Back on the ball guiding future talent

Ciaran Donnelly from Blackpool FC (starting apprenticeships at Blackpool and the Fylde College).
Ciaran Donnelly from Blackpool FC (starting apprenticeships at Blackpool and the Fylde College).
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Ciaran Donnelly once had the world at his feet as a young footballer.

He already had a look of David Beckham about him – and it extended to his prowess on the field too.

Talent spotters from big name clubs came to check out a lad who could work wonders in midfield – and who once scored all four goals against an international side from that position in one game.

But, as Ciaran’s the first to admit: “I kind of blew it. I was young, I made mistakes. I didn’t put the time and effort in that I should have. I let myself get distracted from what really mattered to me.”

Today, at the age of 28, he’s helping others learn from those mistakes.

He remains a player, but his early promise hasn’t paid off in the promised land of premier club appearances.

Instead he heads a soccer school for apprentices at Blackpool and The Fylde College, and admits: “It’s a dream job. I get to pass on my passion for the game to others. More importantly I help them get it right.”

He’s training up players on and off field.

When we drop by, some are doing a spot of reffing while others have a kick about – and test the tutor’s eye for detail.

The course has been well supported since kicking off earlier this year, with the backing of college principal Pauline Waterhouse.

It offers proper apprenticeships not just in football, but sport in general.

“It’s all about discipline, skill, eye for detail, the work ethos, and fair play to them – the apprentices are doing just that.”

There couldn’t be a better time to chase the goal of a career in sport with so much interest in Blackpool FC and Fleetwood Town right now.

And as Ciaran points out smaller clubs do incredibly well too. “The big clubs are only part of the picture.”

Blackpool-born Ciaran was much the same age as the youngsters attending the course when he was tipped for great things coming through the youth ranks at Blackburn Rovers. He represented England at Under 16, Under 18 and Under 19 levels.

Donnelly attended Claremont Primary School and Warbreck Hill High School in North Shore, Blackpool. He joined the Centre of Excellence at his hometown club, where he stayed until he was 14, when he joined the Academy at Blackburn’s Ewood Park.

As an attacking midfielder, he once scored all four goals from that position in one single game against Romania in the Under 19 European Championship in 2003.

He was tracked and pursued by league clubs, and had a successful loan spell in his home town Blackpool under Steve McMahon in 2005. He was later signed on a two-year contract.

He admits McMahon was a real mentor to him. His luck ran out when he was released by former manager Simon Grayson in 2007.

“I drifted a bit after that,” he recalls. “It was a tough time for me. One minute you’ve got your future mapped out, and the next you’re cut adrift.”

After falling into part-time football, he decided to quit the game.

“Now I reckon I can do some good helping young people into sport – and show them there is a career to be had so long as they believe in themselves, but also have the self discipline to turn up on time, and listen to what’s being said. For most it’s just about getting into a routine.”

As routines go, the college sports apprenticeships offer far more excitement than the usual nine to five job.

At Blackpool and The Fylde College’s Bispham campus’ sports hall, Ciaran’s got young men – and some women too – chasing their dream careers via the NVQ Level 2 Apprenticeship. Several weeks in they have completed first aid training, child safeguarding and some have already acquired the nationally recognised FA Level 1 Coaching qualification.

Their tutor adds: “They’re a good group. I can already see lots of ambition. They are willing to think for themselves and come up with their own ideas, and they use other materials like manuals and the internet, rather than just taking in what they are told on the course.

“I think there are plenty of options for the students after this programme – they can go onto a higher level of study or go straight into employment as a coach, and as the course enables them to communicate better it can set them up for different trades too, like teaching.”

Adam Vickery, 17, heard of the course through specialist youth support agency Connexions.

He said: “It’s been great so far. We’ve been on placements in local schools where I’ve been working with children from five to 14 years old.

“After this I’d like to get onto a higher level course, and eventually coach full-time.”

Adam Raybould, 17, added: “It’s a brilliant course.

“It feels more grown up, as I’m working as well as learning, and I feel like I’m more involved in the career I want to do rather than just being in a classroom.

“I’d love a career in football coaching ultimately.”

Siobhan Fryer, 17, added: “There are only three girls in the class, but I come from a family full of lads, so I’m used to this kind of environment. I don’t get treated differently for being a girl.

“My favourite part of the course is being out and working with kids – I went to Marton Primary and helped out at their half-term camp. We set up different sessions like passing the ball, and played games to help with movement.

“After the course I want to do a Level 3 qualification, and then go to America and coach, as there are lots of opportunities there.”

Karen Wood, the college’s employer responsiveness manager, concluded: “The apprenticeship scheme is a great example of partnership working. The Blackpool FC Community Trust is focused on the community and improving people’s lives, as is the college. There is a lot of synergy between us with huge potential to benefit young people across the town.

“We’ve taken on another 20 students since the first course, and recruit another 20 in June, and this is just the beginning of a strong partnership. There are lots of other opportunities for joint working in the future so it’s a very exciting time.”