/ 19 November 2023

British Football Academy scouts for SA talent

British Football Academy founders John Read (L) and Peter Coyle (R) share coach Siya Mnganga's dream of developing talented players in South Africa who will be able to compete for a place in the English Premier League clubs.

South African football players who have dreamed of playing in the English Premier League may now realise it with the launch of the British Football Academy, which will scout for local talent to play in the strongest ranked league in the world.

Three football-mad British friends, now business partners, John Read, Peter Coyle and Ian Kilbride, have always wondered why only a handful of South African players have made it to the English Premier League and decided to dig deep to unearth the country’s untapped talent.

In an interview with the Mail & Guardian ahead of the launch of the British Football Academy in Pinetown last Saturday, marked by a football match between its first intake of 18 youths and the Kusekhaya Football Aces, which plays in the Durban Central League, Read said he and his friends had fallen in love with South Africa, and now wanted to make a difference by fulfilling a niche to source players for the English Premier League.

Read described himself as a lifelong Manchester City fan who has worked extensively with The Football Association in England and has consulted for three other major international sports: rugby, tennis and athletics. He was the England & Wales Cricket Board and England cricket team director of corporate affairs from 2000 to 2005.

Read said he and Coyle had met for lunch one day and were talking about “interesting things to do” as they approached older age, when the idea to launch the academy in South Africa was sparked.

“Myself, Peter and Ian are all mad football fans and we have always noticed that there seemed to be a gap to develop young football players in South Africa, because out of a population of about 62 million people there are only a handful of football players who have played in the best league in the world, the English Premier League.  I think it is the best league because the rights are sold in every country across the world, including South Africa, and many players want to play in the league,” Read said.

“There have been a lot of English Premier League players from countries across Africa — from Tanzania, Ghana, Nigeria and Ivory Coast — and many of these countries are much smaller than South Africa and have populations of only seven or eight million people, so just in pure probability terms there must be six, eight, 10 players in South Africa who are good enough to play in England,” he said.

“At the moment there is only one South African player in the league, Lyle Foster, who plays for Burnley. And if you look historically there have only been a handful — Steven Pienaar, Quinton Fortune, Lucas Radebe, over the last 25 years” Read said.

According to Sports Brief, only 14 South Africans have ever played in the league.

“We thought that is just not right just and there have to be good reasons for that, so we were talking about it and trying to rationalise why that may be and thought ‘there is a gap in the market here. There must be talent here and we are going to find them’,” Read said.

He visited South Africa in 2022 to explore the opportunities and find a local coach. He spotted a Highway Mail newspaper article on the internet about a young coach, Siya Mnganga, who had been running the Touch of Class Football Academy in Pinetown in 2018, and decided to track him down.

Mnganga, who had closed his academy after battling to raise funds, was about to throw in the towel on his football career when Read found him on 27 September.

Mnganga studied sports conditioning and administration and has a Coerver coaching youth diploma from the Exercise Teachers Academy as well as an SA Football Association D licence and a Confederation of African Football C licence.

“I was borderline quitting football,” Mnganga said. “I had made the decision that I am done, because I had coached all over the country and I was now jobless, depressed and borderline suicidal. I went down to the beach at Suncoast and prayed. I told God: ‘I have done everything in my power to make it and if by the time I get back home there is no phone call, or message giving me a football coaching job, I am quitting, but just know that I am very hurt and disappointed’,” 

When he got home at 4pm, there was no message and he told himself  “no more football”.  Then, two days later he decided to fix his email account which had not worked for six months, and emails came flooding in, among them a message dated 27 September at 3.10pm.

“It read: ‘Hi, I’m John Read and we are looking at starting a football academy,’ Mnganga recalled.

He agreed to a Zoom meeting with Read to find out more, although he was wary it was a scam. 

“The first thing I wanted to ask John was how he found me, and he pulled out the newspaper. I could not believe it, and he has changed my life since then,” Mnganga said.

Read and his friends paid for Mnganga to get his driver’s licence, bought him a car and sent him on the road to scout the length and breadth of South Africa — from Newcastle and KwaDukuza to Port Shepstone, Soweto, Vosloorus, Alexandra and Cape Town —  to find the first squad of 18 boys who would benefit from the British Football Academy’s 2024 football scholarships to attend Pinetown Boys High School from grade eight to matric.  

Former England player Andy Sinton is the academy’s UK ambassador, while retired South African player Daine Klate, who was recently appointed head coach of Motsepe Foundation Championship side La Masia, is its South African ambassador.

“I don’t think there is enough football development happening in the country so the more of these types of initiatives we have the better because football is littered with broken dreams. The academy is a good thing for Durban and a good thing for South Africa,” Klate said.

As ambassador, his role will be to guide the coach at the academy and oversee the development programme.

“I come from a development football background and I will help as best as I can. The aim is to always try and go and spend as much time as possibly at the academy,” he said.

Working as the academy’s first coach is a “dream come true” for Mnganga.

“I told myself when I was 18 that ‘I am putting all my eggs in one basket, in football, and if it doesn’t work out then I am done, that’s me in life’. I am basically living my dream and more than anything, I am so happy for South African football because this is a game changer,” Mnganga said.

The three British friends have links and experiences related to South Africa. Read’s parents moved to Scottburgh on theSouth Coast 30 years ago, which led to him regularly visiting the country, and even lived in Cape Town for a year.

He said they are paying for 18 bursaries for boys, who have already been identified and will attend the school and the academy in 2024. A further 12 boys will be recruited for 2025.

“We have guaranteed to pay for their education to matriculation at the age of 18, so even if their football doesn’t work out, this is generally a life changing opportunity for them,” he said.

Coyle, a solicitor in England who fell in love with South Africa when he travelled here for the Fifa 2010 Soccer World Cup, is excited about the prospects of finding new talent in the country. As a licensed Fifa agent Coyle is authorised to negotiate contracts, club transfers and image rights around the world.

“We are creating an environment to help these kids to develop to be good enough to come across to England. It doesn’t have to be England but that is where our contacts are … There are 92 clubs in England and we have very good relationships with lots of them,” he said.

“Through our contacts, if we get a kid that is good enough, we will take them across England to have a two-week trial with a club and then it’s up to them to show they are good enough to get offered a professional contract.”

Coyle said the team had contacts at major clubs such as Manchester United and Liverpool.

“We know the reality and that if we find one player that is a beautiful story but all the others, they get educated and their life will be hugely enhanced, so whatever happens they win. They may be good enough to play for South African teams or do something with football,” he said.

Kilbride, a lecturer at Stellenbosch University and private client asset management professional, married a South African and lives in Cape Town where he runs the Spirit Foundation that provides children with educational bursaries, and supports local communities and wildlife causes.