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Four years ago our youth team reached the last four of the FA Youth Cup. In pre-EPPP days, for a club with a centre of excellence to reach that stage was some achievement, but we’d got ourselves a youth team as good as anything we’d seen in years.

Just last week the left back in that team beaten by our fiercest of rivals Blackburn Rovers, Northern Irish lad Luke Conlan, departed the club for a two year deal with Morecambe. He was the last of them to leave with precious little return for the club.  Not one of the players has been sold for a fee, nor have any of them made even a solitary start in a league game for the first team.

Two substitute appearances from both Steven Hewitt and Cameron Howieson, and one from Shay McCartan, is all we can claim from the fourth Burnley team to reach that stage of the competition. all but one of that total coming very late in games towards the end of that 2011/12 season.

The 2012 sem-final is about to get underway
The 2012 sem-final is about to get underway

Taking stoppage time away, Hewitt played for thirteen minutes, Howieson for eight and McCartan just one minute after coming on at the end of a 2-1 win at Doncaster. That’s a total of twenty-two minutes football we’ve got from them.

At the time of that semi-final in March 2012, I looked back at our three previous semi-finals in 1968, when we went on to win the trophy, 1971 and 1978 to see what we got from those teams in terms of the first team.

The cup winning team of 1968 went on to give us 637 league appearances with all of Mick Docherty, Dave Thomas and Steve Kindon making 150 or more. We even got good money for Thomas and Kindon as well as Alan West who brought in a very sizeable £100,000 from Luton in 1973. Incredibly, nine of the starting eleven made first team appearances, only goalkeeper Gerry McEvoy and David Hartley, who scored both goals in the final win against Coventry, didn’t make it, and many of them went on to have careers at other Football League clubs.

The 1971 team bettered that figure, with Leighton James, Billy Ingham and Ian Brennan the main contributors to an incredible 761 league appearances, indeed all but 39 of them came from those three players.  Although we bought him back once, the two sales of James also added much needed money into the coffers. Only three of that team failed to make the first team at least once.

When we lost the semi-final against Aston Villa in 1978, manager Harry Potts said: “I’m proud of the youngsters for the way they played at Villa and the form they have shown throughout the competition. They have done extremely well to reach the last four.”

But significantly, he added: “The important thing is how many we can bring through to first team level. Some clubs are happy to find one player a year from their youth team. We could get five or six from this team and that would be a real bonus.”

The truth is that eight of them actually reached the first team whilst four of them made good contributions with both Andy Wharton and Phil Cavener passing sixty league appearances while Brian Laws and Kevin Young both doubled that figure. This time, however, only Laws brought in a transfer fee and that was minimal.

Just before travelling to Ewood for the first leg, I wrote: “Will eight or nine from this year’s team make it to the first team? Will we get hundreds of appearances and/or a bit of money for them in the transfer market?”

We know now that the answer was no to both of those questions, twenty-two minutes of league action and not a penny in the transfer market are the answers. Only two of them have gone on to make Football League appearances elsewhere. Shay McCartan has been at Accrington for the last three years and Conlan has experienced the loan at Morecambe where he’s now gone on that permanent move.

He also had a less successful loan at St. Mirren where Howieson has also been in the last year; the New Zealand international was released after one season. Conlan and Howieson, along with Jason Gilchrist who was used as a substitute in the Blackburn games, were in the side that won at Manchester United in the next season. All three of them had outstanding games on that wonderful night at Old Trafford.

Three years to the day after that Old Trafford win, the 2015/16 youth team were beaten on penalties by the Metropolitan Police in the same competition. There were some stunned faces in the crowd that night I can assure you, and that included Gilchrist, hat trick hero of three years earlier.

Never mind, the club’s academy operations manager Graham Lancashire recently told us it didn’t matter if we lost every game provided we got players through to professional contracts. It’s a view that mirrors the one from the academy manager Jason Blake. Has it escaped their attention that the throughput of players is just not there? And this from a club who publicly keep telling us how important it is to be bringing young players through.

The decline over the last four years at youth level has been frightening. Quite simply, we don’t have players of anything like the quality we had four years ago even, never mind the quality of players who had played in the previous three semi-finals.

There is a huge debate in English football right now about the academy system and the seeming inability to get good young players through. Burnley are certainly highlighting that with not one player coming through to make a league start since Jay Rodriguez did in the 2010/11 season when he was named by Brian Laws for a home game against Bristol City.

Things are changing at Burnley and we hope for much better. We’ve been hampered for years by the fact that our facilities are just not good enough but the redevelopment at Gawthorpe will, we have been told, lead to us applying for an upgrade to category two within EPPP (Elite Player Performance Plan).

That would allow us to compete against teams such as Birmingham, Huddersfield, Hull, Leeds, Nottingham Forest and Sheffield Wednesday rather than the likes of Fleetwood, Morecambe, Tranmere and Wrexham at all levels which includes the youth team (under-18s) and the development squad (under-21s).

It’s not the complete answer. Only Morecambe finished below our youth team in the Youth Alliance League this season, the worst season we’ve had by some distance since the league started. We need better recruitment and certainly better coaching and from next season we’ll have Michael Duff involved with the youth team that has for so long been under the control of Terry Pashley and Andy Farrell prior to Pashley moving into the scouting team and Farrell moving up to work with Michael Jolley with the dev squad.

There’s also likely to be other much needed staff changes at the top. The club advertised a few months ago for an academy director who would assume the top position within the structure. How that will change things we’ll have to wait and see but Up the Clarets understands one senior member of the academy staff has already left the club recently although this, we can confirm, is not academy manager Jason Blake.

The message from the club is consistent in that we need and want to produce footballers through the academy. We simply can’t afford another lost youth team.

That lost team was: Josh Cook, Aryn Williams, Alex Coleman, Jack Errington, Luke Conlan, Luke Gallagher, Steven Hewitt, Archie Love, Cameron Howieson, Adam Evans, Shay McCartan. Subs: Callum Jakovlevs, Charlie Holt, Alex Mullin, Luke Daly, Jason Gilchrist.

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