'It's a different club': Academy manager Ciaran Donnelly outlines Blackpool's progress ahead of FA Youth Cup tie against Huddersfield Town
Attention turns to academy matters this week with Blackpool’s Under-19s in FA Youth Cup third round action.
The young Seasiders host Huddersfield Town at Bloomfield Road on Thursday night (7pm kick-off), with admission free for all supporters.
The Under-19s are enjoying a strong season so far, sitting fourth in the Youth Alliance North West table with games in hand.
But as academy director Ciaran Donnelly explains, the Youth Cup is a competition that gives the club’s youngsters the best opportunity to showcase themselves in front of the wider public.
“The league is probably the thing we least concentrate on in terms of results because we field a different team every week,” he told The Gazette.
“We select a different group to play every week, various players get minutes for different reasons and we’re really not in the business of trying to win the Youth League.
“However, in the cup competitions they are ones you can really go after.
“I’ve told the lads they can kick on and turn this into an excellent season because they’ve also got a semi-final of the Lancashire Cup against Burnley and a quarter-final of the Youth Alliance Cup against Rochdale. Of course there’s the potential to get through in the FA Youth Cup as well.
“We’ve had a nice first half to the season, but we all know in football you don’t get any points for that so it’s all about what you do at the business end of it.
“But they’ve put themselves in a nice position to go and have a really good season and do themselves proud.”
The winner of Thursday night’s tie will face a fourth round fixture against either Rugby Town or Cheltenham Town, who play tonight.
But first John Murphy’s side must get past the Terriers, which will be no easy task according to Donnelly.
“We’ve played against them in a couple of different fixtures,” he added.
“But their setup is a little bit different to the conventional academies as they made a decision a few years ago to change the whole structure.
“When you play them in other fixtures, you very rarely get to see the best of them because their players play in different teams within the groups.
“But on the Youth Cup night, you would expect all their best players to be playing against all of our best players, so let’s go toe to toe to see who has got the better young players at their club.
“But it’s a good game, it’s a competitive game and there shouldn’t be a great deal between the two but I’d like to think we’ll be able to edge it.”
Donnelly has now been back at Bloomfield Road for just over a year following his brief spell with neighbours Fleetwood Town.
The 37-year-old, who played for both clubs during his playing career, left Blackpool in 2017 while it was still under Oyston ownership before returning in August of last year, with Simon Sadler now at the helm.
“It’s a different club,” he said.
“We’re very well supported by the key members of staff, there’s a good awareness it will take time to get to where we want but we’re putting the building blocks in place to be a really successful academy for the future.
“I can see that from being on the inside and as time goes, people will start to see that from the outside as we start to produce more players for our first-team, more players for the wider football game and that’s got to be our aim.
“We’ve increased the staffing structure and I can speak for everyone by saying we’re all really excited about the training ground and what that will look like.
“I’ve done work with the architects about what it will mean for the academy and what things we will want in there, so it’s going to be something to really kick us on to the next level.
“But in the meantime, we’ve still got a job to do to make sure we’re producing players for our first-team between now and when that building is built.”
One of those players who could well star for the first-team in future years is Rob Apter, who recently signed a new long-term deal.
The 18-year-old is currently out on loan at Bamber Bridge, but it’s understood he’s likely to be recalled in the near future before being loaned out higher up the pyramid.
Having lost another bright youngster Tony Weston to Rangers last year for a nominal fee, Donnelly knows just how significant it is to tie down the club’s best up-and-coming talents.
“It’s always difficult when you’re at Category Three level to keep hold of your best assets because when big clubs come in, the system is set up so that they can pay ‘X’ amount of compensation to take them and you can do very little to stand in their way,” he explained.
“What we’re now able to do is show the players they’re now in a position to fulfil their talent within this club and they don’t have to look elsewhere.
“We want to be a club where players are more likely to stay and as a club we’re more likely to attract players from other clubs.
“Rob is a good player, he’s ambitious and he’s done really well to get in the Scotland setup and be a key member of their squad. He’s really earned the right to do that.
“We’re all really excited about what type of player Rob can be because he’s a real crowd pleaser and he’s one that gets people off their seats.
“If we can keep working on his development in terms of his current loan pathway until he has an impact on the first-team, then hopefully that won't be too far away.”
Blackpool have the ideal man at the helm for the first-team when it comes to bringing through young talent in Neil Critchley.
Given his background working with various age groups at Liverpool, it’s no surprise to see Pool’s head coach likes to be involved as much as he can be with the youth setup at Bloomfield Road.
“He’s fantastic,” Donnelly said.
“I know he doesn’t like receiving praise but he’s the best that I’ve worked with by some distance.
“He’s interested, he wants to know what’s going on at the academy, but the big thing is he wants to help. Quite often he’ll call me to speak about different matters and he’ll offer his opinion and advice.
“He’s never pushy, he never tells me what to do, but he’s just a really good mentor for me in managing an academy given the background he’s had at Crewe and the coaching at Liverpool within the youth setup.
“There’s no better person I can have within this club to talk to and share ideas with.”
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