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How The Football Management Company is preparing promising Northern Ireland players for professional careers



Class acts: The Northern Ireland Football Company coaches Michael Gault, Michael Dougherty, Barry Johnston, Lee Carroll, Mark Patton and Ryan Adams

Class acts: The Northern Ireland Football Company coaches Michael Gault, Michael Dougherty, Barry Johnston, Lee Carroll, Mark Patton and Ryan Adams

Megan Bell

Megan Bell

Presseye/Stephen Hamilton

Class acts: The Northern Ireland Football Company coaches Michael Gault, Michael Dougherty, Barry Johnston, Lee Carroll, Mark Patton and Ryan Adams

The coronavirus pandemic may have hit the pause button on football but when it comes to preparing young players for a career in the game or the wider sporting world, the work never stops.

It's vital that teenagers are given the right support and guidance in life to stay on the right path.

And the challenges faced by our young footballers are immense, particularly those with a dream of playing at a higher level across the water.

Getting the right education on and off the pitch is vital for their development and The Football Management Company, which now has the Northern Ireland Football League as an official partner, is committed to fulfilling that role.

The initiative is run by Lee Carroll, who has been involved in football and player development for more than 25 years.

Programmes on offer are a NIFL Scholarship, full-time football and education academies and specialist goalkeeping academies.

It offers a unique opportunity for the best footballers in the country to train and study in a unique full-time football environment.

Linfield's Trai Hume and Portadown youngster Callum Ferris are among the players currently enjoying the course which aims to recreate the playing and learning environment that a young footballer would experience at a professional club while also providing the academic qualifications to progress to higher or further education.

Students study the BTEC Level 3 Extended Diploma in Sport (equivalent to three A-Levels/168 UCAS points), which is recognised by all leading sporting universities, and can also gain a number of other football or sports related qualifications that can aid future job prospects.

Northern Ireland internationals Megan Bell and Lauren Perry are graduates of the course as well as Jack Henderson, who was at Glentoran before embarking on a scholarship in America.

Course coaches are former Linfield skipper Michael Gault, Bangor's experienced goalkeeper Michael Dougherty, Cliftonville hero Barry Johnston and Dungannon Swifts ace Mark Patton.

Gault, who lifted 20 trophies with the Blues including the Setanta Cup, says he wishes a similar programme had been around to guide him in his early career.

"If this programme had existed when I was a teenager, it would have been of huge benefit to my career," says the Ballymacash Rangers boss, who helped Linfield land seven league titles.

"When I was 16 or 17, my technique was virtually non existent and I would have tackled anything. I improved through training with Linfield but the more you work on your game, the better you will get. Hopefully, these players will have good Irish League careers at least. They are gaining confidence and skills all the time.

"We offer BTEC courses at Hanwood, Windsor Park and Laurelhill school. The students do written assignments and get fitness and football coaching. It's all designed to give the young people an academic future while improving as footballers. Many of the boys are involved in Irish League clubs, including Linfield's Trai Hume and Callum Ferris at Portadown.

"It's an important education for the players in terms of the full-time environment and a possible move across the water.

"Young people and players are always learning and we can offer help and support. Mark Patton also does work in the classroom while Michael (Dougherty) looks after the goalkeepers and Barry Johnston, along with Alan Nixon, take the football exercises.

"It's all about development of the students on and off the pitch."

Former Glentoran and Crusaders goalkeeper Dougherty is proud to play a role in the development of the players.

"I'm director of goalkeeping with the NI Goalkeeping Institute connected to The Football Management Company, in partnership with NIFL," says Dougherty, who also had spells with H&W Welders, Ards, Larne and Distillery in a career which has featured more than 450 games and 19 winners medals.

"I manage all the goalkeepers involved in the initiative and this programme has helped a lot of young players develop.

"The programme is for school leavers aged 17 to 19 and among the goalkeepers we have worked with is Lauren, who is now at Blackburn, and McKenzie Pauley, who has made his debut for Larne. It's been a very successful educational programme and it's a joy to be able to work with the top young, ambitious players.

"I cover everything with the goalkeepers, from pitch sessions, video analysis and a virtual reality based training programme on top of their classes.

"I want to get the keepers ready for what comes next whether it's the Irish League, college football in America or the full-time environment in England.

"Our players could be miles behind others in terms of what is expected in the professional environment and the aim is to make them ready for those challenges.

"All the coaches have good experience of the game, its highs and lows and it's nice be able to pass on our knowledge and advice. We are keen to see our young keepers develop.

"There's a huge amount of unearthed talent and I would love them to work with us so we can aid their development."

Anyone interested in learning more about The Football Management Company should contact Lee Carroll at lee@footballmanagementcompany.com or call 0776 091 7791.

Belfast Telegraph