by Jeff King
Born in the midst of a pandemic from North East the highly successful Park View Academy, Chester-le-Street United have swept through Non-League football with style and commitment to match their enthusiasm.
It hasn’t been the easiest of starts in somewhat trying times but there’s no doubting that their journey and story is gathering momentum with each passing week and football game played. Who knows where this outstanding project may go in the future but it’s fun to be a part of it as it grows.
Everyone involved from the volunteers, through the coaches, to the players and to the officials is committed to making this venture work and no more so than the man at the top of the shop, United’s Chairman Lewis Pendleton who is also Director of Sport at Park View Academy.
I caught up with Lewis back in early December after United had played some of their best football of an impressive season dismissing title rivals Darlington Town 6 – 1 in the Durham FA Trophy Quarter Final on the 4th of December.
Lewis started by assessing the impressive victory before moving on to talk about the aims, hopes and reasons behind the club starting up.
“The pleasing thing was from the start we passed the ball forward and were aggressive in the tackle. We were too quick and too sharp for Darlington. Sometimes we start a bit slow and give teams encouragement to get forward against us.”
“Today there was just something amongst it where Darlington are second in the league, they’re a good side and our lads just seemed up for it from the start and that showed in the performance. I think across the park everyone would have been a nine out of ten for me.”
“I think every single one of them was on their game today and showed their potential. When the players do that we have great confidence that at the level we’re playing we’re a match for any team. It was a really, really pleasing performance.”
“In all the years I’ve done this it was probably the best performance I’ve ever seen and I’d go as far as to say that so really pleased with them all.”
What is the tie-up between Chester-le-Street and Park View Academy and why did Lewis decide to start the project was the next question to ask?
“So, in my day job I run sports academies for men’s football, women’s football, rugby, cricket, netball, rowing and swimming. The job is to combine that with A-levels, B-Tech and a fitness diploma.”
“Students between the ages of 16 to 19 can combine their studies with an aspiration to become full-time professional athletes. There’s lots of programmes that attempt to do that but we have an obsession to do things correctly in every sport.”
“We partner with professional clubs, professional organisations and talent pathways with a view to helping players become the best that they can be. Not everyone can become a Premier League player but everyone can dream to be that. Our job is to make them overachieve.”
“We spent three- or four-years developing Park View and of the back of that we’re National Champions at Under-19. We won every competition we entered Nationally and I think some would say rather brazenly.”
“I think to do that and put some context on it there are schools and colleges across the country that spent £20, £30, £40 million just trying to win one national title and we win them all year after year.”
“That comes from having great staff, great people who are really, really passionate and care deeply about the young people we look after and we all felt we needed a challenge.”
“I started this third-year programme many moons ago with Gateshead and we produced a lot of really good players that are playing in The Northern League and beyond and playing professionally now.”
“To close that gap between themselves and professional players boys need to have that third year as a bridge from being a second-year scholar and under-18 to playing professionally which is really hard. So, we sought to expose them to playing senior men’s football.”
“We applied to the Wearside League and got into the Wearside League which was fantastic and we got promoted without kicking a ball which was great. I think not to be disrespectful we were pleased to get into the Wearside League first division.”
“That’s because we had great confidence in the group we had last year that they were a really good group and this year’s the same. We have great confidence that every year we are going to produce that level of players because the production line behind what we do is geared towards third years.”
“What we want to do is galvanise Chester-le-Street. We’ve got 62 junior teams underneath the seniors and we want players to come through and see a pathway. There’s lots of senior teams that have youth sections and they’re not connected.”
“You see that on a daily basis and that’s not a criticism but an observation. We try and recruit players at 16. Boys are playing for lots of different teams and organisations. But we wanted to create an identity and for people to be proud of the town.”
“We want young people to walk about in the Chester-le-Street tops and feel part of something and create a fanbase and an atmosphere that’s exciting to watch. I think when you have young lads who play football in the way we play football then you can’t help but be excited.”
“Our aspirations are to go as far as we can and to win every game and see what happens game after game. If that means we leagues, we win cups, we win trophies then that’s the by-product of good coaching and doing things properly.”
“The idea was to expose players to senior football so that they can go on and play at a higher level. We did that with Harrison Clark signing for Livingston in the Scottish Premiership who have loaned him out to Arbroath in the Championship. At the age of 18 he’s playing regularly in their first team.”
“We have players this year who are very close and had players last year that were very close. We then get players signing for Northern Premier League sides and above as well. I think for us the breeding ground we provide for younger players is to expose them to men’s football.”
“That’ll give them the best possible opportunity of earning as much money as they can either as semi-professional or professional players. The aspiration for the Club long-term would be to retain those players and play at a level that is higher.”
“To do that we have to build the infrastructure around the Club and obviously the ground and all the plans that we have in place for that. We have some really exciting opportunities and the link-up with The Academy allows us to train full time.”
“All of the boys that play for the first team are under-19’s and on full-time study programmes. That allows then to train and basically allows them to concentrate on their football, strength and conditioning.”
“As part of that they do a fitness instruction course and a personal trainer course which then gives them qualifications to actually go into the world of work and earn a living as a personal trainer.”
“We know they are fit, strong young lads with good profiles and good social media profiles. They all aspire to be professional footballers but the fallback is that they can earn a really good career as a PT. Some of them go into University and some have gone off to Australia.”
“Our job, that’s John Gamble, Didier Agathe and me, plus all of the coaches that work for us is to find pathways for every player regardless of their ability to help move them on to the next level.”
“Hopefully one day in the not-too-distant future Chester-le-Street United will be an end goal for a lot of them to play in maybe the National League if we can get there. There’s a long way for us to go and we certainly don’t get ahead of ourselves or disrespect the Wearside League.“
“Or indeed any other leagues or teams within them. But we feel that we want to try as best we can to stay full-time as long as we can and let’s see how far quality under-19 players can go. Can the handle the Wearside League or Northern League. We look forward to finding that out.”
Lewis mentioned Chester-le-Street having their own ground if they are to progress so I asked him how much he could tell us about that given the complicated situation over the issue.
“We’re in a really good position because the day-job with Park View means we’re in advanced discussions with Durham County Council around here at The Riverside. The cabinet have announced that they are going to spend at least £2 million on the site in the next 12 – 18 months.
“The view long-term is to spend up to £8 million on the site and that’s out in the public domain. We’re working with the Council now on the detail of what that should look like. We know as CLS United we need a 3G pitch we want that to be a high-quality playing surface.”
“We want a 3-meter hard standing all around that and then to interconnect shipping containers and develop stands so that we can build a ground that will allow us to go through the ground grading.”
“We’ve had great meetings with The Northern League and The F.A. around our plans. We’ve had our plans drawn up and have the funds secured to be able to build that. We’ve applied for planning permission at the school’s base in Church Chare which is right in the middle of Chester-le-Street.”
“That unfortunately comes with resistance from homeowners who are close to the planned development but in essence there isn’t a reason to object that should scupper planning for that.”
“At this moment in time the Council are very keen for us not to develop the ground at our school’s sit and to develop it down here at The Riverside. We’re awaiting for confirmation from the Council in terms of any potential lease or licence and what that may look like.”
“So it might be that we make our base here at The Riverside. What is clear is that The Academy and The Club will always train here. We have all of our junior teams training here. But with 62 junior teams, men’s and women’s senior teams we need at the very least two 3G pitches and could do with four.”
“A plan for us is that we think we can develop that on this site. We’ve told the Council that we’re prepared to put our investment into the Riverside site and we’re just awaiting the legalities of that.”
“We know that we have to have a ground grading inspection by the 31st of March next year so that will either be The Riverside or Church Chare and we’re hoping that this side of Christmas or as soon as possible after we can get confirmation from the Chief Executive of Durham County Council.”
“We’ve had really positive meetings with them and we await what their proposals are for us. The hope is that we have an operational license to run our own 3G, have our own Clubhouse where we can protect our investment.”
“As a Club we’re not for profit. We hear lots of people say that we make fortunes when we do this. I wish we did and then I wouldn’t drive mini-buses and I wouldn’t be washing kits and all the other things we have to do.”
“We run a good Club. We’re organised and structured in the way that we do it. We produce players to match that but it comes from real, real hard work and long hours and days. It’s too easy for others to say we throw loads of money at it but we don’t.”
“We’re not a rich club. We don’t have significant finances. We have a group of people that work very, very hard to make this the organisation that it is and that’s the key our relative success so far.”
They say that with challenging work comes rewards and certainly there has been some success and it’s so far so good. Good results then feeds back to more willing hard work and time spent. It’s a formula that appears to be working.
“Days like today’s result and performance on what is essentially my day off enables you to enjoy the games and your day off. But really we’re creating memories and moments for young people and that keeps you young and keeps you going and gives you a purpose in life.”
“My social life and my job are intermixed. I think that’s where the passion for this comes from. That’s the word, passion. We had Didier come over and he could see the passion that I have, John has and the team has and I think that’s what makes this special.”
“Our facilities in comparison to others in this area might be slightly inferior but no-one’s going to out-work us or try harder than we do. Results and days like today show what we’re about. We brush on and move on and look forward to the next challenge whatever that may bring.”
“We test and challenge ourselves every single game. We go to Manchester United and we sit in their changing rooms ready to play against a mixture of their Under-23’s, 19’s and 18’s and the expectation is to win the game.”
“Just as it is at Windscale or Coxhoe or here at home. What we’re trying to breed is a winning mentality within young people. That’s one of the reasons for doing it and that’s why you get up in the morning because you know these young people are working really hard and responding.”
“We have to show them they deserve us to match their work ethic just as they we deserve them to match our own.”
As well as that work, practice and playing ethic Lewis and his staff can be proud of the people they are turning these young persons into. They have a great attitude to those around them and not just the coaches and teammates but to the way they all welcome others into the fold.
“John and I try to breed that culture. Young people are often reluctant to talk and I think for the first three months they must have just texted each other and us as they didn’t really speak. But that’s another thing they’ve really improved.”
“As a group they’re now very much together. They get around each other and defend each other and are really close now. We’ve brought players together this year from all over the country and joined what was a really tight-knit group from last year’s under-18’s.”
“They’ve really started to gel and bond and respect is a key thing. I had to have a conversation with one of the players about respect and remembering to show it and he takes it on board in a constructive way and we move on.”
“Part of the job is about ensuring that they’re good people and being a nice person first and foremost. Whilst we respect other team’s it’s about what we do as a group and our challenge is what can we do as a group.”
“If we do that and we perform as well as we all know we can then I don’t care who we play as I fancy us in any opportunity. Inevitably there’s going to come a level where Under-19 players will come unstuck.”
“But we don’t know what those boundaries are we play and until we get tested. We have to look at what ever level we play at and see if we can achieve that level and go beyond and we’re confident that we can.”
“We’ll stick to our principles and play the way we do and try to do the same things and see where that gets us at the end of the season, so exciting times, very exciting times.”
It’s clear to see and hear the passion for the project that Lewis has and how he can translate and promote that to others to the same level so everyone’s on the same pathway on this extremely exciting project and journey.
If, in the end, it doesn’t achieve the goals that are being set, and personally I think it will, then it won’t be for the lack of will, commitment and hard work put in from and by everyone involved with Chester-le-Street United.