The Manchester City academy was set up in 1997 after the Football Association restructured youth football in England. Jim Cassell arrived from Oldham in July of that year, and has played a pivotal role in the success of the system.
A year after taking over Cassell presented a 51 page dossier to then Chairman David Bernstein, outlining the blueprint for the future of the academy. At the time City were floundering in the Second Division and had very little revenue to draw on but Bernstein, to his eternal credit, invested over £500,000 in the system. It proved to be a shrewd investment; the sale of players produced by system has generated over £50m in transfer fees.
Cassell had a brief playing career with Bury (he managed only three appearances for the Shakers, before retiring due to a knee injury), and went on to become a book-keeper before working as Chief Scout for Oldham Athletic.
To many City fans he has iconic status, and is perhaps the key member of the coaching set-up. Managers, and indeed chairmen, come and go but Cassell provides continuity and has been responsible for the introduction of a staggering 30 academy graduates into the club's first team, seven of whom have become full internationals.
Shaun Wright-Phillips, Micah Richards and Stephen Ireland are perhaps the most famous of Cassell's protégés, but there are a number of other graduates in the current first team squad, including Nedum Onuoha, Michael Johnson, Dedryk Boyata, Abdi Ibrahim, Vladimir Weiss and Greg Cunningham.
If UEFA, as they frequently threaten, do bring in a quota for home grown players then City will be benefit more than most. There are still also many other Academy graduates playing in the lower leagues, including the likes of Kasper Schmeichel, Bradley Wright-Phillips, and Ishmael Miller.
The Academy is based at City's former training ground at Platt Lane, and oversees a coaching, educational and welfare program for boys aged between 9-18. The emphasis is very much on improving them as individuals, not only as footballers (the aforementioned Barton, unfortunately, is an exception to the rule). In the harsh current footballing climate the simple truth remains that the vast majority of youngsters won't make a living out of football, but Cassell and his team ensure they have the necessary academic qualifications to pursue other careers.
In 2008 City's Under 18's won the F.A. Youth Cup for the first time since 1986 (the class of Redmond, White, Lake et al) with an impressive 4-2 aggregate victory over Chelsea's expensively assembled squad. A moral victory, perhaps. It was the pinnacle of Cassell's career to date, eclipsing the 2006 squad who reached the final, only to lose narrowly to Liverpool on aggregate.
In 2009, Cassell left his position as Academy Director to begin a new role representing Manchester City FC on a global youth academy scale. He was replaced by Andy Welsh.
The under 18's play at Platt Lane, with games usually kicking off at 11am on Saturdays (call the Academy on 0161 248 6610 beforehand to confirm, or check the official site). Entrance is free, and there are a limited number of car parking spaces. It is a great opportunity to see potential future City stars in action.
Click here for academy match reports, courtesy of Gavin Cooper's excellent MCFC academy and reserves blog.