It’s Thursday night at the Vestacare Stadium in Oldham and the footballs are flying as 60 kids all look to catch the eye of their coach at their weekly training session.
Then Friday comes along, and one of Manchester City’s brightest young defenders is on the same pitch with the same coach looking to build on his Champions League debut for the club. Welcome to Bee Inspired, the grassroots club and training center that is also serving as a finishing school for the next generation of elite footballers.
The brains behind the project is owner Dean Brathwaite, a City fan raised in Middleton who swapped the frontlines of the Kippax for a central view from the South Stand of the Etihad when he realized he wanted to be a football coach. Brathwaite had done some work for City and was a one-to-one specialist at a private football academy in Wythenshawe when, disheartened at the direction it was going in, he opted to take the plunge and go it alone in 2017.
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Bee Inspired, with its nod to Manchester in the name, began with just a few and has grown to the point where kids are coming from Sale, Warrington and beyond to Oldham every week. Brathwaite and two other coaches run an open training session to all kids aged five and up on a Tuesday, with the grassroots club training on Monday and Thursday with teams from Under-8s up to Under-15s before matches at the weekend.
They are having success too; their Under-10s will soon head to Manchester United’s academy for the final of the Manchester Youth Super League’s Super Champions Cup. The more progress is made, the more kids buzzing around the sessions.
“Obviously I want to give back opportunities that I didn’t have when I grew up in terms of football coaching,” Brathwaite told MEN Sport. “I only had school coaching and I didn’t play for a junior team. I wanted to make sure that we focused on football, and I’ve always enjoyed doing the grassroots coaching.
“I wanted to create my own place, my own style. I didn’t want to do a 9-5, I wanted to work in the world which I love.
“I’m just honest with the kids and their parents: ‘Come down, try it. If you like it, we’ll see you again. If you don’t, it’s not for you. ‘ Kids come because of the coaching, because of what they hear and because of the proof in the pudding of people improving.
There is often suspicion among the more established grassroots clubs towards new startups and it is an extremely competitive field. However, Bee Inspired have managed to build their name to become recognized for the right things among fellow clubs as well as professional academies.
Brathwaite takes the Under-18s at Avro FC – the home of the Vestacare Stadium – on a voluntary basis. While the aim is to grow, that cannot come at the expense of the focus on development and so, for instance, a few more coaches are wanted for next season but not an army.
If the increasing number of happy faces on training nights aren’t proof of progress, there are other impressive results. This season, more than ten players from the five Bee Inspired teams have signed for pro academies and countless others have had trials.
Many kids know all too well that matches can lead to other opportunities with clubs or agencies. A recent victory over Stoke City – an excellent academy set-up – by the Under-11s had the Championship side straight on the phone inquiring about players.
“It’s been a challenging time being the new kids on the block in the grassroots world,” explained Brathwaite. “There are many fantastic clubs who have been going for 20+ years with great reputations, so to compete amongst some of these clubs week-in week-out is a real joy and a challenge we look forward to for many years to come.”
Other visitors to the Vestacare include some of the brightest young talent coming through at the top of the game. Benni Smales (Southampton), Joe Snowden (Leeds) Charlie McNeill, Axel Tuanzebe (both Manchester United), Liam Delap, Josh Adam, James McAtee, Micah Hamilton and Luke Mbete (all City) have all enjoyed one-on-one sessions with Brathwaite despite the wealth of expertise and facilities that they can get at their clubs.
Recommendations have been either through word of mouth or on social media – where snippets have been posted and endorsed by the players – and City starlet McAtee is a handy poster boy for the work being done. The 19-year-old first came down to see his cousin di lui and after being tempted to get involved himself has now worked with Brathwaite for two years.
In that time, the England Under-20 star has significantly improved his goal contributions – going from 19 goal contributions in 2019/20 to 23 last year and 29 so far this season – as well as making his first-team debut in four competitions under Pep Guardiola and signed a bumper new contract that ties him to the Etihad until 2026. Small wonder, then, that when his representatives lined up another coach for McAtee last summer he insisted on staying where he was.
“It’s an absolute pleasure to work with James, his persistence and hard work is clearly paying off for him, he’s a true example to any young player,” said Brathwaite. “Seeing him make his Premier League and Champions League debuts this season is a real proud moment for him and his family di lui.
“The players come to us just to gain the individual repetition that they don’t maybe get in team training. They can learn new things about themselves in terms of technique.
“We’re always playing around with different shooting techniques trying to find ones that they might discover that they didn’t really know they could do or didn’t use so much, then they gain confidence from certain things.
“These boys come here to work hard and I pride myself on being a technical coach so if I see something I think a player might be good at we will touch on it during a session where they might not have done at their club – especially when they get to the older ages because it is more tactical and awareness rather than self-technical ability and improving. ”
McAtee’s significant progress is intriguing given he wants for nothing at City, and while it is not uncommon for players to use outside help to sharpen their skills it appears more are now considering it as they see their teammates and friends benefit from it. Clubs and agents may have their own way of doing things, but they haven’t argued with the results that have come out of Bee Inspired.
However much word of mouth spreads at the top end of the game though, that won’t change the values as the development training and grassroots element remains the focal point of what Brathwaite and his team want to do at Bee-Inspired.
“We will keep continuing to flip the Bee manifesto in order to stay ahead of the game while developing and producing the best local talents on all fronts from grassroots, young academy and pro players,” he said. “Bee-Inspired has had an excellent four years so far and we have enjoyed every minute of it.
“However, being as grounded as we are we will always look to continue our work in a positive manner. We like to think we will always be known as a place to develop footballing talents in the grassroots world and hopefully help some players achieve the ultimate dream along the way. “
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