FOOTBALL: Youth League with a Difference

A new youth football league which prioritises player development over results and trophies, has been heralded as a great success by participants, coaches and parents after a pioneering inaugural campaign.

The Academy Development League (ADL) is the brainchild of former Southampton and Fulham Academy coach, Mark Gaitskell, Managing Director at M&S Sports, along with three other founding member Academies; IFA Sport, MEYSO and Kafo Academy.

After moving to Dubai in 2011, the Londoner says he found himself becoming increasingly frustrated with the amount of pressure being piled onto young players’ shoulders from the side-lines. 

“There are lots of academies here in the UAE and leagues, tournaments and clubs themselves face huge challenges in ensuring they are ‘successful’ and sustainable, and unfortunately sometimes that can impact upon the playing environment.”

“Wanting to win is great – I want every one of my players to want to win but winning isn’t everything and actually the research proves it isn’t why the vast majority of young people play the game.”

“Ensuring everyone has the opportunity to play and enjoys that experience is vital and that stems from the environment. Success will come naturally from effort and commitment on the players part and great coaching.”

The league’s principles are inspired by Mark’s experiences during his time in the English Premier League’s Academy system.

Parents must not coach from the side-lines – they can encourage, but can’t give instructions. They must stay behind a designated line, set two metres back from the touchline.

Older and younger players can move between age groups if it is right for their development and if a match deficit reaches five goals, the opposition can add additional players, ensuring both sets of players are challenged and supported. 

Gaitskell explained: “We decided to create a league that mirrored Academy football in the UK in that there is only one fixture per evening for each team, there are home and away games, progressive formats, neutral referees, maximum playing time and codes of conducts for coaches and parents that are actually enforced.

“We also have a tournament week at the end of each block so the players can experience tournament football.”

 Gaitskell emphasised the importance of player development in the ADL. All parents,  players and coaches must adhere to the league’s positive philosophy in order to  participate.

 “On the opening night for each age group we discussed with the parents and players  what the ethos of the league was, highlighting the importance of allowing the  players to make their own decisions on the pitch and trusting coaches to guide  them through the learning process.”

 Gaitskell believes that the league is already starting to show signs that it is making  a positive change in Dubai’s youth football environment.

He said that the league “has created an environment for all the players within our respective programmes to play and develop at a level that is appropriate to them; it’s fun, challenging, competitive, motivating and not driven by the desire (or the parents desire) for medals and trophies.” 

Although it’s still in its infancy, Gaitskell hopes players, coaches and clubs across the region will buy into the fresh ideas of the Academy Development League: “We have plans for the league to grow in September and would welcome four new members, however there must be a buy-in to what the league is about and a shared philosophy on player development over results.”

For more information on the Academy Development League, contact Mark Gaitskell at