Dundee United's academy director says programmes that have been put in place in Northern Ireland in recent years are providing the ideal environment for young players to excel at professional level.
Speaking after a recent visit to the Irish FA, just before lockdown began, Andy Goldie said the club, recently promoted back to the Scottish Premier League, were very impressed by the level of development initiatives for young players - in particular the Club NI programme.
"As part of our talent ID programme, we started to identify a lot of boys from Northern Ireland and as we looked into it, they all had one thing in common and that was that they had all come through the Club NI programme and other programmes associated with the IFA.
"We then realised the IFA had gone into partnership with UEFA for four years to create a performance school type programme for the under-15s and 16s, which is something we were looking at as well, so there was a lot of cross pollination between the two programmes, where they were heading and where we were wanting to go ourselves.
"So, we made contact to see if we could go over to see the programme in action, to ask questions and find out more and they then invited us over with open arms.
"Part of the objective for that [Club NI] programme is to get as many of these kids professional contracts in the UK. The aim is to give them a pathway, to come out of that programme and start earning money professionally.
"Obviously, we've got that opportunity if there are players that we identify, then there's definitely opportunities at Dundee United that we can give them that foundation to go and have a professional career," added Goldie.
Leaving home at a young age
The IFA's Club NI programme aims to help young players understand what it takes to become a professional footballer and to provide the environment they need to succeed.
"We were impressed straight away with the level of professionalism and what the IFA had created within their programme. There were a lot of similarities between what was being delivered by the coaches there to what we would deliver ourselves," continued Goldie.
"The professionalism, the quality and the challenge of the environment, the dedication of the staff and the support they offer was first class.
"They also have three strength and conditioning sessions a week and when you look at the demands of the English Premiership, the Championship, the Scottish leagues etc, they're already being prepared for that, for that professional environment and for that level of football as well."
One of the biggest challenges facing young players is often the daunting prospect of leaving home at a young age in order to play professionally across the water.
Goldie is hoping that building relationships with the IFA and other associations from an early age, will help to ease that transition.
"It's still a big challenge for those kids to come across the water and leave their families, but there were a lot of similarities we discovered on our trip that should help the transition of that, should we identify a young player who could come into a professional environment at our club," he said.
"It won't just be myself going over [to the IFA] and delivering, we'll be sending over other academy staff and other club staff too, to grow that familiarisation between the potential players and the coaching staff that these players would work with in the future.
"We understand that it is a big sacrifice that they make to leave their families, leave their home and their friends, but if we can do our part to make that transition as comfortable as possible, then we've got a better chance of giving that player the best opportunity."
Youngster should aim to 'reach for the stars'
There have been some standout football academies across Europe in recent years that have produced some of the most notable names in the game. Barcelona's 'La Masia' and the AFC Ajax Youth Academy, are among the more prominent examples.
"I think at academy level things are changing. I think everybody's realising that we need to do more to catch up with the countries across Europe and across the world.
"We need to give the kids more contact time, we need to give them more attention, more support, more individual support. I think we're now starting to see small, positive changes happening.
"One of the things that we've really tried to change in our culture at Dundee United is not limiting what these kids actually believe that they can achieve - and to actively encourage that.
"Let them reach for the stars, let them open their minds, let them pretend that they are playing for Barcelona when they're playing with their pals, let them go and emulate their favourite player in the English Premier League. We need to make them believe that they can achieve that.
"But crucially, underneath all that, we need to build that foundation, we need to give them the right support, there needs to be the right infrastructure, the right experiences, the right opportunities at the right time, the right challenges, sacrifices etc.
"If you look at some of the best players in the world - Messi, Iniesta, Ronaldo - they all left home at a very young age, they all made that sacrifice at 13, 14, 15 years old and went to live in a different country or city.
"It's certainly not one model fits all, but I certainly don't think anyone stopped them from believing they can achieve what they wanted to achieve."