U18 Final Build-Up: Interview with Jude Macdonald

This Thursday, The Hawks’ Under 18 side will take to the field in their first ever cup final against Newhaven FC in the Sussex County FA Under 18 Cup Final at Lancing. Ahead of this, we’ve caught up with Manager Jude Macdonald.

The Whitehawk FC Under 18’s were started in 2013 by Jude and former Hawks Defender Sami El-Abd, who at the time were both working with each other at the Football Academy at City College Brighton and Hove. The two set up the side in a bid to improve the quality of players coming through the college football programme. The green light wasn’t given for the team to be set up until July 2013, at which point most of the best boys in the county had already joined teams and started pre-season. As a result, they were threadbare for most of the season and lacking in quality at older ages; fielding teams where most of the players were Under 16. This resulted in the side not managing to pick up a win and drawing 3 games, out of the 18 played.

Since then, the side has gone from strength to strength, culminating in their first League title this season, along with the possibility of three more trophies to come. We asked Jude about how far the team has come and about how things have gone this season –

Q – You’ve gone from a winless first season to a title winning season in just under 4 years and you also have the possibility of adding to the silverware. How would you describe the journey over the past few years?

Jude Macdonald (JM) – Tough would probably be a way to describe it. When you have to watch boys, who are mostly U16 and U17, pack up their stuff after losing 8-0 away in Horsham, you wonder why you bothered taking the role.

The hardest part is recruiting players that want to learn and work hard. Some boys left to go to other clubs, which was difficult when we were trying to build something.

The further struggle is that no first team are realistically going to want to know about youth players who are always losing, so you have to build a winning side. Mark Seltzer (former assistant manager until this season) was a crucial part of recruitment through his knowledge of local players and teams. He is the chairman of Brighton Boys School’s District teams and so was able to notify players and parents about trials. That’s helped us unearth some great players.

I’d like to think that when word gets out around the city that you, as a team, are trying to teach boys the right things, people are happy to trust you as well. We don’t always get it right with the coaching and management, but the aim is to make sure that we are learning, as well as the players.

Q – To say this season has gone well is an understatement. At the beginning of the season, did you believe you would’ve achieved what you have gone onto do?

JM – We knew at the start of the season that we had a good squad assembled, but the difficulty was knowing whether or not the players coming in would step up to the challenges of playing in this league. Clubs like Worthing, Burgess Hill and Eastbourne Borough always produce strong youth teams, so it was important that we had boys who could handle playing against some of those players.

Although some great players left at the end of last season, myself and Mark (Seltzer) had built an environment of success and a winning mentality, so I think we knew that we could get good results this season. A league and two cup finals was definitely not on our minds though!

Q – With a large number of players leaving this Summer, do you think you will be able to keep the winning mentality, or do you think a season like this is a one off?

JM – A season like this will always be a one-off in youth football, or most levels of football to be fair. But whilst winning things is great, the great drive is to develop players who can then go on and play to a higher level. Once you have won something, it will help when you recruit because you can bring boys that have a drive to become better and that’s what we will look for when we replace the boys that are leaving.

The main aim is that the boys leaving have learnt a lot and will be signed by decent men’s teams.

Q – After speaking to a few of your players, they all stated about the environment that you and your coaching team have created where you can have a laugh and a joke, but be serious when needed. Is this something you have intended to do, or has it just developed over time and do you believe this is the best way to get the best out of players at this level?

JM – The atmosphere around the team and club is based on my belief that football, as a sport, should be enjoyed. I place a lot of emphasise on hard work and each player being a small part of the team as a whole, but to get those attitudes they have to enjoy it. If boys want to be there, invariably they will give you everything they have got and generally boys that aren’t too bothered have either upped their game or fallen by the wayside. Whether we win games or not, the bond is strong and we create an environment of self and team development that they have all bought into, which is to their credit.

Q – Going into Thursday’s final, your team haven’t been performing well recently, culminating in last night’s deserved defeat – do you believe a result like that was needed to bring the team back down to earth?

JM – In reality, it’s not that we’re performing ‘badly’, so to speak, it’s just that the standards the boys have set themselves aren’t being reached as much as we would like. There are a lot of sides who would love to play that well so we can’t grumble too much really. Once you win the league, it can be difficult to remain focused on league games, especially when you have a cup final a few days later. What is important for us is that boys have a desire to play the right way and act the right way, whether they’re performing well or not. Everybody (teams and individuals) can have poor games, it’s how you react from them that’s better. We had a lot of players missing on Monday, plus we had (Jordan) Pryor and (Fintan) Walsh just back after injury so we didn’t expect a perfect performance.

Q – It’s fair to say that you will be going into the final as favourites. Newhaven themselves are having a good season and could still end up winning their league – what steps will you be taking to prevent an upset on Thursday and what type of game plan do you think Newhaven will have?

JM – We are lucky from the point of view that we know a few of the Newhaven players and can use our knowledge of them within our preparation, but the 6-0 FA Youth Cup win earlier in the season means absolutely nothing. It’s important to remember that until the 44th min in that game it was 0-0 and they had a couple of chances. If any players, ours or theirs, think there will be a runaway winner in this game, I think they’ll be mistaken.

We know they will be well-drilled under Kieran Ridley (Newhaven Manager), but if we are focused and patient, I’m confident we can do ourselves proud.

Q – Obviously with a squad of 18, some players have had to miss out. How have you come to making these decisions and how hard has it been?

JM – Some of the most difficult decisions I have had to make. It’s horrible telling boys that they’re not in the squad, especially when almost all can give you a catalogue of reasons why they should be playing.

All boys will feature for us in one of the finals so hopefully they will all get a positive experience. It’s football at the end of the day, and that’s what they have to understand.

Q – The season hasn’t finished yet and you could of course end up winning a quadruple! But what has been your highlight of the season?

JM – It’s been a great year so is always difficult to say. The development of the four U16s in the squad and their progression has been great to watch. Similarly, seeing how far Jordan Hawkins, George Coltherd-Walls, Billy Barker and Luke Emberson have come from being U16 players in the 2014/15 season is fantastic to see.

In terms of a game, you can’t beat the Pagham semi-final, playing with 9 players and coming back twice.

Q – What do you believe the future holds for your side?

JM – Hopefully, high level first team football.

The goal is to develop players that understand jobs within a range of formations, a range of positions, an understanding of game management, and how to play the game ‘properly’. If we can create good players and good people, we’ve done ourselves proud.

The Hawks U18’s take on Newhaven U18’s in the Sussex County FA Under 18 Cup Final on Thursday 6th April at Culver Road, Lancing – 7.15PM Kickoff.

Entry prices for the final are as follows:
£3.00 Adult (17+)
£2.00 Concession (65+ and students with valid student ID card)
FREE Child (16 and under)