By Jason McKeown
Mark ‘Mega’ Ellis spent almost all of the 1980s playing on the left wing for Bradford City. 20 years on and long-since retired, the Bradfordian continues to supply important assists for his hometown club.
Ellis’ influence on the present day Bantams can be found on and off the pitch. He played a pivotal role in David Baldwin joining the club in 2007 (Baldwin was an apprentice at Valley Parade when Ellis was playing, though Mark admits he can’t remember him) and neither of City’s current first choice strike partnership, James Hanson and Nahki Wells, would have signed for the club without Ellis’ contribution. The latter joined City 18 months ago after impressing on a football educational scheme Ellis and Baldwin set up and now jointly manage – an initiative that it’s hoped the club will benefit further from over the coming years.
Known as the Richmond International Academic & Soccer Academy – RIASA – the Bantams are in talks about formalising an agreement that will see Ellis’ set-up take on the role of the Bradford City Development Squad. This includes the club having first option over the best players that RIASA brings through.
“Bradford City now have access to a worldwide network of youth talent,” explained Mark when I met him for a drink in the Narrow Boat pub in Skipton on Sunday evening. “We have already got a hardcore of eight who are about to start training at the Bradford City facilities at Woodhouse Grove, and there’s also a couple of lads in the squad for Bradford City’s reserve game against Rotherham on Tuesday.”
The birth of RIASA
While many footballers of the 1980s might have run a pub or gone into management after retirement, Ellis has enjoyed something of a jet-set lifestyle since hanging up the boots, running football coaching camps in America for the last 25 years. Spotting that there were a number of young Americans who could potentially make it as professional soccer players, but were lacking opportunities, Ellis began to shape an idea that would eventually lead to the creation of RIASA, albeit via one false start.
“There are so many good players over in America, who wanted the opportunity to come and play in England,” explained Ellis. “It’s not straightforward to get these players over to the UK, because they need Visas and such. But then we went to a conference in Philadelphia and someone said ‘there’s a guy called Paul Topping and I want you to go and meet him, because he has a football club in Belgium and I think you could work with him’.
“Mark Lawn, before he bought into Bradford City, would also come over to America to help run these football camps, and after becoming joint Chairmen we both went to meet Paul in Toronto. We spoke about setting up a partnership with his Belgium club, Royal Racing Football Club Montegnée.
“It helped that they had a player, Billy Topp, ready to go, he had a German passport. Paul said to me ‘I’ve got this really good player’ who I had never seen before, and basically brought him over to City for a trial. But there were so many problems and they were so unprofessional in terms of arranging international clearance and even arranging clearance from Billy Topp’s club in Chile. And so eventually Bradford paid something like £35k to get the clearance for him to play. They also paid for him to have an operation. They invested quite a bit of money on him.
“So I put them all together, but then Paul Topping decided that he didn’t need me anymore and started working directly himself with Bradford City. And so I thought ‘fair enough, you go for it’. They sent another three or four players over for Bradford City to look at, who were probably North East Counties standard at best. And I realised that they didn’t know what they were doing and so let them get on with it, knowing that it was all going to go pear-shaped.”
At this point Mark linked up with David Baldwin – by now a good friend after they first met at a charity match held for PC Sharon Beshenivsky, and who Ellis had put in contract with Mark Lawn, paving the way for Baldwin joining the Bantams – to set up RIASA. “Me, David and another Bradford lad who lives in Ohio set RIASA up,” revealed Ellis. “We investigated how we could set the structure up properly so that young footballers in America could come over to England and train, and then see if we could attract suitable interest for them.
“We approached Richmond University in London, which is the only American university in England where the boys can obtain suitable Visas. They came up to Bradford to meet us, and it went on from there. RIASA’s going from strength to strength.”
Based at Leeds Metropolitan University, RIASA is a football education scheme which provides international students, primarily from the States, with the opportunity to develop their skills and play in England; with the aim of building their experience and, for many, showcasing their talents to professional clubs in Europe.
RIASA fields teams in different leagues, so students have the opportunity to play competitive football. A long-standing partnership with Eccleshill United, thanks to Ellis’ contacts, means RIASA provide their reserve and U19 teams. RIASA did have a team in West Yorkshire Football League, but are withdrawing it in favour of playing Development Squad fixtures. The coaching team includes John Hendrie and Bobby Davison.
How are students found? “We’ve got a really good scouting network in the States,” answered Ellis. “We’ve got one overall head scout who is on a full time wage, and we’ve got five other head scouts on part time salaries who work throughout the United States, scouting the best players.
“Now I suppose the competition we are up against is the big Universities in America who can offer the best players up to $30-40k scholarships to go to their school. But even then, that’s a limited number of such scholarships available, because these Universities are also recruiting students who play American Football, Basketball, etc – these sports get all the major money over there.
“We’ve had a couple of lads who have paid themselves to come to RIASA and turned scholarship money down, in order to have an opportunity to come to England and be showcased in Europe. Richmond University get all the Visas for them and then they come up to Leeds.”
Currently RIASA had 50 students on the books. Next year Ellis expects them to have between 70 and 80, “Predominately it’s still United States boys at the moment, but we also have some Canadians, a couple from Egypt, a couple from Hong Kong, and Dubai – it’s becoming worldwide.”
As if to demonstrate this international flavour, one of the RIASA players in the Bradford City reserve game tomorrow was born in Spain and grew up in South Korea. “I think that we are getting better and better players, and I expect that, next year, we will have better players then what we have at the moment,” commented Ellis. “We have a strong pool of at least 12-14 players who we believe could play at some level in Europe, like Bradford City.
“Last season our squad had a behind closed doors friendly at Valley Parade with Archie Christie’s Development Squad. We were a bunch of college kids, while their side featured trialist players released from Premier League and Championship clubs. We lost 5-3, but we did so well and I was so proud of them. Going out there against a really experienced team and losing narrowly.”
The Boy from Bermuda
Undoubtedly RIASA’s most celebrated alumni is Bradford City striker Nahki Wells, who burst onto the Valley Parade last season and is now being talked up as the best forward in League Two. Ellis shared the story of his emergence, “Nahki was playing in West Yorkshire League games for us and had something about him, but unless you give him a chance you’ll never know.
“So I called Greg Abbott at Carlisle up and asked him about giving him a trial. And the reason I went to Carlisle first was because I was still a bit miffed off with what had happened with Paul Topping. Nahki was up there for a couple of weeks, Greg called me up and said ‘yeah we’ll take him on until the end of the year, we really like him’. Then I had to get David Baldwin involved to sort out the financial side of things.
“But then, surprisingly, Greg let Nahki go. So I went back to David and said ‘I think you should take him to Bradford City’. We then spoke to Mark Lawn about it, and that’s how we got him to Bradford. It was due to David’s position as Head of Operations.”
Yet Wells is not the only success story, with Ellis quick to highlight two other graduates who have made a success of playing professionally in Finland. One is called Christian Eissele, who last season was the top scorer of the Finland league for PS Kemi Kings. The 20-year-old is currently back in his home country of USA, training with FC Orlando City, who play in the division below the MLS and are showing a strong interest. Six weeks ago Eissele played in Orlando’s friendly against Italian Champions AS Roma.
However, Christian’s story does reveal a downside of RIASA from a Bradford City perspective: not all students have the necessary paperwork to play professionally in England. Ellis revealed of Eissele, “Probably no one knows this, but Christian played for Bradford City in behind closed doors friendlies against Stockport and Barrow, and he did absolutely brilliant. And if he had the right passport, I’m sure he would be in Bradford City’s first team squad now.
“John Hendrie is looking after him now. He might go to a big club in Norway or go back and play for FC Orlando, who should be an MLS club within the next two years. Someone like Christian could eventually play for the US national team, and all of a sudden they become eligible to play over here.”
Ellis estimates that approximately 30-35% of RIASA’s current players have the right passport to enable them to play professionally in England, if they are good enough.
The new-look Development Squad
Last November, David Baldwin told Width of a Post that the RIASA programme would act as Bradford City’s Development Squad. Although Ellis explained to me that this arrangement has yet to be finalised (“Mark Lawn approached me to say Bradford City are interested in linking up, I am waiting to speak to him again, probably after the cup final”) this tie-up will enable City to have first dibs over RIASA’s best players.
“Bradford City get to look at the best players who are eligible” confirmed Ellis. “And if someone is exceptional like Christian was, they can look at them for the future. That’s how we see it working. I’ve told all my scouts in America that the perfect player to find is someone who is excellent, and someone who has the right passport to play in England. That’s the cream on the cake.
“The idea is to get them into Bradford City. They’re all very technical in America, they get good technical coaching. They can play. Other clubs are recognising this market too. Manchester City have been over there for the last two years, Brian Marwood, their Football Administration Officer, is desperate to get into America, because he realises that there is a lot of talent there.”
With the Archie Christie Development Squad disbanded because of concerns over cost, what about the financial obligations of RIASA? “There is no cost at all to Bradford City,” stated Ellis. “For me it’s great running RIASA and to be linked with a professional club. Bradford City is not just ideal because of my connections and great memories there; but being at Leeds Met, we are based five miles away from Bradford City’s training facilities. So it takes 15 minutes to transport the boys over.
“My job now, as I see it, is to get the next player into the first team at Bradford. I would love to do that.”
The James Hanson story
Away from RIASA, Ellis admits that the rise and rise of James Hanson has left him feeling equally proud, after he played a pivotal role in the former shelf stacker getting through the door at Valley Parade, as Ellis was coaching him at Eccleshill United. “With James, first of all he was at Eccleshill and I took him into Stanley College from Shipley College,” explained Ellis. “Then I got a first team coach job at Guiseley on a part-time basis, which fitted in brilliantly for me, and straight away I said to Terry Dolan (then-Guiseley manager) let’s get James in.
“James did really well for Guiseley, so I was really battling for Bradford City to take a look at him. Because lots of other clubs were also looking at him, but no one would take a chance. In the end I got into Stuart’s ear and urged him to bring James in on trial.
“I eventually turned round to James and said ‘I’m so fed up of this, do you want to try Carlisle?’ and James, who was desperate to get into professional football, said ‘I’ll be honest with you, I’ve just bought a house in Bradford, so I’d rather not’. So it was back to urging Stuart to take him on trial, which he did. I was in America at the time of the trial, but I remember he scored in a friendly at Bradford Park Avenue and he was doing well, eventually getting a contract. I went to watch him make his full debut at Notts Forest in the cup, and it kicked on from there.
“James is a really nice lad. I know his dad as well. So I feel pretty good that both he and Nahki are doing so well.”
And when Bradford City march out at Wembley for the League Cup Final, with Hanson and Wells up front, plus Baldwin in the directors’ box, Ellis, who will be present in the stands with his dad, admits he will be an extremely proud man. So what does the much-celebrated former City winger make of the 2013 crop? “They’ve got a really good team spirit there and are really organised. You need a spirit. I always say to my lads that it’s not about you it’s about the team.
“I’m really pleased, and like everyone else I can’t believe they’ve made the League Cup Final.”