Youthful Vision a Vital Development

Last updated : 10 June 2008 By Richard Oldroyd
Kyle Lafferty
Kyle Lafferty - done himself and the club few favours
If Kyle Lafferty is to leave the club, as surely he now must, it will be a sad end to the most promising young career to have graced the club in over a generation. Lafferty's attitude has done him - or the club - few favours over the past year, but it remains a mystery why so many Burnley supporters under-estimate his enormous potential. Standing six foot four inches tall, a couple of feet of lean and sinewy muscle wide, and carrying that frame at genuine pace with or without a ball at his feet, he possesses the sort of physique of which football coaches dream at night. He has a forgiving first touch as well.

He has not exactly got it in the neck at Burnley in the manner he suggests, but neither have all supporters been as indulgent of his growing pains as they should have. Perhaps it is because we are not used to it at Burnley. The last consistent goalscorer to grow up at Burnley was Ray Hankin, 35 years ago; before that, it was the great Willie Irvine a full 45 ago. Perhaps, in the intervening years, we have become conditioned to judge too hastily and to demand too much too soon from players who are still learning their bodies as well as their trade.

If so, we are going to have to rediscover that skill if we are to realise the Premier League dream, because Brendan Flood is absolutely correct to emphasise the importance of youth development - even if certain aspects of his plan do not quite ring true.

One aspect which certainly does is the appointment of Billy Bingham, one of the most wisened football men in all of Ireland, as chief talent spotter to that part of the world. It is a fine strategic move by the club, which should build upon the centre of excellence which the club has already established across the water and ought to help us mine one of the richest seams of talent, per head of population, in the UK.

The province has a population smaller than Manchester, but it is a curious sociological fact that certain centres of population are more productive sources of footballers than others. Northern Ireland has never been an especially consistent international performer, but it has generally had one or two more players of real quality than it ought to.

Yet it an era in which most of the UK is scoured with a frightening intensity, Northern Ireland remains relatively untouched. It has a thriving network of junior clubs which remain independent of, but linked to, Irish League clubs. A handful of players make it across to the Premier League academies, but there remain a healthy number of good young players who play league football at 18, but who have the potential to aim higher.

The same is broadly true south of the border, and it makes enormous sense for Burnley, fuelled by the success of McCann and Lafferty, to try to exploit the market. In the north especially, the traditions of the club and players such as McIlroy, Irvine and Hamilton provide the club with a certain kudos upon which to trade. With a good scouting network and commitment to giving kids a chance, developing links with both league clubs and junior clubs in the celtic fringe has the potential to reap real dividends.

Whether Brendan Flood's American dream will work quite so well is more of a moot point, but the ambition should be applauded. No doubt there is a market there, and one hopes that the question of work permits for those players who are deemed good enough has been properly thought through. Yet the quality of their national team and the domestic game suggests that 'soccer' talent is thinly spread between the Pacific and the Atlantic - and we, as a club, cannot afford to trawl it all.

Richard Chaplow
We need to keep developing the Richard Chaplows of this earth
One wonders whether the concept might not work better somewhere like Australia, where population is concentrated more specifically on a handful of centres. The relative strength of their national side suggests that the standard of player emanating from down under is at least comparable to that in the US, whilst third generation European migrants make up a substantial proportion of the population.

But the biggest concern which must be raised is that all of this development in far-flung parts of the world is at the cost of compromising our commitment to our own back yard. This week, Brendan Flood suggested that we might relax our focus on under 16's, in order to concentrate on the older age group. Since almost every decent player in England is affiliated to one professional club or another by that age, such a policy would amount to a decision to abandon domestic development and to instead concentrate on picking up whatever players are released by other clubs in the north.

That would be a disaster, just as it would have been when Stan Ternent, in similar frustration, floated the same idea five or so years ago. Youth development has always involved targeting those areas which are neglected by others in order to steal a match on your rivals - and in that respect, targeting Ireland and America now is really only a 21st century equivalent of what Jack Hixon famously achieved for us in the north east fifty or so years ago. But it has never involved giving up the ghost in other regions entirely, even if they might be relatively less successful.

We must continue to develop the Richard Chaplows and John Cofies of this earth, precisely because both players ultimately realised a profit for the club. Yet at the same time, there is no doubt that the investment in more diverse sources of talent could realise substantial dividends. Whatever your opinion on Kyle Lafferty, the economics of a departure for in excess of £2 million stack up very nicely, thanks very much.

But what we now need is a production line; Brendan Flood is most certainly correct about that. And that must mean one thing. We will have to learn, as a club, to let those lads grow up and to accept what that most famous export of the Emerald Isle has been telling us for years: that good things come to those that wait.