Gerard Prenderville on the pathway of progression at the Academy of Football
Mere moments after Sonny Perkins’ life had changed forever, on the occasion of his West Ham United debut, the 17-year-old stood tall and proud in front of the cameras.
His first-ever first-team post-match interview concluded: “Obviously first and foremost, I’ve got to say a big thank you to all my family, who believed in me.
“Then, obviously, I’d thank all my coaches in the Academy from when I first came in. [U18s assistant coach] Gerard [Prenderville] helped me so much from when I first came in, and [U18s coaches] Mark Phillips and Kevin Keen have been great with me. I’ve enjoyed working with all of them, to be honest.”
Player Care Officers later spoke of the loud cheers which greeted Perkins’ debut at the Academy ‘digs’ house. Young starlets’ Instagram stories lit up with messages of congratulations. Watching from home, Prenderville smiled.
“I was super chuffed for Sonny, to be honest,” Prenderville recalled. “He came in as an U14 when I was coaching the U15s and U16s, so he came into my age group.
“I then passed him onto Kev and Mark as a first-year scholar, and I’ve been lucky enough myself to move up to the U18s this year, so I had some contact with him at the start of this year.
“I was really chuffed, to be honest. It's always nice when one of the players gives you a little mention like that!”
There have been plenty of reasons to smile at the Academy since that night in Vienna, with no fewer than eight graduates involved in the UEFA Europa League tie against GNK Dinamo Zagreb last week - six of them making European debuts, three full debuts, and two West Ham United debuts.
Keenan Forson, a debutant against the Croatian champions, noted post-match: "Thanks to a few of the coaches as well, who have been with me through the age groups. I remember, when I first came in, it was Gerard [Prenderville] who saw me, then Kev Keen, Marl [Phillips], Steve [Potts], Dmitri [Halajko]…"
And Freddie Potts, another debutant, added: “It was just a massive achievement that we can thank everyone at the Academy for.”
Even this week, 20-year-old Harrison Ashby made his Premier League debut as a late substitute in the defeat to Arsenal at Emirates Stadium.
It's great when you get a player out there, but it's not great for just the coaches, it's great for the whole Academy
A popular coach around the Academy of Football, whose enthusiasm for the game shines through with every word, Prenderville was delighted to see the Academy players step up again.
He smiled: "That feeling is why we go into work every day to work with all the players.
“It’s a really proud moment as a coach, not just for me but for Kev, Mark, [Academy Manager] Ricky Martin, and anyone who's had maybe even a tiny influence on all the boys.
“That might be the chef, it might be the groundstaff, or the kitman who gets their boots out every single day, or the guys who provide their education, or the physios...
“It's great when you get a player out there, but it's not great for just the coaches, it's great for the whole Academy – all of the staff who might have had a tiny influence on them getting out onto the pitch. For all of the staff, it's exactly why we do it.”
And that feeling creates a buzz – an optimism – which is contagious.
“It’s really exciting for us at the Academy,” Prenderville continued. “It's fantastic for the rest of the lads because it gives them that target – that goal to know that if they keep performing, at whatever age group they might be playing in, they’re going to be given a chance.
“It's so refreshing for all the players, and I'm not just talking about U18s or U23s; if you're an U15 or U16, across the whole Academy, there's a real buzz everywhere. Yes, we've had a lot of debuts, but who's going to be the next one? We've got such a good crop of young players coming through in all the different age groups.”
Now in his eighth season at the Academy of Football, Prenderville is fully aware of how great an influence such inspiration can provide on a young footballer’s progression.
Having started his coaching journey just short of two decades ago, running soccer schools in his local Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, the 39-year-old spent his first seven seasons developing at nearby Dagenham & Redbridge; “my scholarship!”, Prenderville jokes.
Initially arriving at Chadwell Heath as a part-time U14s coach, Prenderville has – at one stage or another – coached all the various age groups at the Academy of Football.
Most recently, he has led the U15s and U16s group but, as he – likes his young charges – looks to move forward, took on the role of U18s assistant coach this summer to learn from lead coach Keen and fellow assistant Phillips.
It’s really important that the lads make their step up, but it's got to be at the right time
“I've loved every minute of it,” Prenderville summarises. “When the opportunity came to go and work with Kev and Mark, two fantastic coaches with great knowledge and great experience, that was such a good opportunity for me.
“I've loved training, being in and around Kev and Mark’s knowledge, picking up words of wisdom from both of them. If I can pick up one piece of information on a daily basis…
"I'm always learning, whether that be on the training pitch or the analysis room, helping with opposition analysis or players' development plans... I like to think that I'm developing in all the different areas, and like the players, hopefully I can continue to improve.”
Having witnessed the rapid rise of Perkins, Chesters, Ashby and the other Academy players this season, Prenderville is keen to ensure that the one thing they always retain – like himself – is a love of the game.
“It’s really important that the lads make their step up, but it's got to be at the right time,” he concludes. “Never try to rush your journey, and just keep learning.
“Everybody’s journey in football is so different, so whatever age group they play in, they have continue to enjoy training and understand what a great Club it is to be at.
"I'm just one of those coaches who's really happy to be at West Ham. It's great to be with the U18s, but I was happy to cover the U11s the other week, or the U9s or U23s... wherever the Club may need me, I'm always happy to help out.
“If you can't be a player, being a coach is the second-best job! Just working for this Club is an honour in itself, wherever that may take me.
“If Sonny were to play for the U18s, you’d still see his infectious love for the game. It doesn’t really matter what age group you play in – it should just be about going out there and doing it properly.”