When I heard that Andy Waterworth had been made the new head of the Irish FA Academy, I thought it was a brilliant appointment.
I have known Andy as a player, a coach and as part of coach education, while I’ve been on IFA courses and more recently I’ve worked with him in the Northern Ireland Under-17 and Under-19 set-ups.
Heading up the IFA Academy is an important role within the Association and they have got the right man to do it.
Knowing how Andy works and how meticulous he is in his preparation and how passionate he is, he will want to improve himself and players and drive things forward. He will invest in this role, work on different things and strategies and good ideas from other Academies and implement them for our kids and try to take the whole programme to another level and possibly in a new direction.
Another important factor is that from working there he knows the IFA inside out, such as how things operate at Windsor Park and the people he needs to go and see, so he can hit the ground running which would be more difficult for someone with no knowledge of the Association.
The dream for all the kids in the Academy is to play professional football and it is good that Andy had that experience across the water with Hamilton in Scotland.
He can speak from experience of his time in full-time football, what he learned, what he could have done better and what he would have changed. He has other great experiences including in the Irish League, winning loads of trophies with Linfield, so he knows what that takes which can be imparted on young players as well.
Regarding his playing career, he is now in a very big job and there is a lot to do but when he left Linfield he made a commitment to Glenavon and knowing Andy he will be trying to fulfil that for at least this coming season. That’s his character, he’s loyal and he has made a commitment to Glenavon and Gary Hamilton so I would say he would aim to fulfil the two roles.
It’s worth pointing out that with Andy being a coach educator, he won’t be coaching every single session at the Academy. The important thing is he can educate the coaches and make the coaches better as he goes along and deliver development to all the coaches. We need the best coaches in position and him coaching and delivering to the coaches will help them improve which will then filter down to the players.
I was at home last week and the final trials for the Club NI programme were on at Jordanstown and myself and Aaron Hughes popped along to see what was coming through.
In the 2007 and 2008 age groups, I am pleased to report there are some really good players.
That’s something to look forward to but one of the things we need to look at as a nation is are we closing the net too tightly? You can only select so many kids into the UEFA Academy and Club NI set-up. If there are kids that just fall outside of that, what do we do with them? There’s a duty of care to keep progressing them and keep them in the loop.
We need to put those structures in place because kids develop at different stages and you don’t want those who don’t make the original selection for the Academy to be completely disheartened.
I’m consistent in my belief that there are different paths to take to become a professional footballer. You don’t always have to go through Academy ranks.
Look at Stuart Dallas or Gavin Whyte as examples, and even myself. The path is not always straightforward so we need to keep the kids that miss out involved in some way. Andy Waterworth is shrewd enough to have his own ideas on that so Northern Ireland doesn’t miss out on talented players.
It has come down to England versus Italy tonight in the Euro 2020 Final. What a game we have in store. I think it’s going to be a cracking match and with it being at Wembley in front of a huge crowd, that makes it even more exciting.
I have liked Italy from the start of the tournament. They are going into the Final not having lost for 33 games, with one of those against Northern Ireland. What a record that is. I remember when we were on an unbeaten run in international football, which wasn’t anything like the one Italy are on at present, and how tough it was to maintain it so what they have done over the past few years is incredible.
They are a strong outfit and have real depth in their squad which Roberto Mancini has used well in the Euros.
In relation to England, during qualification for the tournament I really fancied them but then once the Finals kicked off they looked nervy and passive during the group stages in comparison to how they played to get there. In the last couple of games, though, they have shown the form of qualification which is a good sign.
Of course they rely on Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling but to me, like Italy, they play as a team and have a really good structure in terms of what they are trying to do which is credit to Gareth Southgate and his staff.
There has been hype surrounding lads like Jack Grealish and Phil Foden and while they have done okay they haven’t hit the heights of the expectations that were put on them. So far, anyway. You have to remember they are only young boys and being placed on a massive pedestal can be difficult.
One player that hasn’t been spoken about too much is Kyle Walker. For me he has had a great tournament playing in a back three and back four. His athleticism and covering have been superb. He also gets forward. Walker has gone about his business quietly and been outstanding.
Picking a winner for tonight? It’s so, so tough. Let’s say Italy on penalties!
By the way, I know there is always much debate about people in Northern Ireland supporting England or not. I think it’s fair to say that sometimes the English pundits and commentators can be a bit much but we are all biased, aren’t we?
When I do TV work I’m biased towards Northern Ireland. You just want the best for your own. I can understand, though, why some find the English bias hard to listen to.