridge
It was the 17-year-old's second appearance for the Hornets first team after his debut on the final day of last season.
To many, it was an unremarkable event. Yet I would argue it was of great significance for the reason that Massey, a young striker who lives within 200 yards of Vicarage Road, is a product of the club's unique partnership with Harefield Academy, a secondary school down the road from the Championship club.
The first intake of Watford youngsters was in 2007. Photo: Alan Cozzi (Watford FC)
Harefield Academy is different to normal football academies, where pupils usually train three times a week after school. At Harefield, the full educational and footballing programmes are integrated into the school day.
Pupils, who must live within 90 minutes of Harefield and are bussed in for the start of school at 8.15am, have training sessions during the day three times a week. When school shuts at 2.30pm, they catch up on lessons they have missed and complete their homework before participating in further training sessions between 4.30pm and 6.30pm, this time with members of Watford's academy who are not students at the school.
There are six full-time coaches, while numerous others work on a part-time basis. There is also a physiotherapist and a sports scientist. But the key benefit to Harefield students is that they enjoy between 16 and 20 hours of football coaching each week instead of an average of only six at regular football club academies.
"It is a unique situation," said first-team manager Malky Mackay. "They get three times more football than any other academy - and I include the Premier League big four of Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool. The players come through with more technique but also as well-rounded individuals - and that is a significant point."
The Hornets have a history of producing their own players, the likes of David James and Ashley Young to name but two. But the partnership with Harefield Academy, formed in 2007, attempts to take this to a new level. As Watford chief executive Julian Winter told me: "We were quite good at producing our own players. Now we have to be very good."
Watford want to become self-sufficient and have targeted the development of their own talent as key. This is why Massey's appearance in the first team is so significant.
"We have three clear goals," added Winter. "The central one is about being sustainable - and this is underpinned by the other two, which are about developing talent and becoming a true community partner."
Harefield boasts swimmers, gymnasts, table tennis players, ice skaters and ice hockey players. From next year, there will also be a junior cyclist at the school, which is allowed a 10% intake of children - 15 per school year - that are classed as gifted and talented in their particular field. Part of that 10% comprises footballers aged 11 to 16 who are with the Hornets. Currently, there are 33 of them at the academy, spread across five years.
There is a strong emphasis on the importance of education and there is understandable pride in the voice of Nick Cox, the academy co-ordinator, when he tells me that last year 85% of the students on the programme achieved A to C grades in their GCSEs.
I visited Harefield on a misty Monday morning to watch the boys train inside a freezing sports hall. One youngster had to sit out a section of the session because he had forgotten his shin pads. On the wall was a whiteboard listing those who were banned from training as a consequence of misbehaviour in their academic lessons the previous week. Pleasingly, there was just one name on it.
The session I watched did not feature some students because they were taking their mock GCSE exams. At other academies, where pupils are drawn from numerous schools, the mocks often take place on different weeks, leading to a longer disruption of the training schedule. At Harefield, disruption is kept to a minimum because the bulk of the club's juniors are at the same school.
Cox, an articulate and intelligent man who has worked at Watford for eight years, obviously enjoys a close relationship with the youngsters but understands that his employers want to see a return on their Harefield investment.
"I have got targets to hit," he said. "The club has put 10% of its annual turnover into the project so it is vital it is done properly and measured. It is a core part of our business. I want to feel the pressure to develop first-team players a little bit because some clubs have youth systems that are just ticking along with a manager who does not really care."
Everyone at Watford I spoke to openly admitted that the decision to place a strong emphasis on youth development was in part because the club did not have any other choice. They were not prepared for the end of parachute payments in 2009 and also suffered from acute financial problems towards the end of last year that saw the club flirt with administration.
Education and training are integrated at the Harefield Academy. Photo: Alan Cozzi (Watford FC)
It would be wrong to say that the Hornets' long-term plan is solely reliant on developing homegrown players, though. They are keen to try to recruit young players they can improve and sell for a profit and also want to continue to make the most of the loan system. Manchester United's Tom Cleverley and Arsenal's Henri Lansbury spent last season on loan at Vicarage Road, while Birmingham's Jordan Mutch is at the club this year.
"We have to be a trading club to survive," said Mackay. "We do not have the finances to keep hold of a youngster if a big offer comes in for him."
So what happens when Premier League clubs such as Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham express an interest?
Stay with us, Watford tell parents, and your boy will get a chance to play. If he leaves for a top club at 16, there will be a lot of players standing between him and the first team.
"Youngsters are touching distance from the first team," said Mackay. "That is something that parents have to realise when I sit down with them."
They are not hollow words. There were eight players classed as homegrown in the Watford squad last Saturday, with Scott Loach, Mariappa and Lloyd Doyley in the starting XI.
Massey, Adam Thompson, Jack Bonham and Sean Murray, who was wanted by Manchester City, have all signed professional forms after coming through the Harefield Academy. Numerous others who did the educational element of their 16-to-18 scholarships at the school have signed professional terms. Over the last three years, 18 boys at Harefield have played international football across a variety of age groups.
There are plenty of positive signs and plenty of reasons to be cautiously optimistic at Watford, whose Harefield model could be the template when Premier League academies undergo an overhaul. But Mackay, Winter and Cox are all keen to stress that Harefield is a long-term project. It might take many years to find out whether the extra practise and coaching will produce enough first-team players to justify the investment.
"There are definitely some in the current group who are special talents and have a good chance but there is a lot that comes into play," said Cox.
On Friday, Watford travel to Loftus Road to play Championship leaders QPR in a game that will be broadcast live on BBC Two. Rangers have a squad rich in quality and experience - and one that is beyond Watford's financial means. The hope is Watford will eventually be at the top of the table - and be up there with a team rich in homegrown players.
Massey has a good chance of figuring in the squad again on Friday but it means he will not be allowed to play in the FA Youth Cup tie against Swindon on Thursday. It is a blow to Cox to have one of his key men missing. Then again, it suggests Harefield is working.