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Michael Duff’s under-23s ended 2017 with a 4-1 home defeat against Bolton Wanderers. That was the final game we completed in the year although the fog did bring an early end to a home game against Hull.

We went into 2018 next to bottom in the league. Leeds were the one team below us but in the first week of the year they beat us 2-1 and we found ourselves bottom in what was our inaugural season in the Professional Development League.

1819 burnley steve stone 01 500x500If we thought things were going to take an early turn for the better, we were very much mistaken. We didn’t pick up a solitary point in the first two months of the year and as we moved into March we weren’t just bottom of the league, we were seven points behind Crewe and twelve points behind third from bottom Barnsley.

It was proving to be a difficult season for Duff, his first in charge at this level, and the team who were finding the league tough. It was our first competitive season since the reserves had pulled out of the Central League at the end of the 2011/12 season.

We ended that season with two 3-1 home wins against Tranmere and Macclesfield with Eddie Howe using the games to look at some trialists. A total of 11 were used although only goalkeeper Nick Liversedge was signed. The most impressive was Paul Jetta in the first of the games when we also fielded Cheyenne Dunkley and Chris Clements who are now with Wigan and Cheltenham respectively.

Clearly, by March 2018, the plan was to overhaul the under-23 squad, and just as had happened in 2012, we started to give games to trialists. In the first game in March we finally got our first points of the year with a 3-2 win against Nottingham Forest. The team that night included two trialists Jake Barrett (Manchester United) and Harvey White (Liverpool). Neither were signed but there were more to come over the remaining weeks of the season as the results took a turn for the better.

Seven of the last twelve games were won as we saw the introduction of players such as Ed Cook, Teddy Perkins, Mace Goodridge, Josh Benson and Rob Harker who are all now Burnley players. Those wins ensured that we didn’t finish bottom. It was a close call but a 2-1 win at Hillsborough against title chasing Sheffield Wednesday, with goals from Harker and Tinashe Chakwana, took us above Barnsley as the season came to an end.

From the start of the season, this team has looked so much better. We won two and lost two of the first four, but in both defeats we’d led by two goals. Game number five was a home defeat against Millwall, the only game thus far played on the Turf this season. Millwall won it with a late goal on an afternoon when Duff sat watching in the stand. Later that day he was announced as the new Cheltenham manager.

With Andy Farrell, Duff’s assistant, also unavailable in the first part of the season, academy manager Jon Pepper took charge but in more recent weeks we’ve seen Farrell return and Steve Stone replace Duff.

1819 burnley dwight mcneill 01 500x500One huge hiccup apart, that at Bournemouth in the Premier League Cup, we’ve continued our good form and we’ve moved into 2019 in second place in the league. We are a team capable of scoring goals while the very inexperienced back line has conceded more goals than we might have liked. Dany Agyei and Chakwana are two of the three highest scorers in the league.

I think we’ve benefited from not having as many players out on loan this season, probably the highest profile of those who have gone out is Jimmy Dunne who was playing exceptionally well for Hearts in the Scottish Premiership until he picked up a recent injury.

How important is it that we are higher in the league? It certainly helps. The players are currently playing with more confidence, they are enjoying their football and a lot of the games have been excellent to watch, none more so than the fantastic 2-2 draw we got against an experienced West Brom team in the Premier League Cup.

But, it is development football and the main aim has to be to help young players get careers and also get some of them into our first team if possible. We all know there has been a lack of them since Jay Rodriguez broke through in the 2010/11 season but this week is probably as good a time as any to be writing this given we witnessed Dwight McNeil scoring his first Premier League goal two days ago.

Dwight spent all of last season with the under-23s, even travelling, along with Oliver Younger, with the first team to Swansea, even though he was still eligible for the under-18s. He’s one of a number of players who have progressed really well and we’ve twice seen Ali Koiki on the bench recently, albeit due to the number of injuries in the first team squad. There is nothing better than seeing a young player make a breakthrough into the first team.

There is no doubt that Stone has some very good young players to work with and I’m looking forward to seeing the games again this year with the first one currently scheduled for next Monday at Curzon Ashton although the venues for these games are often subject to late change.

Undoubtedly, 2018 has proved to be a very good year for the under-23s. Having lost the first five league games of the year, we’ve since won 16, drawn 3 and lost 10. The team is much stronger and we’ve had the added bonus of seeing one of those players in the first team.

Here’s hoping for another good year for Steve Stone and our young professionals.

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