As featured in the Guardian:

It’s handshakes and cheek-kisses all round as a troop of young men come tearing into the building having returned from their run around the Parc de la Pede lake. The under-21 squad jaunt past a mural of a budding Romelu Lukaku and disappear into the gymnasium.

“It was Romelu’s father who pushed us to start collaborations with schools. At 15-years-old he was becoming famous and there was a lot of interest. He told me “Lille, Lens, Auxerre and Saint-Étienne are all interested in my son and all of those clubs can provide him with school, accommodation and football education. There’s everything.” A few months later we started the ‘Purple Talents Project’ – now more than 10 years later it’s the ‘Purple Talent Programme’ – as it’s no longer a project.”

Academy Director Jean Kindermans continues “The programme includes morning sessions which our professional coaches give to our most talented players in the schools. These individual classes are based on the technical development of players. We have a club philosophy which places importance on technical perfection and collegiate intelligence in school. Romelu spent an hour on finishing every morning before continuing with academic studies.”

“We don’t like to swamp children’s minds with too much information. It’s better to work intensely for short periods of time than to do the same things at a slower pace for longer amounts of time. Being around other things and socializing with people with various hobbies and interests is key.”

On the outskirts of the Belgian capital, the R.S.C. Anderlecht training centre is nestled beside chalets, picturesque regional parks and educational institutes. Beaming with pride, Kindermans boasts of the club’s unprecedented knack for spotting talent from within the Brussels region and bottling it up with the natural skills that young players already possess before developing them further.

“We try to have the best Brussels players before we move to 11-a-side-football at under-13. So with lads from under-6 to under-12, we only focus on the ones living in the local area. Depending on the character, age, culture and parents, we will look at youngsters from further away if they are extra special – but it’s very hard to tear a boy of that age from their family – though it’s better to stay with a guest family than spend two or three hours in a traffic jam.”

With subjective eyes watching on through the gym windows, the under-17s are put through their paces by Coach Noureddine Moukrim; small rondos develop into a larger possession game with goalkeepers used as neutral targets on both ends. Moukrim steps in to give lengthy chats to a huddle every 10 to 15 minutes before the session develops into a finishing pattern.

Across the complex on the under-15s pitch, the younger group are doing a similar finishing exercise with wingers cutting inside to deliver in-swinging crosses. I notice the coach becoming increasingly irked with one of the overlapping full-backs. With the constant remarks and critics of the timing of the run and final delivery, the teenager shows no expression; simply persisting with his scanty efforts.

“We have to deal with each kid in a different way. We have so many diverse religions, cultures, languages and nationalities here. Every individual reacts to various approaches in different ways. We adapt to each background; two feet and a healthy head make the difference here.”

Kindermans progresses “Anderlecht is the street. We are a mirror of the community. Brussels is like London, like Paris, like any big city; the multiculturalism is an advantage to us. Take Vincent Kompany, from an African father and Belgian mother; a humble family with no fancy car, educated in the centre of Brussels. He would take a tram here and then a nocturnal-bus back home late at night after training. He was influenced by the street.”

“Vincent’s a very clever guy. I don’t have a crystal ball but I’m convinced that he’ll come back here and have an important part to play. He’s a natural born leader. You don’t need to have a masters in psychology to know that. Even as he talks and jokes around, he’s just different. He instinctively joins people together into a group and has a huge impact wherever he goes. He has even more qualities around the pitch than he has on it.”

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Kindermans could certainly do with a commanding character like Vincent Kompany around. This is clear when he describes the obstacles which can create a treacherous pathway when attempting to get his staff to buy into certain philosophies and beliefs that are forever evolving: “I don’t like coaches that change clubs every year, stability is key. Our coaches are often tutored by psychologists and pedagogical teachers. There’s a mix between ex-professional players and “degree coaches” here and of course people have their own instincts; but it’s not enough to just have one way of thinking, you need to be a long-life-learner, a people manager, a psychologist.”

“The real art of being a coach is to translate your ideas to players and get them to buy into your theories.”

The former Anderlecht midfielder continues tentatively, “Children change, football changes. I make my coaches watch Champions League games and analyse matches. It’s important to surround yourself with the modern game. We used to just look for 70% ball possession, but what good is having the ball if you do nothing with it? We now work on having 70% progressive, efficient ball possession. We’ve added finishing into all sessions, otherwise we’d have the ball but lose every game 1-0. The club training philosophy is ‘Win the ball – Keep the ball – Progress – Create – Finish – Win’ it’s a cycle that we preach to everybody in the building.”

Pressure is put on players through compelling challenges as coaches are expected to create realistic scenarios in which youngsters can profit from, carrying the intensity into game situations. “You can lose the winning spirit if you only work on educational factors, yet it’s not good to only coach players to win. There needs to be a balance. This is why we made the cycle that creates not only great footballers, but players that are complete. If everything is done well in the build-up then you’ll win games of football.”

“We will prepare to beat each opponent by utilising videos and tactics, whether it’s a ‘high-press’ or ‘spider-web press’ (when teams are invited into areas before pounced upon) but it would be crazy to emulate the style and formation of the first team as we’ve not had a manager stick around for longer than three seasons in the past 15 years!”

“Our academy has a set system of 3-4-3 that develops into a 4-3-3 at under-15 level; but we must be flexible.” he explains further “It depends on our strengths and weaknesses, the opponent, the period of the season and the weight of the game. Once you are 16 or 17-years-old, we expect you to be winning whilst playing the Anderlecht way. The younger groups have a comfort zone where they’ll be in 3-4-3 shapes but players will change positions regularly. I’m not the Godfather, but I believe that creating versatile players will assist in developing intelligent, rounded human beings. If they comply, listen and work hard here then who knows what heights they may reach?”

As the sun falls over the Neerpede training centre, under-21 players chant words of encouragement to younger individuals suffering through strength and conditioning exercises below whilst leaving the gym. Plastered across the wall behind them is the reminder that ‘Hard work beats talent!’

Author: Alex Clapham