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A firsthand look at Atlanta United's new academy director

A guest post from an expert

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Richard Money was announced as Atlanta United's new Academy Director on April 14. His previous job was a successful three-year spell at Cambridge United in England. Matt Ramsay (@ramsaymatt) is Press Association correspondent for their home matches, as well as being a long term fan of the U's, and he offers his views on Atlanta's new arrival.

While his tenure at Cambridge United ended in early November 2015 after a prolonged period of disappointing results, the progress he oversaw at the club will never be forgotten.

He left Cambridge a division higher than when he arrived, leading the club to promotion back to the Football League after a nine-year absence with a 2-1 victory over Gateshead at Wembley Stadium in May 2014, the culmination of his first full season in charge.

The chasm between the Conference (now renamed the National League, the fifth tier of English football) and League Two cannot be overstated. Match attendance figures rocket, as does television revenue and the number of commercial opportunities. Clubs are afforded compensation rights for promising young players they have nurtured in their academy, a liberty not afforded to them in the Conference.

It was Money who led them out of this abyss. Five other managers had failed to guide the club back to the level they departed in the midst of a financial crisis that threatened its very existence in 2005; when Money took over they were only two points above the relegation zone and in danger of facing a further demotion.

A sixteen-match unbeaten streak to start the following campaign set up the promotion charge, they went on to finish second and won the ensuing play-offs.

Of specific interest to Atlanta United fans will be his faith in young players and the way he would develop them. Three of the side that started at Wembley graduated through Cambridge United's academy. One is their longest serving player and one is now club captain. The third, Liam Hughes, scored the opening goal that day to send them on their way to League Two.

A spell from June 2008 saw Money installed as Academy Director at Newcastle United. One of the players he coached was Ryan Donaldson, who he then signed in his first summer at the Abbey Stadium:

Upon penning a contract, Donaldson was quick to highlight that his former academy boss was the factor that most attracted him to the club, noting "The gaffer was the big draw for me and probably the most important reason for me coming here. I know what he did with me before and I know he'll make me a better player and hopefully, we can achieve our goals this season."

Not only did he repay the faith by netting the winning goal on the day the club gained promotion, he was also man of the match when the U's famously held giants Manchester United to a 0-0 draw in last season's FA Cup.
Training on the grounds of Clare College, one of the oldest surviving institutions of Cambridge University, the first team squad and the youth team train on adjacent pitches, allowing Money to run his eye over the next batch of players looking to break through to the senior ranks, often combining the sides in practise matches to allow them a more immersive experience and enhance their learning further.

He was difficult to deal with in the press, to the point of being argumentative over questions he didn't like or taking the chance to be confrontational towards a perceived lack of support from fans, once apologising with "I hope that people will just take it as a ridiculous, over-exaggerated rant from a grumpy old fool," but so long as he was helping the club evolve positively nobody seemed to mind his outbursts for long.

His legend assured Money could have been forgiven for setting the objective of the club surviving at its new level, stabilising before being able to challenge a few years later. Instead, he was relentless in his quest for further improvement.

In one of his quarrelsome moods, he made it clear after a 2-1 defeat at Portsmouth (by far the biggest club in the division, who average over 16,000 fans at home games three leagues below the Premier League) in the second weekend after promotion that expectations should remain high despite the increase in the strength of opponents.

"Maybe there's a lot of people from Cambridge that have come here today that are happy just happy to be in the stadium. ‘Isn't it wonderful we're back in the Football League, playing against Portsmouth?' It's no good to me. I'm not interested in any of that. Because I think we're better than that."

His departure in November perhaps owed as much to the pressure he himself initiated as it did to anything else. With the club publicly declaring its intention to challenge for a further promotion in 2015-16 they found themselves 18th at the end of October. After a Friday night defeat at home to Bristol Rovers, Money declared:

"In all my three years here I haven't had to be too critical of our players but I'm not going to hide behind anything tonight. We looked vulnerable, couldn't pass it and didn't create anything. You have to ask serious questions as to why that's happened because it wasn't good enough."

It was to be his last press conference. He was sacked three days later.

Fans of most clubs would not be sad to see the back of a head coach who had overseen such a downturn in results. While realising that it was right in order for their club to progress to the next level, the reaction upon his sacking was an outpouring of near-universal thanks.

Nobody will ever lose sight of how much Cambridge United changed for the better during Richard Money's time at the club. The news that he has found his way back into football will ensure that Atlanta United's fortunes will be followed with interest by a League Two club's supporters across the pond.