How Tornante's academy pledge is influencing Portsmouth's prolific production line

Pompey Academy’s poster boy continues to break new ground, his latest feat representing a landmark last recorded 39 years ago.

Friday, 17th January 2020, 5:30 pm
Updated Saturday, 18th January 2020, 8:59 am

Ben Close, the Fratton kid from Priory School, reached 150 appearances earlier this month upon the FA Cup trip to Fleetwood.

Not since Keith Viney in January 1981 had a Portsmouth-born player registered the accomplishment, incidentally also a youth-team graduate.

Close signifies another triumph for Mark Kelly and his academy staff, who for the past decade have produced prolific results.

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Their latest output, 17-year-old Haji Mnoga, was presented with a maiden professional contract before Christmas, securing him until the summer of 2021.

Yet the influence of owners Tornante has come under increased scrutiny among the Fratton faithful, in particular financial support towards the academy’s preservation, pledged while stood on the Portsmouth Guildhall stage.

It has been two-and-a-half years since they secured the trust of shareholders to hand over the keys to Fratton Park.

Today Pompey’s academy retains its Category 3 status, while has lost three key personnel to Brighton during that period, the latest head of youth recruitment Neil Sillett at the turn of the year.

Ben Close is the poster boy of Pompey's academy as he continues to break new ground. Picture: Paul Thompson

Long-serving boss Kelly, though, is encouraged with progress, a direction he insists has been driven by the Eisner family’s financial input.

‘I am not sitting here panicking saying “Oh my God we haven’t delivered anything”. I am sitting here quite happy going “Okay, how do we build?”,’ said Kelly.

‘I am happy going through that pace because I believe we have kids for the future still here and still working.

‘New academy facilities are in the plans, that is in the discussion, but it’s not going to happen overnight. You don’t stick a dome on it, you have to find a good training ground for the future.

Mark Kelly

‘Just because it’s not in a public forum every two minutes, it doesn't mean discussions aren’t going on.

‘It’s a bit like the ground, things will happen, things will start to roll, because that’s basically what the man (Michael Eisner) stated – and that's what he is doing.

‘You are looking at the stadium, training ground facilities, all of these things are being discussed, it's not something which isn’t happening.

‘However, it’s not one of those things you are going to pull out of a hat very, very quickly, there’s a long-term plan for the football club.

‘From an academy point of view, since the owners came in there has been a lot more help on simple things, the staffing has improved, travel, the scouting system, things which we didn’t really have before because money was tight.

‘Facilities is the next thing, such as where do we grow as a club? People are actively looking at it, it is starting to roll.’

The Purbook-based Sillett has become the third member of academy staff to link up with Brighton in little more than two years.

He followed the man he replaced at Fratton Park, Dave Wright, while under-18s coach Mikey Harris left in November 2017.

For Sillett, the opportunity to become the Premier League club’s national scout co-ordinator could not be resisted.

Pompey’s former physio said: ‘There was the lure of Premier League Category 1, you always want to work at the highest level, so there was definitely some of that behind it.

‘I am still ambitious, I still want to work at the top, I have worked quite a bit in Premier League clubs in different roles and if you are involved in sport you want to reach such levels.

‘There was also frustration for a few reasons, that would be down to category status to a degree, and I felt I could do a little more – maybe I can in the new role.

‘I now have a totally different remit, rather than a mission statement of scouting Category 1 clubs for lads who have been released and trying to make them better, my remit is to now go to Category 2 and 3 clubs and look for their better players.

‘So it has spun on its head totally.’

Somebody to have recently pledged his future to the Blues is highly-promising Jack Fox, a 14-year-old central defender who last month signed a two-year scholarship.

An uncommon step for someone that age, it represents Pompey’s desire to retain emerging young talent, the agreement coming into force once he reaches 16.

The pupil from Bay House School, Gosport, is a season-ticket holder in the North Stand lower, a regular attendee since aged four, while has been on the club’s books since May 2014.

Dad Jamie acknowledges he had heard of interest in his son from clubs outside of Pompey, yet feels the Blues’ academy remains the most beneficial place for development.

Fox said: ‘I am told Pompey don’t usually hand out two-year scholarships to players as young as Jack, but they wanted to show their faith in him – while it gives him security.

‘We live in Gosport and are season-ticket holders, it’s that representing your home-town team which appeals, not all players are going to do that. That deal allows him to attempt to reach the goal he wants.

‘At the time he joined Pompey under-nines, he was also trialling at Bournemouth and Reading, but this is a real family-orientated club and I do like that. You can talk to anyone here, especially the likes of Jon Slater (head of education and welfare).

‘I was told by sources there was interest in Jack, but logistically I just don’t see a lot of sense for Jack to go elsewhere.

‘Travelling for something like a three-hour turnaround for training three or four times a week isn’t good for any boy in my opinion, not at that age.

‘Kids can fall out of love with the game, you see it happen at this age, their commitment goes, so you have to be careful.’

While there is a potential pathway for Fox into the first team, the academy’s own development is not so clear.

An area larger than the Copnor Road training ground they currently share with the first team is required to reach Category 2 level, plus a significant financial input.

Kelly insists such options continue to be explored by owners Tornante.

The Blues’ academy boss: ‘Let me tell you, it’s not all about money.

‘You have to plan these things, you have to look at what you need, where the growth is, the facilities, building it out – and that takes time.

‘I don’t think the chairman has moved from what he said when he arrived. We will build, everything is getting looked at.

‘We’ve had new staff and we’ve grown, we’ve got to that point – but it’s where the club goes which is the next key.’