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Youth the key for Halajko and Colchester United


Colm Hand

21 Min Read

Nov 26 2023

Dmitri Halajko is known for his strategic thinking and ability to develop young talent. Halajko’s coaching style is focused on creating a positive and engaging environment that fosters growth and success, spending time working in the academies of Norwich City, Leicester City and West Ham United. Whether it’s working with academy players or first-team professionals, he consistently demonstrates dedication and a commitment to excellence. 

Halajko’s career to date has been a unique one in multiple ways, starting at Colchester United and going full circle to now being back again 12 years later, taking up the Sporting Director role in July 2022. Another unique factor of Halajko’s career is his background in player development and coaching, an avenue we don’t see as many Sporting Directors come from.

With this new role being quite different to his previous jobs throughout the years, Halajko discusses some of the biggest challenges he faces in his current position.

“The biggest challenge we probably face here is the retention of top players and top staff. We are clear and effective at what we do here and the club always has been at providing young players and staff with a real opportunity and a real platform to improve and develop. The downside of being a club of our size is that you work really hard to get them to a good level and then when you get them there, a bigger club notices their good work or their good play and they move on. That’s a big compliment in a lot of ways because we want to do that, and we encourage it in a lot of ways, but also that’s a big challenge because then we have to start the process again and go through the process of trying to find the next rough diamond, whether that’s a player or whether that’s a key member of staff. That’s certainly been a challenge here.

Whereas some of the other clubs that I’ve worked at in between coming back here, you can retain staff for a lot longer because you’re working in the Premier League and that’s pretty much where every player and every coach wants to get. So you can retain those people far easier because you’re their destination. Whereas at Colchester United, sometimes we’re not the destination, we’re part of the journey. So, we’ve got to be really good at finding the next one. We’ve got to be really good at repeating that cycle because if we just do it once, our success won’t really have any longevity,” Halajko stated.

One major challenge a lot of Sporting Directors face is a lack of time. With the nature of the sport being very reactive, different pressures present themselves on a day-to-day basis. Also, as a Sporting Director your workforce could be constantly changing, whether that be changes in the squad, backroom or coaching staff and this can present problems in the long term. Halajko mentions how he balances these factors and addresses both long term and short-term strategies at The U’s.

“I think I’ve been fortunate. The other clubs I’ve worked at, Norwich, West Ham and Leicester, especially at the times I worked for them, all balanced the short term and the long term really well. So I’ve actually worked in clubs and seen it happen. So, all of those clubs when I was at their first teams either won promotions or they won trophies, or they got into Europe. They equally also all excelled in player trading to improve the finances for the long term and to reinvest. And they also all produced and developed their own players for the future. So I think both can be done. I believe both are very important. I think with every decision I make, it is very important for me, that I take both those approaches into consideration. I wouldn’t really like to make many decisions that just affect the short term and neglect the long term. And I don’t think you can make too many decisions that affect the long term but have no impact at all on the short term. You need to balance those off and always have both in mind and where possible, and try to have success in both those areas in every single decision that you make.

I think protecting the long term vision and the long term future of the club is massively important. I want the club to be here for many years to come. So that long term vision to hopefully protect the club, for it always to be here, has to be an absolute priority because I’ve seen many football clubs when it’s not a priority, and they ended up really struggling or not existing anymore. So, we have to keep an eye on that.

But then the short term, the here and now, we want to improve, we want to build a team that the fans can identify with, that the fans enjoy, that’s exciting and people can be part of right now. So I think every decision, you have to take both into consideration.

I think I’m fortunate to have worked at three other clubs that do that really well. They managed to win games of football with the budget that they’ve had. They managed to trade players and put that money back into the club to make the club stronger. And then they managed to build their own players and they helped provide that sustainability for the future,” Halajko explained.

Throughout the past 18 months, 50% of Colchester United’s goals had been scored or assisted by players that have come through the academy under the age of 23. This highlights the blend of experience Halajko has transferred from his academy coaching days at West Ham, to his present day role at Colchester United.

With player development being one of the biggest specialities in Halajko’s career, he mentions how this experience in developing young talent contributes to both the long term and short term success of the team.

“You need to develop players that give us an opportunity to let the football club carry on more successfully once they’re gone. But while they’re here, they’re really adding to the here and now as well. And if you can get that, then your football club will be successful and it will be around for many years, and people will really enjoy being part of it. Our EFL productivity score for category two academies over the last three years, we’ve been the third most productive from the EFL stats provided. And then, I think out of the 92 clubs, we’re the 19th most productive academy. And last season in terms of minutes, 50% of our goals were scored or made by academy products. That’s been the same again this season. This season, I think we’re up to 35% of minutes from academy products. Last season, I think we were at about 28% all season in terms of academy product minutes. We just managed to sell an academy product for a good fee for a League Two club, so we can reinvest that back into the club.

And those things are important for us at Colchester United. We are good at player development. We believe in player development. In the EFL last year, we had the most minutes for players of under 20 years old. So, youth certainly gets a chance for us, but we’re not just putting players in the team, they have to be able to affect it. We’re not putting players in the team for what they might do for us in two or three seasons. They need to contribute to winning game in the present. And that’s why they have to be at a certain level. They must be coached well, they have to be prepared, and they have to be ready to affect the team.

And last season, and this season, there were times where we were down the bottom of the league, and it was never down the young players or the academy players. We didn’t have to worry about them. They showed real character and real big moments as they have done again so far this season. We think youth has a certain energy, a certain hunger, and a certain bravery. There are others that maybe look at youthful players and youthful sides and look at maybe a lack of experience and maybe look at mistakes and maybe feel they can’t be trusted or don’t know the game. There is that side as well, but we tend to lean on the positive side of that. They’re hungry, really hungry, really energetic, really want to kick on. And they add lots to this club for sure, and every club I’ve worked at to be fair,” Halajko added.

Coming from a player development background, the process of aligning the academy with the first team is something that has become second-nature to Halajko. With a lot of Sporting Directors coming from a commercial background versus Halajko’s route, the transition can be a bit more difficult as they may not have that kind of experience in youth development. Halajko shares some of his practices that he has found successful in aligning the academy and the first team to become more efficient.

“I think there’s three things that are really important for me. So, one would be aligning the big picture. Aligning the big picture is making sure that the recruitment philosophy, the player profiles, the data collection, the head coach profile, the playing style, the academy philosophy, make sure they’re all aligned. And you’re looking for the same things across all of those. So, getting all the big picture (strategies) joined up and aligned is crucial,  as they give the blue print for how you are going do achieve what you want to do.

But then the next bit you have to get right is to align the day-to-day small details. So that might be the coaching practices, that might be the set plays, or the pressing patterns, or the pre match routine, or the standards and the behaviours. All of the little day to day details that happen around the training ground, how many of those can you align from the academy to the first team as well.

So, you need to align the big picture stuff, the small details, and then the third thing is protecting and opening up the pathways for the young players.

You have to be planning a year or two ahead and be able to spot potential and see what players are coming through and not block their pathways. You need to open them up for them and then have the bravery to put them in and back them. I think you need to get all three of those things right for success in this area.

Obviously, there’s always some clubs that might get the big picture alignment right, but not the small detail alignment right, or there might be some clubs that are the other way around. They get the small detail alignment right, and not the big picture detail alignment. And there’s other clubs that get the big picture alignment brilliant and the small detail alignment brilliant. But then they don’t protect or open up the pathways for the young players, so they’ve got everything aligned and they’ve got lots of good players that were all ready to go, but they’re never brave enough to actually open up a pathway for a young player or protect the pathway for a young player, so they never get the chance to go through anyway.

I reckon every academy in the country has a player that’s probably good enough to be in its first team squad. There are loads of good academies and loads of good players out there, but if you don’t open up, protect the pathways and give youth an opportunity, then it doesn’t matter how good your program is.

Every month at the club, a different coach in the academy gets an experience with the first team. So, they go and have work experience, for want of a better word, and go and shadow the first team for a day or two leading into a game. They’ll watch their training sessions, they’ll be in their meetings, they’ll understand the opposition analysis, and then they’ll be in the player meetings. And then on a match day, they’ll be in the changing room, they’ll be on the pitch before the game, they’ll be on the bench during the game, and then the day after they’ll be in the debrief. So, all those little details, rather than trying to explain them in a meeting or in a PowerPoint, we’re providing some opportunities for our academy and our first team to get together, work together and see each thing from other people’s point of views. Our first team staff will come to Under 23’s games and they’ll do the opposite the other way around. So, they’ll come and get their hands dirty in the academy sessions and the academy games. This really helps with that day to day alignment.

I think that’s certainly one way that has helped me in the past. I was very lucky when I was at Norwich, Alex Neil, who was the manager at the time and Ricky Martin the Technical Director put me in his kind of video analysis room and let me be a fly on the wall on all his work. And that really helped me join up and see the game in a similar way to him, which meant it easier to join up for the players. And when I was at West Ham, David Moyes, before his staff came in, he had a few weeks where he had to wait for his staff to do some notice. He let me come in and work with him on a few match days in the Premier League and be in his changing room and be in the manager’s office for the game and really understand what it is that he wants. I think the more opportunities you can provide for that to happen and the first team and academy to share the same space and I don’t mean share the same office space, I mean share the same patch of grass, work together, and collaborate, then they can share those details, those small details. And it helps make it better for the players because it’s really important. They’ve got to value the same stuff. If they don’t value the same things, then the players will just get confused or they’ll be working in the wrong direction,” Halajko explained.

Exposing academy players to what is expected of them as a professional is clearly a key factor in how Halajko has been so successful in promoting young players from the academy to the first team.

“It’s trying to recreate that environment the best you can. Sometimes it’s hard to recreate and you need to get the players to go out on loan. One of the things that we do is try and get the youth team players out on loan over the Christmas period. Every other club I’ve been at around Christmas period, youth team players have it off and they go home and they spend two weeks with their families, which in some ways is needed because it’s a long, hard season for them. But in other ways, that isn’t preparing them to be a professional footballer, because in professional football, that’s probably one of your busiest spells of the year. And you have to really look after yourself and you have to have to learn how to be dedicated and how to compete at a time of year when everyone else is having a good time and having a laugh and relaxing. You have to learn to still be an absolute warrior and compete and go and try and win games of football. So, our youth team, during those couple of weeks, go out on loan, just go on a two-week loan over the Christmas and New Year period to try and get them to play on Boxing Day, to try and get them to play on New Years Day etc. in front of a couple of hundred fans, a non-league stadium.

It’s not necessarily going to be a fantastic level of football that they’re going to get to, but it is the psychological demands and the commitment and the dedication they’re going to have to show over the Christmas period. You’re trying to give them that earliest opportunity that’s right for their development so they can know what it’s all about. Two weeks off at Christmas doesn’t get them nearer to being a professional footballer. If anything, you could argue it takes them further away,” discussed Halajko.

Having experience of coaching in the past as well as being at Colchester United previously, Halajko discusses his considerations when selecting a manager for the club, finding someone who fits the club philosophy and who can carry out what the club are trying to achieve.

“The first thing we did was write a profile of what we wanted. What does a Colchester United Head Coach look like? So, the first thing we did as a board was to look at what some of the key bits of criteria that we think are important to us and we had six main headings for that. And then under those six main headings, there was five or six KPI criteria around that dropped down from each main heading. And that’s what we profiled everybody who applied for the role against. For example, one thing that as we spoke about, that’s key for us, is the ability to develop and improve players, link in with the academy and the bravery to play young players. That’s one of our headings that’s key to us. And then we’d have five or six little drop downs KPIs below that, that would prove or not prove if they actually have that behaviour. Some of the information we might gather from the head coach recruitment process, is from the application that they send into us, some of it might be through data, it might be a data company or some data that we can get ourselves that we can populate those KPI criteria with, some of it will be from the face-to-face interviews, the questions that we ask and how we probe, will also give us some evidence. At Interview we’ll give them some topics to present to us and some of it might come out in there. And then the other key area to explore would be references that we get from clubs they’ve managed or players that have played with them. I will also try and talk to the governing bodies where they might have done their coaching courses to get further information,” he added.

Being at Colchester for 10 years and then making his way round multiple clubs including Norwich, West Ham and Leicester before then returning back to Colchester, Halajko mentions the importance of creating different connections and industry networks all the way throughout his career to benefit himself in his current role.

 “I think in this role I’m in now, I’ve had to draw upon my connections more than ever before, whether that’s for guidance or whether that’s to gain extra information to help with key decisions. So, it might be what players are available for loan, or it might be if a potential staff member has the right attitude, or it might be a problem that I’m facing for the first time. So those contacts at the moment in this role are really key. You need people at the end of the phone that you can trust to gain as much information from as possible so you can make effective decisions. Because the more information you have to your disposal, the more effective your decision can be. The more people you have that you can speak to and gain information from, then the possibility to make those decisions better is wider. I guess the key word in there is trust, though. You have to have a lot of connections, but you have to have the ones that you trust. You have to make sure you trust and believe in the quality of the information that you’re getting from those connections. And you have got to believe in the motive that the information you’re getting is coming from.

If you get those two things and you have connections and people that want to help you and people that will give you honest information, it can only speed up your work, make you more dynamic and make you more flexible. Because hopefully you can get ahead of the game a little bit and find out what’s happening or who’s available before the competition. I’ve certainly drawn on quite a few of mine since I’ve been here. I’d say far more than any other position, especially around especially around players. So it’s a key part of the role. I think when I was just coaching, it wasn’t quite as important as what it is now with a big part of the role being people and players coming in the building or leaving the building. You have to do a lot of research to make sure you get that right. So every phone call you make just puts another little piece of the puzzle together,” Halajko explained.

Taking up the Sporting Director role was a chance for Halajko to advance even more in his already busy career. He mentions how he has had to develop himself to meet the new criteria his job now presents itself with and how this personal development has helped him with the pressures of the new role.

 “Learning and improving has always been a big thing for me. I always really tried to push myself in that area from a coaching point of view. I started at Level One, got to Level Five as a Pro Licensed coach. I also managed to get through the FA pathway for psychology right from Level One to Level Five. And now I’m on the Level Five Technical Directors course for the FA as well. So that’s always helped prepare me and I always keep myself up to date with the latest learning, latest courses etc. The ASD events have been good as well since I’ve been in post. I think I’ve attended almost every single one. And that’s important because you have a peer network that can help you. It’s not just people at the front of the course that help you, it’s the peers that are around the table that you can pick their brains.

I think the other thing that’s really helped me prepare for the role, which I’ve been lucky with, is the clubs I’ve worked at have all had Sporting Directors. And that was at a time when not everyone had one. So I’ve managed to learn off of them. I’ve worked under them, so I’ve seen how they work. When I went to Norwich, Ricky Martin was really good, and I learned a lot from him and still do. John Rudkin at Leicester too and he’s still there now. They’re two people that I worked under that I could see doing the job, and you learn and watch from there. I’ve seen how Sporting Directors operate in a club for quite a long time, for probably almost the inception of when it first became a role in this country,” added Halajko.

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This article was written by Colm Hand and Daniel Harrison. If you would like to feature or recommend someone for our ongoing Insight series, please email [email protected].

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