‘We have turned lives around’: more to Boreham Wood than an FA Cup run

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Luke Garrard is running through some of the players that Boreham Wood’s BW PASE academy has produced. “We’ve got some unbelievable success stories,” the club’s first-team manager says. “There is Iliman Ndiaye at Sheffield United, Pelly Ruddock at Luton, Sorba Thomas at Huddersfield, who has played for Wales. Ben Goodliffe went into Wolves and is now at Sutton.”

There have been others and the headline statistic for the National League high-fliers, who travel to Bournemouth on Sunday for the first FA Cup fourth-round tie of their 74-year history, is that 12 of their youth products have earned contracts at professional clubs. Five of them have become full internationals. Garrard pauses. “It goes beyond all this for me,” he says.

The 36-year-old has been associated with the Hertfordshire club since a brief playing spell in 2005. He would return in 2010 to see out a career that featured rejection by Tottenham at 16, a YTS deal at Swindon and 17 senior appearances for them, and more than 100 games for AFC Wimbledon in the non-league.

Boreham Wood youth-team players in training
Boreham Wood youth-team players in training. The club have a reputation for helping kids who have fallen out of the big club academies. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

Garrard got his foot on the coaching ladder at Boreham Wood’s academy in 2008 and he has been the under-18s manager, the academy director and is now the head of football at the academy. He has been the first-team manager since October 2015, having served as the assistant to Ian Allinson. “I’ve done every job from toilet cleaner,” he says with a smile.

Under Garrard, Boreham Wood have established themselves in the National League, having been promoted in 2014-15, and they went close to what he calls the “Holy Grail” of the Football League in 2017-18, losing in the Wembley play-off final to Tranmere.

They are well-placed this time for another push while the FA Cup run has been “spectacular” and a “fairytale” to borrow Garrard’s words, the high point being the third-round home win over AFC Wimbledon – the third time that the club have taken a Football League scalp in the competition after Blackpool (2017-18) and Southend last season.

The excitement before Bournemouth is palpable but to understand Garrard and the club to which he has devoted most of his adult life is to understand the social role of the academy, which the chairman, Danny Hunter, founded in 2002.

“We’ve got lads in it that are coming out of the estates in Tottenham and Hackney, in parts of east London, south London, and we have turned their lives around,” Garrard says. “They could either take the wrong road or the right road. So as much as we have the Ilimans and the Sorbas, it is some of the others, the ones that were on the road to prison or death, which are the huge success stories for us.”

Garrard mentions one boy who “came in off the streets – from Wembley, Stonebridge way” and is now a fully qualified teacher. The pride is unmistakable.

Assistant manager Lloyd Doyley, the former Watford defender, with Boreham Wood youth team players in training.
Assistant manager Lloyd Doyley, the former Watford defender, with Boreham Wood youth team players in training. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

“Look at knife crime, look at gun crime, look at the crime that’s going on in London,” Garrard continues. “When I was growing up in Barnet, there were youth clubs, safe environments, but it’s no longer the case. I don’t think there are many setups for people in lesser privileged areas and that’s a big problem for me.

“I’m not preaching and saying we have converted the devil but we are a good club, we’re a good academy. We work ever so hard with our ethics, our mindsets and, yes, we change peoples’ lives. Maybe not all of them but most definitely the majority.”

The academy’s acronym stands for “Programme of Academic and Sporting Excellence” and the idea has been to run education courses alongside the football for boys aged between 16 and 19. “When the chairman started it, I think he had 12 lads but it has grown,” Garrard says. “Two or three years ago, there were almost 650 lads and we’re currently running with about 400.”

It is the largest programme of its kind in England and everything is on site at the club’s Meadow Park HQ. There is the 5,000-capacity stadium, which is also home to the Arsenal women’s team and stages development-level matches for the Gunners male players. There is the training facility for the first team, academy and third-party hires, which are to do with the grassroots game. And there are the 11 classrooms and additional study suites.

The academy’s education partner is the SCL group, which works with various clubs around the country. Boreham Wood are able to draw down funding that SCL receives from the government in the form of grants to help provide subsidised meals for the academy players, travel allowances and free kit.

Boreham Wood are a club built from the academy upwards with around 400 youth players on the books
Boreham Wood are a club built from the academy upwards with around 400 youth players on the books. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

Garrard is not the only member of the first team with responsibilities at the academy. The midfielder Connor Smith is the head academy coach while four other players – David Stephens, Femi Ilesanmi, Jamal Fyfield and Kane Smith – also coach there. So does the assistant manager, Lloyd Doyley, the former Watford and Jamaica defender.

Boreham Wood’s connection to Arsenal is well established with Hunter, who took over in 1999, feeling that one of his best decisions was to link up early on with the Premier League club’s women’s team. “It gave us a platform, in partnership with Arsenal, to build the club,” Hunter has said. The Arsenal men’s team have played a regular pre-season fixture at Meadow Park throughout Hunter’s tenure. He had been a player for Boreham Wood, as was his son, Charlie, who is now the chief executive, while his father, Mickey, managed them in the 1970s.

“The chairman is unbelievable,” Garrard says. “The amount of infrastructure he has put in place, the money he has put back into the club for the academy … Our model is not to have a first team and then worry about the rest. We are built from the academy up.”

One of the drivers for the academy is to help boys who have been released by clubs at 16 – always a shattering blow. It happened to Garrard, who had initially been on Arsenal’s books up to the age of 12, although he says that Spurs actually let him go towards the end of his under-15 season before he ended up sticking around for a final year.

Garrard can tell the funny story of how he turned up to his Spurs trial in an Arsenal kit. He had been asked at short notice to wear white and blue and all he had was a strip in those colours from his time at Arsenal, complete with club badge.

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“When we get lads who come into the system at Boreham Wood, I can talk to them about the hard knocks of getting released, dropping into League One with Swindon and then into non-league,” Garrard says. “Then there is Lloyd Doyley, who has played in the Premier League and in big international games. So they are getting a broad understanding of what it takes to be a player.”

And so to Bournemouth, who made eye-catching signings at the end of January to fire their promotion bid from the Championship. “They are unbelievable, Scott Parker is an unbelievable manager and they are really a Premier League club,” Garrard says. “But we are going there to cause an upset. There will be no phones beforehand. We’re not going there to film anything. We are going there with a focus – to win a game of football.”

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