Nigel James parks his van outside a set of double doors and young boys in blue stream past towards the pitch.
A few days later, he would watch son Reece make a similar walk — down the Wembley tunnel for Chelsea’s FA Cup final against Leicester.
Another graduate of this coaching school — 19-year-old daughter Lauren — recently became the first Manchester United women’s player to score at Old Trafford.
This evening, though, these boys grace the Nou Camp, the Stade de France and Amsterdam Arena.
Four days a week, Nigel James Elite Coaching take over this five-a-side centre near Wimbledon. Each of the dozen pitches is named after an iconic stadium; none of the 200-plus kids on the books here need any invitation to dream. Not when this academy, formed in 2002, helps bridge the gap between grassroots football and the Promised Land.
Reece and Lauren James’ father runs Nigel James Elite Coaching near Wimbledon in London
Scouts are frequent visitors and no wonder. James’ blend of training and competitive matches — often against top clubs — has produced dozens of academy or professional players. Much of the curriculum was honed coaching Reece and Lauren.
‘Most of the drills that we did from young, we still do them now,’ James says. ‘Simple things like ball comfort, doing kick-ups. But doing it for a long time — repetition, repetition… over time those ball movements and touches become so natural that when you play in a game, you’re not thinking.’
An ex-player, a coach and a father — to two internationals and another son who slid out of the academy system — James offers a springboard few can match. And yet he insists: ‘The football and all of that is just one fairytale, one bonus…. if we achieve it? Great.’ Instead glory comes in different guises. ‘We’ve also had great success with players doing well with GCSEs, with A Levels and going to university,’ he adds.
‘Over the years, we’ve probably had 15-20 boys who’ve gone off to university. For me that’s just like a boy signing a five-year pro contract at a Category One club.’
Boys and girls aged five to 21 turn to James. Some want to join academies; others have already been spat out. All are taught that there is more to life.
‘When I look at them I don’t think: ‘He’s going to make it, he’s going to make it’. I look it and go: ‘He’s going to be a great father, his parents are going to be so proud of him’. For me, that’s real.’
As a defender, James had spells at Southampton, Woking and Aldershot Town before a motorbike accident aged 20 steered him towards the dugout.
This particular venture started when his eldest son, Josh, started school in Richmond. ‘The head teacher saw me in my gym wear,’ the 44-year-old explains. ‘She said, ‘We want to do an after-school club. Do you fancy doing the football?’
Nigel insists he gets as much pleasure from his kids going to university as turning professional
Before long he’d formed a team of Under 8s who were all picked up by professional academies. Two decades later, however, school remains at the heart of his coaching.
‘My kids play, so when I’m actually saying the opposite, ‘Your school work is more important’ it’s real,’ says James, a former scout at Tottenham, Fulham and Reading who knows how education is treated inside the academy bubble.
‘They don’t do anything,’ he says. ‘Clubs have to make it look like they’re focused on the school work. But there’s only one thing that they focus on and that is making the player.
‘And to make one player, you need a lot of guinea pigs around him… you need to have a group of boys that hit a standard for him to play and develop and when it comes round to it, one or two get the opportunity and the others, they get told nothing is happening for them.’
Up to 12,000 boys fill football’s youth system. Of those picked up aged nine, less than 0.5 per cent will make a living from the game.
That was the harsh truth a former pupil learnt earlier that day. ‘He’s 18 now. We got him to Fulham… then Fulham said they’re not going to give him a scholarship. We got him a move to Sheffield United and they’ve just told him the news that they’re not going to renew his contract,’ James explains. He had largely ignored school work. ‘His dad has just called me, devastated. What do you do now?’
James can empathise. Eldest son Josh, 23, was at Fulham and Reading before being released. He now helps his dad coach in schools.
All of James’ staff have worked in elite football. All have seen the fierce battle for this country’s finest talent. Take Chelsea.
‘They’ve got more scouts looking at six and seven-year-olds than any other age group,’ James says. ‘If you get that part right, you’ve got Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount, Reece — they’ve all been there from six or seven.’
Nigel’s son Reece James came through the academy at Chelsea and is now a regular
Lauren James (centre) is also a professional football with Manchester United
When Reece turned eight, Chelsea secured his signature. Much to the frustration of his father’s employers.
‘I was working for Fulham and Reading and both clubs were disappointed in me because he didn’t sign for them,’ James says. ‘But Reece’s passion was Chelsea so it boils down to what he wanted to do. The clubs didn’t see that…. that’s one of those things that drove me from working in clubs.’
They got ‘nasty’, he says. Unsurprising, perhaps given Reece, 21, is now an England international.
Too often, though, promising youngsters become the victims of this rat race. ‘A lot of where it goes wrong is the parents. Because they have a dream of this football helping their life,’ James says. ‘You end up having parents arguing among themselves because there’s one son in another group they think their son should be in. Or someone else’s son doesn’t pass the ball.’
At his academy, the rules are simple: we’re not interested in their opinion. ‘If you feel there’s something which doesn’t suit you, then there’s loads of other places… I’ll actually tell them where the best places are,’ he laughs.
‘My biggest thing is the information those kids are picking up in that car journey home. That’s where the most damage is done.
‘Anyone who’s done it, has done it through having a great family around them,’ James says. ‘When there’s children and I think: that’s a parent that’s going to cause a problem for their child, I absolutely deliver that information to them.’
Some listen, some are less receptive. ‘I give them an education on this being for their children, for it to be their passion and not the parents’,’ he insists.
Nigel watches on as his players train at his coaching school in south west London
But even for those who heed his words, there are few guarantees.
‘Signing a professional contract,’ James says, ‘that could last for a year or two. Do we call that making it?’
That’s why his barometer for success extends beyond football. And why, before social distancing, his post-training debriefs proved particularly popular.
Parents and players would gather to listen to the likes of Wilfried Zaha detail the realities of life in football. James would offer life lessons, too, and those who reach his U18 side are usually those who listened most closely.
‘I don’t look at it as — what we want to do is just get boys into academies… that’s not what I’m doing this for,’ James explains.
‘It’s about developing a young man — whether you’re going to be a professional footballer, playing non-League football. Someone who has a focus in their life and where they’re going, whatever it is. That is the biggest achievement.’
And that means personal sacrifice, too. When Reece faced Real Madrid in the recent Champions League semi-final first leg, Nigel was coaching his own team.
‘They’re doing their job. I’m doing my job,’ he says. ‘I enjoy getting in the van, driving here, talking to my coaches, working with the kids, working with the parents. And the more my kids grow, the more I like to give back.’