Taking the Slow Route

Last updated : 17 January 2003 By Richard Oldroyd

Paul Weller - the only player in recent years to come from the youth team to play consistently for the club in Division One
Some people have me the news with horror, others with disappointment. In the past, Burnley Football Club and youth development have been synonymous. Stan’s comments can be taken as confirmation to anyone living in the past that that is no longer the case.

The youth scheme at the club at present is a waste of time, energy and money. It has produced perhaps three or four really good prospects in the last decade – and one of them, Paul Weller, arrived at the club later on in his development. In transfer fees, it has raked in the grand total of 50,000 pounds (selling John Mullin for a second time, to Rotherham, doesn’t count since during his second spell at the club he was a signing, just like any other free transfer). It has produced one player who has performed consistently for the club in the first division.

Our youth team plays at home less often than a Sunday league team, and on worse pitches. A whole host of old boys coach the teams at age group level, yet do not appear to be getting anywhere. Since Stan arrived, there have always been three or four ‘promising youngsters’ on professional contracts – a waste of a wage, given that one senses he would rather put faith in a Ronnie Jepson comeback than any of the youngsters he so clearly believes to be inadequate.

The lack of a coherent youth policy is best illustrated by one of the club’s first responses to the collapse of ITV digital – to sack the scouts who would find the raw material for the system in the first place. That one of those scouts, Jack Hixon, ended up at Newcastle United, says much for his pedigree. At the same time as we were closing the door to finding young talent, we maintained a community programme which employs seven staff, and which is far less fundamental to a football club than finding players. To take nothing away from the undoubted efforts of those who are involved in the scheme, the club has, for many years, been ignorant to the need for a radical overhaul of the system – and the fault for that can be carried to the very top, through successive boardroom and management combinations.

But there’s more to it than that. Part of the problem is the very nature of Burnley Football club. It is a club riddled with inherent contradictions – a traditionally successful from a small town; a club with an unshakeable belief that it deserves to be among the elite, yet with every intention of sticking two fingers up at the established order; a club proud of it’s successes yet if anything prouder of the day it escaped oblivion at the wrong end of the league. More than anything else, it is a club with great expectations, in a hurry to recapture former glories, whilst all the while wanting to do it in a way which requires great patience.

Paul Smith - stick from crowd
It’s the same thing Stan means when he talks of champagne tastes on beer money. As a crowd we demand unreasonable amounts of every player who pulls on the claret and blue shirt. We expect free transfers to suddenly become worldbeaters because they play for our team.

In the past decade, Paul Smith, Paul Weller and Brad Maylett have all, at different times, had stick from the crowd. Young lads, learning their trade, yet doing so in front of a crowd who will snap at the first misplaced pass or unsuccessful tackle. Smith, in particular suffered a loss of confidence as a result of a crowd who wanted too much. One of the reasons for Dario Gradi’s remarkable record at Crewe is that the crowd there have lower horizons – they have always been a lower division side, and as such the players can grow into the side without the burden of history that is applied to any player who walks out for Burnley.

If Stan really wants to overhaul the youth system, his suggestion of simply picking up those promising players discarded by bigger clubs probably makes sense. Michael Tonge, at Sheffield United was discarded by Manchester United. Crewe picked up the likes of Rob Jones, David Platt and Geoff Thomas in a similar fashion, and they helped begin that revolution. It might not sound so good, but in the short term, at least, it makes sense.

Sometimes, in order to improve something, you have to start from scratch. That way, you might produce a few decent players; one or two a season, say. The money you save in the transfer market as a result can be re-invested in the system.

Not on the big transfer fees a few would like to see today. That was never the Burnley way. Me, I’ll take a few lean years now in order to have a properly self-sufficient club for the next thirty years, capable of producing consistently the players who could keep us in the top flight and who would have the pride in the football club which only comes from being brought up by it.

Is everyone else who keeps saying they want a good youth system prepared to be so patient?