Dreams can come true for our best Northern Ireland kids: Jim Magilton
Jim Magilton lived his dream. Now he is determined Northern Ireland's gifted young footballers do the same.
In his role as the Irish FA's Elite Performance Director, the former Southampton and Ipswich Town midfielder is the figurehead for the Club NI programme which began two years ago with the aim to help talented kids take their first steps towards professional football, provide international experience and give them an insight into what is required to make the grade.
With clubs searching all over the globe for the latest teenage sensation, Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill believes it is becoming harder for our youngsters to compete for places at academies in England and Scotland.
Both he and Magilton feel that Club NI, a new concept for football in this country, can give local lads a better chance of succeeding across the water and ultimately becoming senior Northern Ireland stars.
Nowadays finding a future international does not start when they are 15. It is much earlier than that.
Magilton explains: "Our primary schools programme and district programme allows us to talent ID P5 and P6 children.
"We are now bringing these kids into our eight regional centres across the province.
"Then we have our Elite Centres in the Mid-Ulster Sports Arena to cater for those youngsters in the West and North West and in Belfast at Jordanstown for the 15 and 16 year-olds, who are given a great insight into what lies ahead for them in professional football.
"We have a strength and conditioning programme run through Sports Institute Northern Ireland (SINI) with a foundation course which takes them through a weights programme. That again is in preparation for these kids potentially signing contracts at 16 at clubs in England and Scotland."
The youngsters, who are involved in a 35 week programme per year, are given the opportunity to play in internationals all over Europe.
Magilton (right) proudly insists that the games programme offered by Club NI is as good as anything you will find in the UK.
The ex-Northern Ireland skipper adds: "We give them an opportunity to view a life in the game that has not been created before in Northern Ireland in terms of getting them more switched on to the other aspects of football other than playing with a ball.
"It is giving them the discipline that is required once they walk into a dressing room in England or Scotland. We are looking at the technical and tactical aspects which they will need and the physical aspect provided by SINI filtered down to the earliest age groups in terms of their movement patterns, rehab, recovery, nutritional and hydration strategies. All things that a young player learns at professional clubs."
Magilton admits that in terms of 'contact time' with the players Club NI is falling short. He estimates that gifted kids in Belgium for example are working at least 40 hours per week on their football education with boys here not even reaching half that.
Moves are afoot to up the ante on that score.
An important element to Magilton's grand plan is to make Club NI a key component in the Northern Ireland school system.
Essentially he would love to tie up with schools across the country whereby talented players could receive specialised football coaching as part of their academic day.
"We would love to set up programmes with schools and I believe it could benefit all involved," says Magilton.
He adds that there is fierce competition between football, rugby and GAA to win the hearts and minds of gifted young sports stars here.
"Rugby and GAA have dominated sport in Northern Ireland for so long in terms of having systems in place which allows them to Talent ID the best players," says Magilton.
"Our grammar school system has allowed rugby and GAA to have a real impact on young players' lives. I would hope that in my time we could do the same.
"We are identifying talent at P5 and P6 and we would like to be interviewing parents to encourage them to go into IFA Performance Schools across the province and identify hubs where these kids get more consistency with their contact time and increased and quality training."
With Northern Ireland qualifying for the Euro 2016 finals, the ex-Ipswich boss suggests this is the time to make hay when the sun shines with football on everyone's mind.
"With all the hard work being done through our grassroots programme the participation rate for football has gone through the roof. Our senior squad qualifying for a major tournament has obviously helped that and I think this is the time when we have to use that. It is a great time for football in Northern Ireland.
"We are back on the map on the world stage and we will have more kids who want to play the game. We must be more strategic in how we align that with our best and most talented players going into schools offering a service that has never been offered before.
"I really think Club NI can be massive for football in this country. Currently we have 153 players registered with professional clubs and 40 of those contracts expire this summer. The Northern Ireland manager needs as many players as possible to choose from. For us to be competitive we need to have a conveyor belt of talent.
"We hope Club NI will increase the chances of boys making it to professional football and also staying there because of the added Educational Programme in place.
"The important part of this for parents and players is that Club NI is the first rung. We are preparing them for what lies ahead.
"Football is the greatest sport in the world. If you are good enough and committed enough you can have a great career in football and a great life.
"My dreams came true when I played football at club and international level and I want to help Northern Ireland's youngsters fulfil their dreams too.
"It excites me greatly to be part of a young player's life from an early age, watching them progress and sign professional contracts and then hopefully seeing them walking out in the new national stadium as a senior international. Northern Ireland has football talent. I want to see it flourish.
"I'm hoping that in years to come boys look back on our programme and think 'that prepared me for professional football' and we get boys who come through our programme who eventually go and win caps. If that were the case we would judge Club NI as a big success."