Four months since his appointment as under 19s coach, Chukwuma Akuneto has wasted no time getting to work with the youngsters progressing through the ranks at Boundary Park.
Because of a change in EFL funding, Latics have had to source this year’s crop of 16-year-olds from open trials, instead of bringing them through the traditional scholarship pathway.
It’s meant that Chuks and his coaches have had to bring the new lads up to speed with how a professional academy operates, but he’s confident that they’ve made the right steps in their first few months.
“Initially it was a little bit difficult, a little bit disjointed, because of the change in how our youth programme ran.
“The players who started in the youth team this summer weren’t scholars, we had to recruit them from open trials, take the very best from those who came, and match that with the second years.
“Most of the lads who we brought in during the summer have never been in an academy before, so we had to bring them up to scratch with what to expect here.
“Whilst they were integrating, they were also being asked to go and play against players who have been in and around the academy system for years.
“In some games we made fundamental errors, whether that be mental, tactical, technical, some of it was physical and game knowledge.
“We were unlucky in a few games, we’d concede a goal and three of four heads would drop, but now we’re beginning to understand what it takes to play at this level.”
With Latics 14th in the EFL Youth Alliance, it’s fair to say that the opening games of the season haven’t been plain sailing, with a good win against Walsall and draw away at Harrogate in their last two games, the former Stockport Academy coach thinks the youngsters have turned a corner, and can kick on from here.
“What the players have needed is time, but the fixtures have come quick and fast and other clubs have the luxury of using their 19-year-olds, ours are out on loan gaining first-team experience so they can’t play for us.
“The new players are willing to learn and have learned. If you look at where they were in July and where they are now, they’re different players, they’re different people.
“This environment can intimidate you if you’ve never been in it before, if you’ve only played at grassroots and not been in a professional coaching session, then you’ve got a lot to learn, but the players have handled it brilliantly.
“We’ve always played with at least five first years this season, sometimes more because of injuries or other issues, so I’m proud of the progress they’ve made in an academy environment.
“Everyone here, including all the coaches, have been nothing but supportive, and I think the only way is up.”
Working with what’s at your disposal is important for Chuks, spending time developing players who’d been deemed ‘not good enough’ by other academies, instilling confidence in them and allowing the prospects to show their true potential.
Moulding the young lads, developing them into what you need, to be an Oldham player is a key component of the youth team philosophy.
It’s something he’s keen to do, having worked with countless youth squads in recents years around the Manchester area.
“Some of the players have been told they’re not good enough by previous clubs, some of them have been told that they can’t play, so they’re also battling that in their heads, and it’s important that they believe what we tell them when we say they can play.
“We’ve started to implement a style of play which best suits the players we have.
“There are many things that make someone an Oldham player, we want them to be strong, resilient, and work well in a team so they’re hard to break down.
“The team are playing possession based football, and that’s great for the players because it gives them confidence to pass and receive the ball.
“We don’t have many big physical players, most of them are average size, who are good with the ball at their feet.
“The coaches are trying to develop the players technically, but also the mental side of them, so they have the right frame of mind to play.
“In our last two games, where we won one and drew one, there were points in the game where we’d have lost it a month ago.
“There were times when they had to dig deep, so I think it’s a testament to their progression and growth that they saw out those games.
“I hope their recent performances will give them confidence for the fixtures for the rest of the season.”
The youth team are next in action at home to Accrington Stanley on Tuesday 21st November, kicking off at 13:00 at Chapel Rold.
Supporters are welcome to attend, free of charge.