AFC Uckfield and Grasshoppers join forces for a football pathway

AFC Uckfield Town and Uckfield Grasshoppers have announced a new partnership which will set up a clear pathway for footballers - all the way from under-sixes to the senior level.

Thursday, 29th April 2021, 8:00 am
AFC Uckfield's first team in FA Vase action earlier this season / Picture: Mike Skinner

As part of this new partnership, the clubs have formed a new U17s team to allow clear progression between the two sides, and hopefully encourage more players from the local area to get involved.

Grasshoppers head coach Nick Bignell hopes this move will offer local players an even greater opportunity to progress into senior football.

“The formation of the AFC U17s team is a brilliant opportunity for young players from Uckfield and the surrounding area to transition from junior to adult football. I hope that younger players will seize the moment and give the senior management a selection headache,” he said.

The new side has excited Grasshoppers chairman Paul Fletcher, who believes the move will offer massive benefits to the young players coming through the club.

He said: “Creating this new team creates new desire and ambition and we believe this will attract great interest, rather than moving to other clubs. The step into adult football is massive, so we need to ensure as coaches and clubs that we do everything we can to ensure players are ready to make this step.”

The move to better connect the clubs was wanted by both sides, with Fletcher reflecting the club's desire to offer their talented young players a clear chance to play in adult football, especially in such uncertain times.

“When the opportunity arose to link with AFC we grabbed the chance, we believed the timing was right and both set-ups were keen to work with each other” Fletcher continued.

“There has been a desire at Grasshoppers to get a link into adult football for quite some time and we've been looking at options on how we could do this. Both clubs had been keen on working together for a little while but had never really gotten together.”

AFC Uckfield Town joint manager Steve Ives suggested the move had been a long-term wish for many, saying: “Some of the seeds for this partnership have been sown over previous years, we've grown closer over the past six months so it felt like the right time to take the final step towards each other.”

This desire to build a core squad of young players is key for AFC Uckfield at the moment, with Ives and fellow joint-manager Graeme Mintrim’s ethos with their side very apparent.

The side's first competitive game back since the Southern Combination League was prematurely curtailed took place in the Supplementary Cup as the Oakmen drew 1-1 with Little Common. In that game, all Uckfield players who featured were aged 22 and under, with four teenagers starting, suggesting there is set to be a number of opportunities for promising young players at the club.

Club secretary Graham Sullivan hopes the move to integrate the clubs will massively benefit both teams. "We want to get Grasshoppers up to watch the first team, see former Grasshoppers playing for the first team and the youngsters to aspire towards that. And we want our players to put something back into the community and become coaches at Grasshoppers to inspire the next generation.

With multiple housing developments taking place in the town set to dramatically increase its population, Fletcher is aware of the need for both clubs to be ready for this influx. “This deal allows both clubs to expand as the town develops. We are, as a town, subject to a mass of housing development at present and both clubs need to be in a position where they can cater for those new playing opportunities.”

This isn’t the Oakmen’s first attempt at better connecting themselves with local clubs in recent times, as they held a February Strava running challenge with Uckfield RFC. This is part of a long term plan and desire held by the club, with Sullivan aiming to get the club better ingrained within the local community.

“There has been a genuine desire to put AFC on the map. That has to start with our home town. I used to walk around the town knocking on businesses' doors asking for sponsorship and companies didn’t even know there was a football club in Uckfield,” Sullivan continued. “That has to change and together with Grasshoppers, we hope to create an organisation that people in the town will sit up and take notice of.”