The Elite Football Academy planning to level the playing field in Newcastle
Despite being a hotbed of football talent, the Newcastle region has failed to produce the number of professional players it is capable of in recent years. Former Newcastle Jets and Adelaide United defender Taylor Regan has joined forces with Daniel McBreen, Roy O'Donovan, and Ben McNamara to create the Newcastle Elite Football Academy (NEFA) to help address that concern. Regan spoke to Front Page Football about the group's project and aspirations during the first month of the academy's operation.
Four ex-professional footballers with strong ties to the Newcastle region have joined forces to create NEFA. (NEFA)
The Australian football landscape has changed dramatically since Taylor Regan was developing as a youngster in Newcastle during the early 2000s. Today, footballers are being entrusted with senior debuts at a younger age than ever. Despite a world of opportunities being available, the expectations for players at that level have never been higher.
Born and raised in Newcastle and playing most of his career in the city, Regan knows the region's capability to produce young players. But he feels the production line has become glaringly bare over the past few years. Once a Newcastle Jets defender, Regan used his former employers, and the city's only professional club, as an example of the area's struggle to develop and help its up-and-coming young players reach their potential.
"There are so many talented kids playing football these days, but you look at the Newcastle Jets, and only Archie Goodwin has come through in the last few years, whereas you look in Adelaide (United) with [Nestory] Irankunda this year. A couple of years before, it was Al Hassan Toure; the year before, it was Lachlan Brook; the year before, it was [Louis] D’Arrigo," Regan said.
"Every year, a young kid comes onto the scene and plays A-League football. In Newcastle, we should also be able to do this, but we are not doing so. We are hoping we can fix this problem."
Along with Regan, Ben McNamara and Daniel McBreen, two players who spent their formative years in Newcastle, and Roy O'Donovan, an Irish striker who also spent a significant part of his career in the region, have decided to take matters into their own hands to help the area develop its next generation of footballers.
The four partnered to fill what they believe is a gap in Newcastle, causing some of the region's top talents to miss out on essential sessions that can prove game-changing at a formative age. While players in the Newcastle Jets' system participate in four sessions a week, young players in non-professional setups complete half the sessions. NEFA's goal is to bridge that gap.
"For a young kid at the age of 13 that only trains twice a week, compared to someone who trains four times a week, that is almost 40-80 sessions a year, so how are they going to improve at the same rate? This [gap] is what we are trying to fix, and we want to give every kid in Newcastle the opportunity to chase their dreams," Regan remarked.
While club training sessions usually revolve around how eleven players operate as a unit, Regan shared that NEFA's focus is to get players to work on the game's fundamentals as individuals, with mastery of that translating into them becoming vital cogs in a team environment.
"We are trying to improve the individual. Their technique, first touch, passing, ability to play under pressure," he added.
"Sometimes growing up, you skip the core areas that you need to get, so we work with the individuals and try and improve their skill set, which then allows them to perform on matchday with their clubs."
Through NEFA, young players will learn from four former footballers with a combined 1000 professional games of experience across nine countries. But the quartet has also invested heavily in their facility, with synthetic pitches and equipment for specific work on the players' core, overall strength, and recovery.
NEFA players working with Daniel McBreen, one of the academy's coaches. (NEFA)
One eye-catching aspect of how NEFA operates is that training sessions kick off early, at precisely 6:50 am. Having been asked by parents why the academy started then, Regan shared it is partly down to building dedication and determination.
"I think that if you have to get up early, if you are setting an alarm, you are making a commitment to yourself," Regan stated.
"It is easy to go to training in the afternoon when you are a kid because your parents take you, you are already awake, and you’ve eaten at school. This [start time] makes you wake up early, it makes you get ready, it makes you get changed into the Academy kit, and it makes you make a commitment to improve.
"It makes sense. We get up, we start the day with football, and then in the afternoon, they can go to their club. There is no reason why these kids from 11 to 15 can’t do two sessions a day. I am still doing it at age 35, so I am sure they can do it!"
Despite the four NEFA founders being busy with their families and commitments to football through their kids, playing careers, and even TV appearances, they share a mutual belief in Newcastle's talent and their feeling of obligation to the community that supported them throughout their careers. These were contributing factors in the launch of the academy.
"We don’t know what the future holds for any of us. It is about putting our toes in the water now, testing it, making sure we get it right, and who knows, it might end up being a full-time thing for us. Right now, it is not; it is more of a hobby and a passion, [and] we are not making a salary. We are just trying to give back to the community initially, and we will see where it takes us," Regan said.
NEFA's young goalkeepers with coach Ben McNamara, who has played over 400 games in that position throughout his career. (Instagram: @benjohnmac)
Having an academy in a city the size of Newcastle can be a double-edged sword. But Regan thinks that the populous community is something NEFA can use to its advantage. The Charlestown Azzurri defender believes it will ensure the academy's players and the region's football community will get the attention they require now and in the future.
"We have all been through injuries, contract issues, suspensions; we’ve all been there and done that. I think that in Newcastle, it is a small country town vibe; everybody knows everybody!" Regan said.
"As an academy, we don’t have any enemies. We will offer advice to anyone that needs or wants it; we just want to help people be the best version of themselves. If that happens now or in 10 years when they start to have these issues with their career, we’ll be there to help."
The Newcastle Elite Football Academy is still in the infancy of its operation, only just entering its third week of sessions. But Regan shared that the early days have been personally rewarding. Seeing young footballers receive an opportunity to hone their game in sessions further, and with resources that would not have previously been available, gives the former Jets captain hope for the future of football in the Hunter Region.
"The feedback we’ve gotten from parents has been nothing but wonderful. Hopefully, we can continue to put smiles on faces and improve the kids for the local region, but also for the whole of Australia," Regan said.
"At the end of the day, there are plenty of academies out there that do really good things. If we can learn from each other, it only improves football in this country. If we all move in the right direction, I think football in Australia has a really bright future."
Click here to read a similar piece about the Adelaide launch of Barca Academy Australia, another academy helping young Australian footballers reach their potential.