In this exclusive interview with Soccerex, Ritchie Jeune, Owner of Kettering Town FC in the UK and Shantou Lions in China, shares his experience at the forefront of the international football academy group Future Lions and points out the great business opportunities China's Football Reform Plan provides to foreign coaches and academies.

Hi Ritchie, thank you very much for taking some time to talk to us today. Would you mind starting off by outlining what role Future Lions is currently playing in China?

We currently provide player development and coach development in mainland China. This ranges from providing football coaching in local schools as part of their PE lessons, to introducing an educational/football pathway for Chinese students who want to train and learn in the UK via our existing internal football academy. We also provide the reverse for western players looking to study or play in mainland China, and facilitate Chinese coaches with coaching courses. We have our own academy facilities with grass based pitches in Southern China and are expecting to open 11 new training centres in 2018. All of our activities are underpinned by our bespoke academy development software and app.

That sounds very interesting, especially given the huge rise in the development of academies and coaching in China. What do you think are the main differences between running an academy in China and running one in the UK? Have you faced any major challenges when trying to apply a specific methodology/mindset from one country to the other?

The actual day to day functions of running the academy in both regions mirror each other. We follow the same structure and training programme. What is different is the level of government support, both from local Chinese schools and regional governments. They are much more supportive of both the training as well as football culture exchange events. I think the UK being such a mature market and with established Premier League clubs providing community programmes, it is less inclined to engage with smaller clubs and academies. 

With sports teams and athletes from all over the world desperate to gain that crucial competitive advantage over their rivals, what do you think are the key issues that your specialised app and academy development services address?

The key area where we differentiate from what might be the standard coaching app, which provides session plans, is that we have extended beyond sessions selection and focus on coach development with senior coaches being able to review and view sessions delivered by more junior coaches. The player development is also tracked alongside. This provides academies a basis from which to evaluate players and coaches, ensuring that they are delivering the right age appropriate coaching and the right standard to ensure both coach and player develop.

In addition we have integrated third party tools such as the FieldWiz GPS and a number of physical and psychological tests. These provide a full player profile from a single portal. It’s in essence a Level 1 Academy solution with all the areas of player and coach analytics, but you do not need a Premier League academy staff budget to be able to get the data you need, or a Premier League budget to licence the software.

The grassroots focus in China’s Football Reform Plan is on both talent development and using football to promote social values and a healthy lifestyle. How do your academies serve the growth of the game in China and how do you help transition talents to a higher professional stage?

We studied the 50 point Reform Plan very closely before embarking on our strategic plan for mainland China. We have created several areas and applications for the wider local population to hear and start to appreciate the football culture. A wider interest in football as a way to keep fit and active is a key message. We run open free sessions. Everton in the Community came out and provided coaching to over 100 kids in the summer as one example. 

Because we follow the UK academy model and mix local Chinese coached with British UEFA A & B coaches, that gives the local coaching staff invaluable mentoring and peer support to enable them to move on to bigger and better things. Too many coaches are sent to the UK to do a 3-month course, and once back in China, have zero support networks or any day to day support to continue their professional growth.

With players we have the same philosophy as we have everywhere: find the best talent we can from the local area, develop the player and provide them a pathway to reach their potential.  The academy software helps to identify the best players, it allows us to track their progress and it provides the basis for any club wanting to understand the complete picture of the player’s psychological, physical and technical development, from their very first training session to their very last.

Showcasing talent is the backbone of grassroots football. We run a number of teams at different age groups. We are also building links with League 1 and Super League clubs.

Future Lions is not your only football interest; you have been the owner of Kettering Town FC since 2013. Given these two roles, is there any interaction between the academies and the club for this player transition, and are you hoping to find within the former a future football star for your club?

I own both Kettering Town FC in the UK and Shantou Lions is China. I think that both are a solid basis from which players can progress from an academy into first team football and, via a feeder club mentality, onto bigger and better things. We have already produced one England U18 School boy and expect one lad to be called up to the Kenyan National squad in the New Year.  We have also taken 4 youth English players over to China on contract with the Shantou Lions. China is seen as the place to go and fill your bank account at the end of your career. I see it as a much less competitive market for good young talent than the National League or Leagues 1 & 2. The standard of football currently at the higher levels of Chinese football means these lads do have something to offer. More importantly, the experience gained playing for a professional Chinese team is far better preparation for the Championship or the Premier League because the Chinese teams have the infrastructure in place; whereas the lower leagues in the UK simply do not have the funds. Go and make a name for yourself in China, earn more, get world class coaching and then look to get your move to a UK club.

The Chinese football market has been experiencing an exciting period of growth through ground-breaking transfer records and huge investments in football education and academies. Where do you see this market heading towards in 10 year’s time?

I think the Chinese FA is doing the right thing in taxing these very high transfer fees. They have a plan to grow football and grow the talent pool in China, so that they can fully develop as a footballing nation. I think we forget that prior to the Premier League, 65-70% of players were from their respective home nations. Looking at other European leagues, they still have high percentage of nationals playing within their highest leagues. 

Currently football is free to view in China, which forms another point within the National Reform Plan. This will inevitably change in the next 10 years. As will the other inevitability: that Chinese teams who get the football culture right for their local environment will have massive earning potential. Couple these two together and the financial clout those clubs will have on the global market will be huge, BUT, built on potentially the largest fan base on the planet, should also make it sustainable.

Finally, you participated at the Soccerex Global Convention last September. What were your key takeaways from the event, and who are you interested in meeting at our event in China?

It was our first event with Soccerex and we loved it. For China, we are keen on meeting coaches who might want to franchises our academy model in other areas of China. To meet existing academy setups who can benefit from our hardware and software.

Thank you very much for your time Ritchie. It has been a pleasure speaking with you and we look forward to welcoming Future Lions at Soccerex China next April.

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