Player development has come a long way in a short space of time – just ask Shaun Cooper.
Cooper has witnessed firsthand how the game has evolved, both in his capacity as a trainee at Portsmouth and as a member of the AFC Bournemouth coaching staff.
The majority of his 313 appearances as a professional came during an eventful seven-year stay with the Cherries between 2005 and 2012.
A cultured defender and midfielder, Cooper skippered the Cherries during their Greatest Escape season of 2008/09 before hanging up his boots following a spell with Poole Town in 2017.
Having taken up his first coaching role on a part-time basis with the club’s under-13s, Cooper soon became permanent and was appointed to lead the under-21s in October 2018.
Before this season had been put on hold, Cooper had seen his team reach the last 16 of the Premier League Cup, the semi-finals of the Hampshire Senior Cup and the area final of the Central League Cup, a trophy they won last year.
The Cherries have faced opposition ranging from category one academy status to Wessex League and have lost just one of their 12 competitive games this season, a dead-rubber in their last group game in the Premier League Cup at Stoke.
Delivering an appraisal of the season so far, Cooper told afcb.co.uk: “We’ve found ways to win lots of games and the manner in which we’ve won has been pleasing.
“We’ve come from behind a few times, we haven’t always played well and have had to grind out results. There have also been times when we’ve dominated from the first whistle to the last.
“Individually, a lot of players have done well. They have put themselves in front of the manager and have trained well. Players have also gained valuable experience from loan spells.
“In most games, we have had a mix of experienced players, under-21s and under-18s. In the Hampshire Senior Cup game at Farnborough in December, we had a very young team.
“They came from behind and ground out the win. It was a great show of fighting spirit and character. They displayed all the characteristics we want to see in Bournemouth players.
“The Premier League Cup has been a real highlight of the season. We’ve played really good opposition and the lads have risen to the occasion every time.
“They have played some really good football and defended really well at times against strong players. There has been a lot to be pleased with both in and out of possession.
“The lads have played alongside some first-team players and haven’t looked out of place.
"The first-team players have come down and set a really good example to the rest of our boys. There’s no doubt in their minds what they need to do to try to knock on the door of the first team.
“They are trying to be Premier League footballers and it’s no easy task. But the example set from the first team has been excellent and the attitude of the lads has been tremendous.”
The Cherries topped their Premier League Cup group after finishing ahead of Stoke City, Southampton and Nottingham Forest.
They progressed in the Hampshire Senior Cup by seeing off Basingstoke, Farnborough and Sholing and the Central League Cup with wins over Portsmouth, Plymouth and Bristol Rovers.
Cooper added: “The diversity of the opposition is brilliant for our players’ development. It’s often said academy players get taught a certain way of doing things and don’t get the rough and tumble of non-league football.
“For our boys to go from playing a category one team to a non-league team a few days later is great experience for them, particularly the ones who haven’t been on loan.
“In these games, they have to head the ball a lot more, fight for first contacts, fight for second balls and try to read the game from that aspect. They can learn different things.
“I think it’s a really good blend of opposition. We can try to set up against a well-organised attack and be well organised in trying to stop it.
"But it’s different when it gets messy and when it becomes a fight. The Hampshire Senior Cup has been really good in exposing the lads to those situations.”
Asked how things had evolved from his time as a player, Cooper said: “There’s a lot more data for the lads to work off and so much more analysis.
“They get monitored, things get recorded, they know their physical capabilities, they know how much they put into a session, they know what their levels are and they know what their targets are. There is a much broader set of targets for them to reach.
“When I played, we used to run as hard as we could and play as well as we could and you got judged there and then. You wouldn’t watch a video and there would be no post-game analysis.
“The lads now have so many good tools in place for them to learn and improve and for them to reflect. From a coaching aspect, it helps us make them better players.
“Preparation for games has come a long way as well. We get to watch videos of the opposition so we have an idea of what we’re up against.
“In my day, you just went out there and faced whatever was in front of you and you never got to watch anything back.
“You didn’t know how far you had run. You just had a feeling for how you had played and then your manager would either tell you that you had played well or that you hadn’t.”