Former Bradford City hero Mark Ellis talks to Width of a Post editor Jason McKeown about RIASA’s new partnership with the Bantams, which opens the door to some of America’s most promising young players.
After two years without a reserve side, next season Bradford City will once again field a second string team – one that will have an international flavour.
The club has agreed a unique tie-up with RIASA that will see a Bradford City team re-entered into the Football League’s Final Third Development League. The Leeds-based, international football academy – most famous for unearthing Nahki Wells – has offered to take on the running costs of operating a reserve team, in return for the Bantams providing exposure to RIASA’s most promising students.
RIASA (which stands for Richmond International Academic & Soccer Academy) was created by former Bradford City winger Mark Ellis, in partnership with former head of operations David Baldwin. It offers students – primarily from America – the scholarship opportunity of gaining a degree whilst developing their football ability, with the objective of making it as a professional.
The two organisations have informally linked up for several years – not least with the signing of Wells – and this new partnership will provide City with first refusal of signing RIASA’s most promising American footballers.
“When Bradford City last had a reserve team, two or three of the RIASA lads used to play in it and they loved it,” Mark explained to WOAP, after we met him on a rainy Monday evening at Bradford’s Cedar Court Hotel. “Bradford then stopped competing in the reserves league. But I figured it would be great for us and great for Bradford City to get it going again.
“So I went to the City board and did a presentation. I told them it would be a no-brainer for them. That we will take all the costs on, and that we will work with their youth coaches. They were all over it and they agreed to it.”
As a result of this deal, RIASA’s best players will spend one day a week at Bradford City’s rapidly expanding Woodhouse Grove set up, training with the club’s second year pros. Mark added, “The RIASA players who get to train with Bradford City will do so on merit, if they are good enough. And then if they are as good as the second year pros, or even the pros who are doing well at Bradford City, they will get the chance to play with these players in the Final Third League.”
The Bradford City reserve team will be jointly managed by the Bantams’ under-18s coaches and a couple of RIASA’s younger coaches. The reserve team could be made up of City’s best youth players, first team squad members needing a game, and two or three RIASA students. “Between them the coaches will pick the squad on merit,” explained Mark. “It is something that I am going to keep out of. Hopefully it will work out for everybody.
“We’ve been down there and had a couple of meetings. I know the Bradford City youth coaches already. Our lads are great lads, they’ve both almost finished their UEFA A Licence and I think it will be a good working partnership.”
A step up for RIASA
It won’t be the first time that RIASA has helped to operate a football club’s youth team. Up until recently, they ran Eccleshill United’s reserve and Under 19 teams – a partnership that lasted several years.
Mark stated that the tie-up with Bradford City will be a step up for RIASA students, away from the negative side of non-league football. “We run three teams in the Lancashire league. And you play teams like Stockport County, Hyde United and Stalybridge Celtic, and their grounds are really nice. It’s a really good experience for the players.
“However, some of the other non-league grounds we have been playing at have been awful. Not only are the grounds awful, but the sportsmanship of the other teams can be questionable. It’s not always a great experience, whereas I think playing for a professional club against professional players will be.”
Especially as it means the RIASA players will have the opportunity to play in the relatively glamorous surroundings of City’s stadium, not to mention away games at Football League grounds. “We have done an agreement where at least three of the games will be at Valley Parade, and that will be fantastic for the players,” nodded Mark.
“I was down there the other day looking at Bradford City’s new training facility which the first team are going to use. Hopefully we will have access to the ex-first team training field at the front, and we will play the rest of the games there.”
The fact Valley Parade will only be used sparingly for reserve games might be of comfort, in view of the high profile pitch problems that hindered the first team last season. “To be honest if they weren’t spending the money making the pitch much better, I wouldn’t have asked to play at Valley Parade, the state it was in last year!” laughed Mark.
“I spoke to Mark and Julian about the pitch. I expect it will be up to standard and be one of the best pitches in the division next year.”
Big scouting network
RIASA’s agreement to pay for the running costs of City’s second string team will mean there is no financial impact on playing budgets – and it also opens up the door for Phil Parkinson to have access to any RIASA players who impress him.
Mark confirmed, “They will get the first choice of anyone we see in America, which is such a massive place. A lot of big clubs are looking for players in America; the advantage that RIASA has is that the student’s parents will let them come to us, because they are getting the same education that they would get if they were doing an American degree.
“No one else can offer that, so it is a great advantage for us and to Bradford City. It is a massive opportunity for Bradford City and a big scouting network for them.”
Indeed the benefits of this unique access have already started to bear fruit for the Bantams, with one of RIASA’s players set to join the club on a two-year deal this July.
Although the name of the player has escaped into the public domain, City are keen to keep it quiet for now and plan to make a formal announcement in July. This meant Mark couldn’t speak to us on record about this player for the moment, except to share a few of the more vague details.
“I noticed the lad in Florida at one of our experience RIASA events. And he looked really good. I found out his mother was born in London. So I recommended him to Bradford City and – well, watch this space!”
For Mark, it is an extremely busy time running RIASA. He is flying to the USA this weekend for meetings and scouting trips to different parts of the States. He is now in sole command, after David Baldwin’s move to Burnley led to him deciding to leave RIASA.
“Yeah David has stepped down. He wanted to concentrate on his role at Burnley, because he has a lot going on there. He didn’t feel that he could put the time into RIASA anymore, especially as he has a newborn baby, so we have parted on good terms.”
Not that this will slow down Mark’s expansion plans. “We are extending RIASA to the Middle East and the Far East – the scouting network is going to get bigger,” he revealed.
“RIASA is so unique. We work with the Richmond University of London which is an accredited American university. It’s not something that you can copy, because that accreditation is massive.
“They are getting the same degree that they would if they were going to Harvard. So they are getting a fantastic education; and then if we can get good players as well, that is the added bonus. People just think it’s just another academy but it’s so in-depth, and there are some really good people involved.”
The next Nahki
Having struck gold with Nahki Wells, the obvious question to ask Mark is if he has unearthed anyone as good as the Bermudian – specifically the new player City are about to sign. Mark was understandably reluctant to over-hype any of his students, but is proud of what he is building and the calibre of many of them.
“We have a programme that allows room for the weaker players, as well as the better ones, so we do get quite a mixture of abilities. But the numbers are great; we are up to about 75 players. We normally get nearly a quarter who first and foremost have European passports, and probably a quarter of them who are decent players.
“They are not all fantastic players, I admit that; but equally you can go through Bradford City’s youth team and they are not all fantastic players too. I was lucky enough to meet Gordon Hill (ex Man United) in America. He is doing something for Chesterfield, bringing in America players, but it is completely different to what we have got here. This is a completely different level.”
And what of RIASA’s most famous alumni, Nahki himself? “Someone recently said to me ‘you must have done alright with the sell-on of Nahki Wells?’ But it wasn’t about that. I wish we had done alright!
“To be honest, we had a 20% sell on when he was at Carlisle United, and that would have been great for us to invest back into scholarships for lads who can’t afford to come to the UK. It would have opened up a new window of players, really good ones at that.
“Unfortunately the manager Gregg Abbott, who is a friend of mine, let Nahki go. We just wanted him to get fixed up after Carlisle, so we took Nahki to Bradford City. We didn’t have a sell on with Bradford City, but we have had fantastic publicity, more than our money’s worth. So it has been great for RIASA that he has done so well.
“I don’t follow Huddersfield Town, but I know a few people who do and they say to me that he has got on really well there, even playing on his own up front. And he’s scored a few goals.
“I actually saw him a couple of months ago and he came up and gave me a cuddle. It was great. I asked him ‘When are you coming back to Bradford?!’
“He’s doing good, and I hope that he continues to do fantastic. He is a great lad – and no matter what some people say, he was fantastic for Bradford City. Good luck to him.
“People say that we got lucky with Nahki. But I recommended James Hanson to the club too. So I have been lucky twice! If I get lucky again, well I’m doing alright!”