“THERE are some great things in place at this academy, but there’s an awful lot where we can do more.”

Dan Harris made that statement when he arrived at Oxford United to take charge of the academy 12 months ago and it still stands today.

There have been tangible signs of progress this week alone – the club’s under 18s won their first league title for a dozen years on Tuesday.

Next Wednesday they take on Bournemouth for a place in the last 16 of the FA Youth Cup, with three of the squad having appeared for the first team in 2018.

But the clearest sign of all is the venue. While a year ago Harris set out the club’s hopes in a temporary building at Roman Way, now there is the comparative luxury of their new home near Horspath.

“It’s very easy to say we’re a club moving forward and trying to go in the right direction,” he said.

“This is a very visible piece of evidence that backs that up.”

There is plenty more which gives those in the academy pride – and it is the cultural side which shines brightest for Harris.

He said: “It’s the stuff behind the scenes that I’m much more proud of.

“For example, I look at the way our boys went about Remembrance Day – every single young man in our building lined up at the training ground while one of our under 15s read the Last Post. It was just class.

“Everyone shakes their coach’s hand when they come in.

“I’m seeing young lads walking round picking bits of litter up that aren’t theirs.

“Those little things run deep, because they speak to the character of the men we’re trying to produce.”


  • 221 triallists
  • 79% win rate across the age groups
  • 18 staff changes
  • 9 Under 18s agree professional contracts
  • 5 wins against Category 1 clubs since July

That is commendable, but the former Glasgow Celtic coach is well aware his job depends on creating an environment which produces a conveyor belt of talent for the first team.

“We are fiercely committed to trying to produce players who can play in the Premier League,” he said.

“I’m not interested in a few minutes in the Checkatrade Trophy.

“It’s an important step, but that can’t be the highlight.”

Along with communication and facilities, recruitment was seen as a core area to focus on during 2018.

Oxford Mail:

  • Oxford United head of academy Dan Harris (right) with Slavi Spasov after the striker agreed professional terms in October

The aim was to go on the offensive when it came to young talent in Oxfordshire, which had been a fertile source for other clubs in the region.

It cannot be changed overnight, but Harris points to a success story which is a decade away from bearing fruit.

He said: “We’ve offered 11 registrations to under nines for next season and eight live within two miles of the Kassam Stadium.

“We’re trying to make sure the best in our backyard play for us.

“We’ve had to have a real tear-up with some clubs to get to that point.

“It really excites me to say we’ve got young men who can see our stadium from their bedroom window.

“That’s Roy of the Rovers stuff.”

The 39-year-old is keen to emphasise the calibre of staff at all age levels and continuing to drive up standards is the priority in 2019.

Further into the future there is an ambitious goal which will take plenty of time and money, to progress from a Category 3 set-up.

Harris said: “The club wants to be a sustainable Championship club and hopefully being a Category 2 academy would be part of that process.

“The clubs in the region at that level are the likes of Birmingham City, QPR and Coventry.

“It might not happen, but that’s what we’re aiming for.

“We had an audit process from the Premier League over the last 12 months which was very positive – that’s credit to Les (Taylor, academy head of coaching) and the guys who were here before me.

“The overriding sense of sitting here a year into it is what a phenomenal opportunity we all have here at Oxford United.

“What this club could be is so exciting.”

DETAIL is key in recruitment at all levels – and social media is becoming an increasingly important source of information.

Scouts can give an idea of a player’s ability, but clubs head online to learn about their character.

“We are very thorough because ultimately I want people to be fiercely proud of the young men we bring in and I want to know about their character,” says Dan Harris, Oxford United’s head of academy.

“If someone is sticking pictures up on Instagram at 1.30am that raises question marks about their sleeping patterns.

“If someone is liking posts from certain influences that perhaps aren’t all that healthy, that tells me a little bit about their mindset.

“They are tiny indicators you can use to figure out what you’re bringing in.

“You have to be realistic that with anyone you bring in there will some flaws, as there are in all of us.

“But I back our programme and culture to say we want to know what they are and we’ll work with you on hopefully improving those.”