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Meet Tom Vernon, the former Manchester United scout and founder of Africa's top football academy out to turn the sport on its head

Published on: 10 January 2017
Tom Vernon (right) is turning Danish club FC Nordsjaelland into another outpost of his Right To Dream project (Source: Right To Dream)

There is something extraordinary about the union between FC Nordsjaelland, an unremarkable Danish first division football club to the north-west of Copenhagen, and the Right To Dream academy in Ghana.

It is not just because the club, from the modest 19,000-person town of Farum, is some 5,000 miles away from Right To Dream’s football-oriented residential school on the banks of the River Volta.

What is truly unusual – perhaps unique – is that, rather than being another case of a club co-opting an academy to feed its demand for players, instead it is Right To Dream which has bought Nordsjaelland as a ready-made destination for its graduates.

It is all part of the radical vision of Tom Vernon, a 38-year-old English coach-turned-entrepreneur who founded Right To Dream in his early twenties.

Having turned it into Africa’s leading football academy, Vernon led a takeover of Nordsjaelland 12 months ago.

The move was his latest and most audacious gambit in a quest to change football from within – by creating a supply chain of socially responsible players.

“It's not a normal way of running a football club,” Vernon concedes.

The Right To Dream academy's teams have won a host of international tournaments (Source: Right To Dream)

He adds: “We want to play with players that we produce, who live according to our values and want to use football as a life-changer for them and for the communities and countries they come from.

“There are fantastic role models, the likes of George Weah and David Beckham – guys who have really used football to achieve so many things off the field.

“I feel they are in the minority. We’d like to produce footballers, whether in Denmark’s SuperLiga, the Conference in England, the Champions League or World Cup – we’ve done all of those things – who want to contribute in that way.

“That is what gets us out of bed.”

Former Manchester United scout

Behind Vernon’s idealism are pragmatic and enterprising streaks without which Right To Dream might never have got off the ground.

He started it from scratch and, using income from scouting Africa for Manchester United and his own canny gap year business, grew it from a shoestring operation in Accra with an annual budget of $50,000 into the continent’s foremost facility, which now costs around $2m to run.

Vernon's football school in Ghana takes in 90 student-athletes (Source: Right To Dream)

When it almost went bust during the financial crisis Vernon placed greater emphasis on Right To Dream’s educational offering, consolidating ties with American private schools and universities that have seen more than 30 students – male and female – leaving on scholarships.

That unlocked sponsor potential. Nike, Tullow Oil and Caterpillar emerged as key partners and the footballing production line started to yield more transfer fees.

Dozens of their players have since embarked on professional careers, some at clubs as big as Manchester City.

 

Right To Dream’s teams became a force on the age-group scene – their under-15s and under-18s went an entire 42-match European tour unbeaten last year – while graduates such as forward Abdul Majeed Waris played for Ghana at the 2014 World Cup.

Deliberately basic

Yet even the academy’s success has brought hurdles. So poor are the 30,000 would-be recruits who attend the 100 trials every year that facilities at their purpose-built headquarters are deliberately basic by European standards.

There is a gym and several football pitches, but Right To Dream’s 90 students – typically from families who survive on less than $2 a day – sleep in dorms. Vernon explains that it is designed to “keep them hungry for that next step”.

“A lot of our kids [come from homes where they] eat one meal a day and, from their three primary carers – their teacher, coach and parents – they probably get beaten on a daily basis by two out of the three,” he says.

Right To Dream's facilities are not lavish by European football standards but a vast improvement on most of their students' backgrounds (Source: Right To Dream)

“So you come into an environment where there's no corporal punishment, four meals a day, and grass pitches, and there's a real danger that the kid thinks ‘I’ve arrived, this is the solution to all my problems’.

“Then you're saying ‘hang on a minute, you're good enough to be a Champions League footballer or to go to an Ivy League university’. And the kid’s like ‘well, I was aspiring to eat three times a day and have a good night’s sleep and have some people show me a bit of love’.”

Football's 'me, me' culture

For all his pride at the success of Right To Dream, Vernon says it has been diluted by the reluctance of some graduates to maintain ties or adhere to the academy’s emphasis on social responsibility. “There's not a lot of satisfaction in that,” he says.

That was one of his motivations for buying Nordsjaelland: to keep graduates immersed in those values for longer and avoid being “sucked into the standard football culture of Europe, fairly quickly in some cases, and losing touch with the whole point of Right To Dream”.

Some students at Vernon's project take up scholarships in the United States (Source: Right To Dream)

Vernon lays much of the blame for a “‘me, me’ culture of selfishness” in football squarely at Fifa.

He calls their deregulation of agents “absolutely scandalous” and says he is constantly fending off “sharks trying to steal kids from our system for their own personal gain”.

“Players are not taking responsibility for things that they should be because they're having so much stuff taken off their hands,” he adds.

“But they're also, in a lot of cases, being exploited and not understanding what's happening to them.”

A step up the food chain

Vernon’s other incentive for buying Nordsjaelland was to ensure that Right To Dream is better rewarded for its work when graduates make their next step.

“You have players leaving Right To Dream on transfers of $150,000-$200,000 to Swedish clubs, and then 18 months later they're selling them for $3m or $4m,” he says.

“You're thinking ‘hold on a minute, we did all the work and we need money for our academy to grow, so can we take it a step up the food chain?’”

Right To Dream graduate Abdul Majeed Waris played for Ghana at the 2014 World Cup (Source: Getty)

Vernon makes clear that personal financial gain has never been on the agenda. He says that a standalone academy does not make money “if you do it properly”.

“Any money we generate from this club goes back into the project,” he adds. “There's no money taken out for dividends. This is about sustainability and expansion of the vision.”

Expanding the philosophy

He has set bold targets at Nordsjaelland, a club he and his investors chose partly because of its own tradition of producing young players.

By 2019, he wants the team to comprise only graduates from their Danish and Ghanaian academies.

But he says: “This project is not about us trying to put 11 African players on the pitch somewhere in Europe. It's about expanding the Right To Dream philosophy.”

Nordsjaelland finished ninth of 14 teams in the SuperLiga last season (Source: Getty)

Vernon has moved to Denmark with his family and says his time is largely occupied by “facilitating the marriage” between Nordsjaelland and Right To Dream.

He acknowledges that results – they currently sit ninth in the 14-team division, the same position they finished last season – will dictate how it is received.

“I can talk about our visions for 2020 but the media and fans want to see how you get on on Saturday,” he says. “If you win then the vision is more appealing than if you lose.”

In this for life

Turning Nordsjaelland into an advertisement for his philosophy is by no means the extent of his ambitions.

He believes Right To Dream can prove a template for academies in the developing world and wants to open more branches beyond west Africa.

He hopes to return to London one day, but says his success has not attracted offers from the Premier League: “I’m too off the wall for most clubs.”

Listening to Vernon, they need not bother.

“I'm in this for life. This isn't a job for me," he says.

“I want to prove that development can be done differently, and I want to produce enough graduates who come out thinking, talking, acting differently for people to say ‘yeah, this is a new way that things could be done’. So my big ambition is to change the game – in a positive way.”

Frank Dalleres Sports Editor 

 

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