Ciaran Donnelly will be the first to admit he threw it all away. Long before he was released by the Seasiders in 2007, to say he was a wonderkid is an understatement.
He scored England U16’s only goal against Brazil at the Stadium of Light back in 2000, but it was three years later he really made football stand-up and take note.
Donnelly was the star of England U19’s 2003 UEFA European Under-19 Football Championship campaign, scoring all four of his team’s goals as they beat Romania 4-0 in the final game. A year later he was catching the eye for Blackpool during a loan spell from Blackburn Rovers, a move which would be made permanent two years later.
Poor off-the-field decisions saw this stunning potential end just four years later when released by Fleetwood Town in 2008. It was the wake-up call he so desperately needed, and Donnelly has spent the past five years rebuilding his career and completing his coaching badges.
He’s now head of Blackpool’s Academy, a career he admits is driven by his own failures.
“When I spoke to the club about taking the job one of the biggest things I pushed was my experience,” he said.
“I’ve been in the shoes of these lads. I had a really good youth career, made some poor decisions and my career fizzled out. This makes me so passionate about making sure they don’t make the mistakes I did, I really am.
“That’s my big thing, I really want to make sure these lads give themselves every chance of being a professional footballer. Everyone knows what a great life it is. I had it for four or five years and it’s not until it’s gone when you realise what a big chance you had.
“All the time I’m trying to drill it into them. Particularly the under 18 side who you can relate to more as they are adults.
“I want them all to give themselves the absolute best chance, not to leave any stone unturned. If they need to work on aspects on their game, we will give them everything they need to do that.”
Speaking to Donnelly at the youth team’s Lytham base, his passion for the job and the young players stands out.
Backed by the daughter of chairman Karl Oyston, Josie Smith, they have overhauled the youth system from top to bottom.
In came Richie Kyle from Everton as U18’s boss, as well as hugely experienced former players such as John Murphy and Jamie Milligan. And with 150 kids now in the system, Donnelly is more than aware of the responsibility he has.
He said: “It’s a massively responsibility, but one I wanted and think I’m cut-out to do.
“I have experience in the youth system and know what it takes to break through.
“I look after the academy from the under 18s right down to the u6s. I have to make sure the academy is being run right and we meet all our targets and standards.
“It’s about overseeing the standard of players we are recruiting and ensuring their progress through our system is done correctly.
“We have people who work with individual departments, with Richie Kyle overseeing the youth team and Jamie Milligan the u11-16s.
“My job is to oversea it all and make sure everything is geared towards getting one of these players into the first team. Hopefully we can get the lads prepared for life as a professional footballer.
“We give them everything we can, then it’s down to the player to make the right decisions when they turn professional.”
Donnelly was brought up on the Fylde coast before being signed by Blackburn Rovers as a 14-year-old.
Young local players being signed by other north west clubs has been a trend in recent years, something Donnelly is so keen to change.
“I went to a dinner the other week and Jimmy Armfield was the speaker,” he explained.
“He said the town hasn’t produced enough footballers in the last twenty years and he’s spot on. Blackpool as a club has not really produced many who have gone on to be successful. One or two have gone on to play 20 or 30 games in the first team, but none who have come through and played 200 games for the club.
“That’s a massive aim.
“If you look at myself and Jamie Milligan for example, we are Blackpool lads.
“We want to get local lads into the first team, we know how much it means to the players and the town. One of the main things I’ve done since I got here is to try and improve relationships with local grass roots clubs. I want them to be encouraging their players to come and sign for Blackpool.
“Now our system has massively improved.
“We’ve got the backing of the chairman who’s now given us huge support.
“We now have the tools to crack the local area and get these kids through our system.”
Blackpool’s youth system has a much better reputation in the area than ever before.
Something which Donnelly believes has been helped hugely by the success of the first team and their year in the Premier League.
He said: “Blackpool’s first team doing so well has made the club attractive for youngsters. When I was a kid and went down to the park to play football, you were the odd one out with a Blackpool shirt on.
“Now 90% of the kids are wearing Blackpool shirts.
“We have to take advantage of that and get the area’s best lads into our academy and not going elsewhere.
“My overall ambition is to get people from our local area into the first team, it would be so rewarding.”