From Ethiopia and Paris via Hearts: Evolve Football Academy spreading through Edinburgh's streets

EFA
Different backgrounds but the same goal for two football obsessives

Tough upbringings are the common denominator between Morgaro Gomis and Robel Dent. Growing up in Paris and Ethiopia respectively, they witnessed hardship and crime on the streets more than many others. The drive towards a better life is now fuelling their partnership at the Edinburgh-based football academy, Evolve.

Gomis, the former Hearts, Dundee United and Birmingham City midfielder, is 38 and still plays part-time in Scotland's Lowland League with East Stirlingshire. He is helping shape Evolve's coaching development alongside Dent. The pair first came together as Hearts youth academy coaches and are currently building their venture together.

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While Gomis survived the streets of Paris to forge a career in professional football, Dent left Ethiopia for West Lothian at the age of eight. He trained with a number of senior clubs, studied psychology in America and played briefly in Germany before establishing Evolve in 2017. "Our message is that football brings people together," he says.

Enlisting Gomis adds a distinguished professional to the ranks of a growing company who coach 120 to 150 youngsters each week in the Capital. The midfielder explains how his own expertise grew whilst working at Riccarton. "Yeah, you get the experience from being in the academy. You then need to come up with your own ideas," he says. "I always wanted to go into coaching.

"When I played, I was always thinking about what I would do in the future. I like working with kids, seeing them happy and helping them improve is a bonus. You know you are helping them and it makes you feel alive. I grew up in the suburbs of Paris. It was very tough. A lot of kids get into trouble, so football was everything for us. It was a way for us not to get into trouble. I just wanted to play.

"Like any kid, it was a dream. I managed to become a professional and make the dream a reality. Now I want to help those kids who have the same dream. If you want to play football for a living, you have to work hard. If you are a left-footed player, after training you should take the ball and play with your right. Do that every day and you will see an improvement in one month."

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Dent was captivated by Hearts as a childhood African immigrant. His life followed a very different route to Gomis before he eventually set up his own business here. "My Scottish dad adopted me and took me to a Hearts game," he recalls. "You see Tynecastle and the bright lights as a kid and you're like: 'Oh my God.' In Ethiopia, you don't get that. The resources are not there. It was a completely different culture. I didn't speak any English, I spoke Amharic. I was probably the only black kid in school and I just felt like: 'What am I doing here?' It was a culture shock, but when you played football everybody forgot.

"Football has its own universal language. For 15 minutes before school, and again at lunchtime, nobody cared that I was black or from Ethiopia. But you had to be good, then you got accepted. I joined Livingston Hearts, a local football club for kids, and I was very raw. My dad was always supporting me, although he is no longer with us. I became obsessed with football and training. That was my goal. I moved up to Pumpherston Juniors, Bathgate, Broxburn, then I got to Hutchison Vale.

"From there I started getting academy opportunities with Livingston, Falkirk, Aberdeen and St Johnstone. I had a spell at St Johnstone and my attitude wasn't great. In the changing room one day, I rolled my eyes at the gaffer. I didn't have the emotional control at that age. He said: 'Stay back.' He was like: 'You're done. You never roll your eyes at me.'

"My confidence was shot so I decided to go to America. I studied psychology there but I didn't finish the degree. I left with only months to go and went to Germany because I was offered a rubbish contract by a club in the fifth division. I thought I might not get that opportunity again but, on reflection, it was stupid.

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"I liked helping people feel better about themselves - positive psychology. I know football because all I've done is train all my life. I tried and tried and tried but failed to become a professional. Morgaro has played pro all his life so we have kind of had opposite experiences."

Dent was determined to salvage something from all the time he had devoted to football during his teenage years. "When it wasn't working for me, I started looking at coaching. I know I can help people through training. I want to help others feel better and football is the vehicle for that. I got into trouble quite a lot in Livingston as a kid but in America I had started doing one-to-one coaching. I ended up with 40 to 50 clients. I thought: 'This is working. I'm actually decent at this.'

"When I got back to Scotland I decided to go for it. Although my mission to become a pro failed, I didn't want all that time training, focusing and obsessing about football to go out of the window and just get an office job. I'd have been depressed. I wanted it to go into something I was passionate about.

"I started Evolve one-on-one training in somebody's back garden. A Hearts vacancy came up and I applied. I told them I didn't have any qualifications but I did have experience. I think that's what got me the interview. There were three stages with about 60 people involved. Darren Murray was the one who hired me.

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"Covid hit and the separation from the academy left me I bit disinterested. What kept me there - because the money wasn't great - was I got to watch Darren coach. Then I would be in a room with managers like Craig Levein and then Daniel Stendel. They are talking about CPD [continued professional development], how we need more young players to make runs in behind. I was thinking: 'This is great. I'm nobody and I'm just sitting here watching and learning.' Morgaro was in those meetings and we've kept our connection going."

The purpose of Evolve is to enhance youngsters' footballing talent no matter their ability. "We started one-to-one focusing on technical development. I feel that, in Scotland, the technical development is not great at the younger ages. We worked on repetition and over time you have to analyse the business and how to grow. We began working with more players. I now have 10 group sessions a week with eight players each time.

"Hearts gave me the confidence to be a group coach. We used Box Soccer there which is all about the group. The rest of my team will work one-to-one. We work out how to give players detail. A player had a bad touch, why? Was it the touch or the preparation? Was it footwork? You want the player to understand the patterns that make him better. In total, we have 120 to 150 players working with us each week. That ranges from beginners to academy players."

EVOLVE FOOTBALL ACADEMY

Robel Dent: Director/head coach  Morgaro Gomis: Partnership Co-ordinator/assistant head coach  Emma Meaney: Admin Assistant/lead development coach  Drew Sanson: Admin Co-ordinator/lead development coach  Calum Ferguson: Lead development Coach  Logan Need: Lead development Coach

Visiting the website to book coaching sessions: Evolve Football Academy

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