When the Foxes lifted the FA Women's Championship trophy in May 2021, sealing their place in the top division of women's football for the first time in history, it set the wheels in motion for an overhaul of LCFC Women's academy and development setup.
Offering three post-16 playing options, stage three of the pathway includes the WSL Academy Team. Louis Sowe takes on the role of head coach and is also tasked with overseeing the whole pathway as Academy Lead, which encompasses 13 teams from Under-21s through to Wildcats.
He gave an insight into the work undertaken at the Academy, highlighting the effectiveness of the system in preparing players for the first team environment in the future.
“We want to put in place an infrastructure and a clear pathway to our first team,” the former West Bromwich Albion Women’s first team manager, explained. “Around the logistical side of things, it’s making sure 13 teams have access to training sessions, strength and conditioning and making sure we’ve got a high quality of staff.
“We recruited some players too and put them together and then it’s implementing our in-possession, out of possession and non-negotiables that we want within the Academy and really laying the foundations for the long-term future of the Academy.
Jess Camwell & Mackenzie Smith
Homegrown talents Jess Camwell and Mackenzie Smith have both featured in LCFC Women's first team this season.
“Being in our first year of having a WSL Academy and be able to see the benefit in terms of the level of opposition that we’re playing against just adds to the experience we can offer within the junior section or the youth sections of the seniors.
“We’ve also got our Reserves as well which offers another pathway post-16, so we’ve got clear pathways that hopefully can bridge the gap to having players within our first team.”
One of those youngsters to make the step up to LCFC Women’s senior set-up is Mackenzie Smith, who made her first team debut as a 16 year-old in September, coming on as a substitute during City’s Barclays FA Women’s Super League clash with Manchester United at King Power Stadium. Four other Academy players were also in the matchday squad that day.
Smith, meanwhile, then made her first senior start against Manchester City in the Vitality Women’s FA Cup and Sowe believes Smith - an England Under-17s international - is a clear representation of the talent within the pathway.
He hopes that she can serve as an inspiration to other players hoping to go on a similar journey.
We want a successful first team, but having an Academy structure is at the heart of everything that we’re doing at Leicester. We want to produce our own and make sure we’ve got a competitive Academy side.Louis Sowe LCFC.com
“Mackenzie has been at the Academy setup for a number of years,” Sowe continued. “When I first came, everyone spoke very highly of her and she’s put in some excellent work over pre-season.
“She’s been training with the first team quite regularly and then she’s some got some match minutes with the WSL Academy and really taken her chance. I’m sure we’re going to see much more of Mackenzie this season.
“It’s definitely a proud moment for all the work that has gone on previously within the Academy. Yes, we want a successful first team, but having an Academy structure is at the heart of everything that we’re doing at Leicester.
“We want to produce our own and make sure we’ve got a competitive Academy side, so that’s massive in terms of the Club going forward. Hopefully people can see the likes of Mackenzie Smith and Jess Camwell and use that as inspiration that there is a pathway here.
“I think so far this part of the season has been excellent in terms of so many of our Academy girls being in the matchday squad, and that can only inspire the next generation for us.”
First team coaching staff watch on during the Academy side's fixture against Brighton & Hove Albion.
City’s WSL Academy Team have commenced their first campaign in the WSL Academy League, winning three and drawing one of their five league fixtures so far, including a 1-0 victory over Birmingham City at Belvoir Drive last weekend.
It provides aspiring young players with the opportunity to compete against the best academy clubs in the country, while pursuing academic, vocational or work-based ambitions, progressively building an accessible route for outstanding talent to move into full-time football.
Sowe added: “What’s really important is that we’re putting a games programme together that really challenges them. We play in the WSL Academy League, but we’ve had a number of friendlies against tier three women’s first teams.
“We’ve competed really well so we’re creating a collective model that is really going to challenge and stretch the players. If they are called upon in our first team, then they can handle that physical challenge.
It’s amazing that we can offer this to our junior teams. Hopefully we can deliver the best education on the pitch that can continue to develop players.Louis Sowe LCFC.com
“We’ve had an excellent start. We’ve got to be realistic – we’re in year one and we’re playing against some established Academy sides that have been going for a number of years.
“Some clubs didn’t win a game in their first year in the WSL Academy. To already have three wins on the board, we’re really proud of them. We’re hoping to keep growing and developing our pathway and the structure within that.”
After LCFC Women’s move into the state-of-the-art facilities at Belvoir Drive in January 2021, the Academy has followed suit, with all 13 teams training at the training ground in the heart of the city.
That includes the FA Weetabix Wildcats Girls’ Programme, which runs as a free session for 5 to 11-year-olds every Monday. Not only do the sessions provide a way to stay active and increase confidence in an enjoyable and friendly environment, it can also help to develop the women’s game, introducing young girls of all abilities to the sport.
The facility, which houses Academy Team home matches, boasts seven grass pitches, an indoor pitch, floodlit 3G pitch, performance gym and leading medical facilities, making it one of the best-equipped female-only football facilities in Europe.
Academy Lead Louis Sowe discussed the benefits of having a central base for all of LCFC Women's youth and junior teams to train and play.
“It’s a massive boost for us and I would challenge any other women’s club to try and create the set-up we’ve got for the Academy,” Sowe enthused. “I think it’s phenomenal and that comes from the backing from the whole Club.
“It’s amazing that we can offer that to our junior teams. Hopefully we can deliver the best education on the pitch that can continue to develop players.
“Our Wildcats is the entry level, which can lead into going into the Academy. We’ve had six players that have attended Wildcats come into our elite pathway. But the main aim of that session is to really grow participation.
“The real element there is around the fun. It’s making sure that any players who attend the sessions are leaving with big smiles on their faces and will to want to come back. It’s really about growing that fun element within our pathway as well.”
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