INTERVIEW: Streatham Rovers FC’s New Head Of Youth Development

Xtermin8 Rat Poison League side Streatham Rovers have pulled off quite the coup by teaming up with youth football visionary Mitch Brannigan. His P.A.S.S.I.O.N. Academy of innovative development methods will run alongside the South London club’s traditional youth set up with immediate effect, with Brannigan overseeing both in his new role as Head of Youth.

Mitch Brannigan, Youth Football Innovator

Ahead of our interview in a Croydon hotel I had been warned that Brannigan is a “full throttle” character, but as someone who has successfully quizzed Chuka Umunna on a comedown I wasn’t concerned. But the first thing that strikes you about Brannigan is his brooding intensity. There’s a nervous energy, a buzz about him. An almost artistic quality that perhaps shouldn’t surprise us considering his outspoken commitment to controversial techniques.

I dive right in there. “Okay Mitch, tell us about the cheesegraters.” His steely gaze is unmoved. He barely even registers his Premier Inn cappuccino.

“There’s a small town on the border of Brazil and Uruguay. Cerro La Pedrito. Ever heard of it?” His voice, at once rich and luxurious but also threatening, is hard to place (but easy to write prose about). No Mitch, I cough half apologetically, I haven’t heard of it.

“You should have. That town…” He savours the words. “…produces the highest rate of professional footballers per capita in the whole world.” Words spat like daggers. “This one tiny, forgotten, dusty bordertown…. And you know why?” I can guess, but the question’s rhetorical. “Because, for the last 40 years, they’ve been gaffa taping cheesegraters to children’s feet.”

The words hit me like sledgehammers, breaking down my resistance, my disbelief. Each syllable at once appalling and yet enticing my desire for progressive, innovative football. I repeat the words back.

“Not both feet, of course,” Brannigan states matter-of-factly. “Only ever the favoured foot. Otherwise it would be cruel and pointless.” The cerebral pieces of the mental jigsaw fall into place, in my mind. “It forces… well, encourages them to use their weaker foot. If you start them young enough, before 5 ideally, you can eventually produce truly two-footed players. I’ve got 12 year olds who can do things with both feet Messi could only dream of.”

It’s been a winding, up-and-down journey for Brannigan. A journeyman central defender at various League Two and Conference clubs over the last decade, he briefly hit the headlines after being sentenced over an unfortunate incident at a nightclub that saw him hospitalise three students and a DJ after the latter, perhaps foolishly, refused to play Livin’ On A Prayer by Bon Jovi (“I’m a changed man,” he explains. “I’ve bounced back. But that DJ still eats through a tube… It’s all about desire.”)

He came out of prison a reformed man. By then in his early 30s, he realised his playing career was at an end, but his next journey was just beginning. “I sold the house, maxxed out four credit cards and travelled the world in search of the best coaching methods. I wanted to change football.” It was during his travels he chanced upon Cerro La Pedrito.

“It’s a tiny town, doesn’t even have a wikipedia page.” Damn, I think to myself. “But one day it will. I’ll make sure of it.” Brannigan isn’t averse to making bold statements. He has made repeated claims that his training methods would win England a World Cup within twenty years if he was put in full control by the FA. “But football in this country is run by dinosaurs. They’re self-serving, protecting their little fiefdom, unwilling to make even the slightest change.” Such as taping cheesegraters to children’s feet? “Exactly!”

But many parents aren’t as conservative. Brannigan’s Fromaĝomuskato Junulara Futbalo Lernejoj network of football schools recently opened their 25th franchise in Torquay. Aren’t the parents concerned about cheesegraters being attached to their children’s bare feet?

“Not at all,” explains Brannigan. “These people are desperate for their children to become professional footballers. We’re talking about something precious here — people’s vicarious dreams. Sacrifices must be made. And anyway, are you seriously telling me half the parents at traditional youth teams don’t beat their children once they get home if they haven’t scored a hat-trick?! It’s normal. It’s natural.”

The P.A.S.S.I.O.N. Academy in Thornton Heath is sometimes mistaken for an 80s theme bar.

At the epicentre of Brannigan’s footballing empire is the P.A.S.S.I.O.N. Academy in Thornton Heath. It is here that a select group of teenagers, turned down by professional clubs’ academies, train intensely under Brannigan’s methods. It stands for “Performance Aspirational Sporting Success Initiates Off-field Never-giving-up”. But what of those who don’t make it?

“We believe in training the whole individual, not just the footballer. Each of our boys attends NVQ training and specialised courses in re-integrating into society.” Re-integrating? “Look, a lot of these kids in South London…” He mulls over his words carefully. “…A lot of them are, shall we say… genetically predisposed towards crime. We strike before it’s too late. Before they’ve had their lives ruined by a criminal record. Ten hours of training a day, two hours NVQ, then twelve hours locked in our custom-built cells. It’s for their own good.” Is that not… expensive? “We get lottery funding. We’re a social enterprise.”

And when they leave the P.A.S.S.I.O.N. Academy — those who haven’t found contracts at a football club? “Those who don’t make it only have themselves to blame. It’s all about desire, will to succeed, passion. And anyway, with an NVQ Level 2 in Elderly Care they’re set up for life.”

Talk turns to the deal with Streatham Rovers. “I’m absolutely raring to go. Streatham have a progressive innovative manager in Taff Goose. He’s the most advanced manager in non-league football. Sabermetrics, three-at-the-back, virtual reality, paintballing, warm weather conditioning breaks in Hastings, Soccernomics reading groups. He experiments with it all. We are a good fit. The club’s owners want to reach the Football League within five years. With my two-footed youth players coming through, we’ll win the Premier League within ten.”

Fighting talk from one of life’s fighters.