IFA's Club NI programme has huge potential, insists Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill
The Irish Football Association's Club NI programme has the potential to be a major success, according to Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill.
Under the control of the IFA's Elite Performance Director Jim Magilton, Club NI identifies young football talent around the country and aims to prepare them for the professional game and ultimately represent Northern Ireland at senior international level.
The programme began two years ago and time will tell how beneficial it will prove to be, but O'Neill is confident it can work.
"When Jim came we knew we needed to revamp things and to be fair to him over the space of two years the progress that has been made is huge," said O'Neill.
"Analysing the situation, what we found was that our young players would go over to professional football in England and would often be dropped into an environment that would be too much for them.
"We are sending kids across hoping they would be able to cope. It is a big change for them to adapt to in terms of environment, how things are done and the quality they come up against.
"Most kids here are training a couple of nights with their club and playing on a Saturday, but that is miles away from what a similar level of player would be doing in England so the purpose of Club NI is to try and bridge that gap and give our youngsters more contact time, education and exposure.
"As part of Club NI our talented young footballers are taking on countries from all over Europe which is a great learning experience for them.
"Now we have kids playing in tournaments at international level which is great for their football development.
"We also hope that Club NI, with kids playing together from a young age, would be a good way of combating the eligibility issue and those young players would feel that Club NI had played a key part in their development and that they recognised that when coming to playing senior international football."
Asked if the programme could revolutionise football in Northern Ireland, O'Neill said: "I think it is the start of it, though there are other things to discuss. We have to get the buy-in from everyone to recognise it can have an impact.
"If I was the parent of a young boy who had aspirations to become a footballer and he was good enough I would have him in Club NI because we want to see him get the opportunity to go to the professional game and will do all we can do make it happen.
"There is no financial gain to us if they make it. What we want to do is help young Northern Ireland players.
"Revolutionise is maybe too strong a word at this point but for me the Club NI programme has great potential and all we want to do is develop it more and more."
Tomorrow: Jim Magilton, the man behind Club NI, talks about the programme and his career.