Alex Fisher has played in Spain, Belgium, Italy, the Scottish Premiership and is now back in League Two with Yeovil Town – but none of it may have been possible were it not for the Glenn Hoddle Academy.
Glenn Hoddle is regarded by many as being the best English coach of his generation. Even now, more than 12 years since his last management role, there are those who would love to see him back in charge of the national side.
And though the only club he has worked for in those 12 years has been QPR for six months as a coach under Harry Redknapp in 2014, Hoddle has had a lasting effect on several players’ careers since resigning as manager of Wolverhampton Wanderers in 2006.
Two years after that, Hoddle created an academy in his own name, in memory of his brother, Carl, who died aged 40. The idea was to help players looking for a path back into the game, whether they had been released by Manchester United or Worthing.
Hoddle had first thought of the concept when he was Chelsea manager in the mid-1990s, a time when he was having to release youngsters on a regular basis himself. The former England manager believed there was potential in a lot of those let go and wanted to help them.
He got Graham Rix, Nigel Spackman and Dave Beasant on board, and in May 2008 announced up to 40 young players would spend the next year working with him and his coaches at the newly-formed academy in Spain.
Costing £2million a year to run, the plan was to develop players to a point whereby they could return to the professional game, with Hoddle and his backers taking a cut of money earned from future transfer deals involving the players.
“I’ve had it in mind ever since my first job as a manager at Swindon,” Hoddle said. “Five weeks after taking over, I had to let half a dozen youth team players go, and five of them broke down in my office.
“It didn’t get any easier when I moved on to Chelsea, where it was again the most horrible thing I had to do.
“At that age it’s too young to be writing many kids off.”
Thousands applied to join, and hundreds had trials.
Among them were now-Swansea midfielder Sam Clucas and West Ham striker Jordan Hugill. The former had been released by Lincoln City, while the latter had only ever played non-league football.
Both have made big money moves in the last year, costing a combined £25million.
Another member of the academy was striker Alex Fisher, who signed up for trials after being released by Conference side Oxford United in 2009.
“I hadn’t heard of it at the time, it had only been going a few months before I was first contacted about it,” Fisher says. “I got a call out of the blue from one of their scouts, a guy called George Foster, saying they’d seen me in a game.
“They knew I didn’t have a contract offer at Oxford where I was playing and they asked if I would be interested in joining the team after a couple of trial games. It was a real lifeline, so I went to Spain and never looked back.”
Fisher had progressed through the ranks at Oxford, who were in the fifth tier at the time, so to suddenly be nurtured by some of the most-respected coaches in England represented a privileged new world for someone who had feared his dreams were over before his 20th birthday.
“For a guy playing in the Conference to be given an opportunity to be trained by some of the best coaches around, and to see where it was based, it was a real pull,” he says.
“The weather and the facilities in Spain allowed us to train two or three times a day, whereas sometimes in England you could not get the same quality of training done, so that was a real perk.
“They were open to anyone who they thought might have a chance of making it and been prematurely given negative news on professional contracts at a young age.
“It was a real mix of players. Some players had come from really high-profile sides, then there were people like myself coming from non-league.”
With no games to prepare for yet up to three sessions a day, Hoddle and his staff spent the majority of time working on the technical side of the game.
“They worked on stuff at the time which I considered quite new, but when I look back it was actually just kind of just going back to basics,” Fisher says.
“A lot of it was based on trying to get as many touches on the ball as you could. Everything was technical based.
“A lot of time in the professional game, because of the quick turnaround in games, you don’t get too much time to work on things outside of tactics, set-pieces and recovery from games.
“It was an opportunity to work every day on your technical ability while also trying to improve some of the basics like your awareness and quality on the ball.”
Hoddle was hands-on, and as one of the most technically-gifted English players of his generation, it is no surprise the likes of Clucas thank him for the impact he has had on their careers.
For Fisher, it was incredible to be taken under the wing of such an innovative coach.
“I can’t rate the guy highly enough. All the staff were fantastic, but Glenn himself just introduced me to ideas and little tips I would never have previously considered let alone been able to work on.
“I was starstruck by him even knowing my name when I first met him, along with the others. It was a real honour to be in that environment and be coached by them.
“If you do something right and Glenn says ‘well done’ and gives you a pat on the back it gives you one heck of a confidence boost.”
The aim was a simple one: to become professional footballers again, but some were held back by a lack of competitive action.
There were friendly games against teams like Real Madrid B and Sevilla B, but when the chance to essentially take over local third division side Jerez Industrial arose, Hoddle signed a five-year deal with the financially-stricken club to provide staff and players free of charge, something which helped the youngsters at the academy.
Remember when Glenn Hoddle's Academy linked up with Jerez Industrial? This is where they played league matches pic.twitter.com/oXL0uUCtgD
— Chris Clements (@estadios_Spain) August 4, 2013
Fisher scored 21 goals in 31 games for Jerez, helping earn him a move to Belgium.
“It was one thing being trained and being at a certain level in their eyes, but to translate that into something a manager could use was tricky,” he says. “We needed competitive games, which is where that side came in.
“It was a really useful tool to showcase how the players had developed in a competitive environment. We had a very successful side there and a lot of players have gone on to play very high levels of the game.
“It was nice as a player knowing that at the end of the week there was a competitive game, so it was something which helped us with the transition if we went back home or to another club, rather than if we were just playing against reserve teams or in trial games.
“It was a completely different style of football to what you see in many of the leagues in England, often dictated by the weather because it would be too hot to play a high press game.
“You learn tactically how to fit into different formations and learn different styles of play so that prepared us quite well.
“Also, you often got the feeling the other clubs wanted to beat you more than their Spanish counterparts so every game was very competitive.”
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It was not just careers which were made in Spain but long-lasting friendships, with many of the players staying in contact and enjoying golfing holidays together still.
It was this camaraderie which helped them settle in a foreign environment, aiding their progression, especially Fisher, who left the academy after a year to play for Tienen, Mechelen then Heist in Belgium before a spell in Italy with Monza.
“The academy was a bit of an English bubble abroad, it was one of the easiest transition into a different way of life you could possibly get as an English guy,” Fisher says.
“I got wind of an opportunity in Belgium through the academy that led to a contract and I was really happy to be out there and it was a really good life experience.
“I wanted to get a good record so I could move closer to home, that was always the idea, but when you’ve got an offer on a table from a European side or the idea of a trial at home, I took the option of a contract and stayed out there for a good few years.
“I really enjoyed it and wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Although Fisher admits there are drawbacks to the route he took.
“I thought the idea of the academy was a really good idea and anything like it would prove to be successful if it’s managed in the same way,” he says.
“The Nike Academy produces quite a few players, I’m not sure exactly how they operate, but it sounds like a similar set-up.
“The only downside to playing abroad was there was a bit of a stigma attached.
“I was speaking to managers who’d say, for example, ‘I’ve seen this guy play 15, 20 games for Woking in the Conference, I know what he’s like, whereas I am basing you on a piece of paper and a CV’.
“They couldn’t relate to the playing in Europe thing as much as I thought they might have.
“But other managers loved it and say they get some of their ideas from Belgium, Spain, Italy and Holland.
“One manager, John Hughes (who signed Fisher for Inverness), loved the fact I’d played abroad, but others were just not interested as they couldn’t relate it to League Two football so they go with what they know.
“But I learned a lot about myself as an individual about how to live away from home, which is important, because football is a very up and down industry where you can be moving all over the country.
“In the last six months I’ve moved from the north of Scotland to the south of England, so that helped me get accustomed with the lifestyle.”
Overall the players who were part of the academy have accrued transfers of over £31million – and there was the priceless element of the number of careers it saved.
We will never know how successful it could have been if it was allowed to continue, but those who were apart of it will forever recognise its significance.
By Will Unwin
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