“We are building something to be proud of at Pool”

Richie Kyle and Ciaran Donnelly
Richie Kyle and Ciaran Donnelly
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If there’s one thing football isn’t known for, it’s patience.

While 319 days is the average time a Championship manager gets in charge of a club, the lads down at Blackpool’s youth academy have their eyes on the much longer term.

It’s been a hugely successful spell for the youth set-up, with four players breaking through into the first team this season alone.

Blackpool FC youth team training at Lytham YMCA

Blackpool FC youth team training at Lytham YMCA

And it’s the responsibility of former Pool midfielder Ciaran Donnelly to make sure this year isn’t just a flash in the pan.

“I can speak for all of us involved when I say we are in this for the long term,” said Donnelly, who made 41 appearances for the Seasiders from 2005-07.

“We’ve had some short term success in recent months, but our real work will be judged further down the line.

“We can be judged in seven or eight years. By then we hope to be producing regular players for Blackpool’s first team.”

The 30-year-old is the boss of Blackpool’s youth academy system, which has 130 players under contract.

And their recent success in seeing players coming through into the first team is no fluke – it’s the product of what now is a huge operation.

Donnelly explained: “I oversee the whole academy and what’s going on in every department.

“Some people seem to think we are stuck in an old centre of excellence system, but there’s a lot going on.

“We have eight members of staff working for us now, and 35 part-time staff and then around 10 volunteers. It’s a big set-up.

“When I was coming through we’d play maybe 12 matches a season.

“Now the players train three or four times a week and play every single weekend.

“These players, at every age, are playing around 35 games a season now, so it’s a massive programme they are entering into.

“It’s a huge commitment for parents and we try to help them as much as possible.

“We have age groups from under-nine to under-18 players.

“We have teams right through from the youth team U18s, managed by Richie Kyle, right down to the U9s who are managed by Matty Blinkhorn.

“We have around 130 players signed to our academy and are contracted to Blackpool FC.

“Recently we’ve had players, like Mark Waddington, who signed at U9s and went right through to the first team.

The whole thing has evolved from when I was at Blackpool as a kid at the centre of excellence. Now we take into consideration more things like sports science for example.

“We have eight members of staff, one whom is responsible for sports and medicine.

“We go through testing the players on everything from sprinting to flexibility. Everything is monitored from a young age now.

“That’s to make sure they are all meeting national requirements. All their education is monitored now. We look into their schooling.”

Blackpool are part of the Premier League’s Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP), which aims to improve the quality and quantity of homegrown players produced by top English clubs.

Depending on size and funding, each club which enters is assessed and awarded a category, with Blackpool currently at Level Three.

Donnelly explained: “When the EPPP category system was put in place by the Premier League a few years ago, we entered as a category three academy.

“Category one are the big clubs, who put millions of pounds each year into the set-up.

“Category two is a notch below, with around a £1.5m budget. We are category three and our budget is about £500,000 a year to try to produce players.”

A former England youth international, Donnelly came through Blackpool’s Centre of Excellence system before being poached by Blackburn Rovers.

So he’s only too familiar with what it takes to break into professional football.

But after retiring from the game at just 26, he is now dedicating his life to producing the next Blackpool hero.

“It’s a big responsibility to be in charge of it all,” he admitted.

“It’s all-consuming to be honest. It takes over my life to a certain extent. It’s a tough job but I love it and I know the staff do too.

“Seeing the results, with the lads getting through into the first team, makes it worthwhile.

“But I’m also seeing some of the young kids who joined as U9s making real progress now as teenagers. It’s massively rewarding.

“It’s so competitive, when you think there are four of the biggest clubs in the country within an hour’s drive of us.

“They are trying to take our best players, so it’s a constant grind to get them here.

“But it’s worth every single minute when we get results and that’s what we all want.

“We are building something we can all be very proud of here at Blackpool and we are giving everything to improve it.”