ACCRINGTON Stanley are giving youth a chance - and coach Phil Hackney hopes to watch plenty more of his young stars make their league debuts in the future.
This season five teenagers got the chance to sample league football for the first time with the Reds as Phil’s youth set-up begins to bear fruit.
Winger Bobby Grant is the top teenage performer with the 17-year-old winning plaudits for his first team shows.
Ex-Burnley Centre of Excellence players Andy Smith, 18, and Chris Turner, 17, have also had their chance to put on a Stanley shirt while defenders Jay Bell and Peter Murphy played the last two games of the season - and acquitted themselves well. All have recently signed professional contracts with the club.
Lower league clubs, especially, are dependent on having youngsters climb through the ranks - and Phil is now putting everything in place to make sure there is a steady stream of talent knocking on the Reds’ first team door.
"I feel really proud that those five players have made the grade," said Phil.
"Five is a lot to get through and I am not sure we can have the same percentage every year but if we bring one or two through it will be worth it.
"It is the players that have to do the hard work but it shows our programme is working for them and they deserve it."
The club are reaping the rewards of Phil’s coaching - but it was by pure chance that he came to Stanley.
"I know John Coleman as I have worked for various counties delivering and assessing coaching courses and John was on one," said Phil. "I had actually applied for the job as Clitheroe manager and I hadn’t heard anything so I spoke to John to see if he knew anything.
"He told me to send in my CV and then I came to the club, met the chairman and suddenly I became youth team coach.
"I remember one of my first games was watching Accrington being presented with the Conference trophy and it was a nice way to start.
"It is my first full-time job in professional football as I never made the grade as a footballer. I was at Lincoln City but I think the highest I got was playing in the FA Youth Cup side.
"I played semi-professional football and went into the civil service where I was a PE instructor in the prison service.
"I have kept coaching and got my advanced coaching license about 20 years ago.
"When I retired from the civil service I was looking for something to do and that’s why I applied for Clitheroe - and ended up at Accrington!"
In his spare time Phil, who has a UEFA A badge, was teaching coaching courses around the North West as well as being in charge of the Liverpool county Under 18 side which is where Bobby Grant first came to his attention.
"His brother was captain of my Liverpool county side and we were having trials," he said. "I was in a crossover between leaving the county side and working for Accrington and Bobby wrote in for a trial.
"We were actually having two matches but I rung John Coleman straight away after seeing Bobby in the first one and said "you have got to come and see this lad" and he did and we signed him.
"Peter Murphy has been at Blackpool Centre of Excellence and Jay Bell came along too and Chris Turner and Andy Smith were released from Burnley’s Centre of Excellence. They all came through the trials but it didn’t stop there - they have had to work hard football-wise in the last two years and have also had to follow an education programme.
"Bobby got the Apprentice of the Month recently from the Football League and he deserved it.
"He has done really well as it doesn’t always come easily and he has had to get his head down. He has his moments now and again but he is a young kid growing up and is learning all the time."
Phil knows that players will get their chance at Accrington - and have a better opportunity to make their league debuts than they would have at bigger clubs.
"We are a small club and bringing young players through is important. But they get the chance to play in the reserves relatively quickly and show what they can do.
"I have my programme for them and work very closely with John (Coleman) and Jimmy (Bell) and the kids get the chance to train with the first team and play alongside experienced professionals in the reserves.
"In bigger clubs, the youth team can be separate and hardly mix with the first team."
Phil, towards the end of last season, has linked up with ex-Manchester City ace Asa Hartford who has joined Stanley’s coaching staff.
"Asa helps me with the youth and I help him with the reserves. It is a two-way thing.
"It is great having him here. He is really good with the young players, he is enthusiastic and, as expected, he is really knowledgable. He is great for the club."
Stanley now have a strong Centre of Excellence up and running at Moorhead Sports College. They recently had trials for 12-16-year-olds and, in June, will be holding trials for Under nines, 10s and 11s.
"We have got our quota for the 12-16-year-old but we are not ruling anyone out and if anyone - who is up to county standard - wants to have a trial, they can e-mail me.
"We want to let people have a chance - they don’t necessarily have to have been at an Academy. You only have to look at Matt Derbyshire at Blackburn Rovers who was picked from non-league late on to know that there are still opportunities for anyone who is good enough.
"For the June trials, it is the younger age group and we would like local managers to advise the suitable players on their team to come for trials for us.
"The local managers do a really good job and we want to give the kids a higher level of coaching and hopefully watch them progress through the age groups.
"We have two players in Danny Haworth and Tom Murphy who we got from local teams last year, who have been at the Centre of Excellence and now signed up to apprenticeships.
"We have six who have signed up and it would be nice to get one or two through to the first team. I guess that’s the pressure of my job."
He added: "We can’t compete with Blackburn or Burnley in terms of buying players so we have to make sure we identify true potential, bring them through our system and, if a Premier League club comes knocking, we have to make sure we have the right compensation package in place.
"You want your players to play at the highest level and we are going in the right direction here."
And Stanley chief Coleman agrees. "We have got an excellent youth set-up the makings of which are now starting to delvelop.
"We have got it in place in a short space of time and everyone at the club, and certainly Phil Hackney, deserves a lot of credit."
Anyone interested in a trial for the Under nines/10s and 11s contact firstname.lastname@example.org. The trials are provisionally booked over the weekend 14/15 June at Moorhead.
They club are also looking for sponsors for their teams from Under nines to Under 16s. It is around £300 for sponsors to have their names on the shirts. Contact email@example.com.