Blake taking a history lesson as the Clarets look for the next Rodriguez
BOXES are still to be unpacked in Burnley’s newly named, new-look Academy – the Elite training Centre, to give it its official title.
But the important things are at Jason Blake’s fingertips; files and data on all their young players, a map of the north of England outlining the location of their off-site development centres, where they scout for players in other regions ... and ‘The Harry Potts Way’.
The DVD outlining the life and times of Harry Potts – the Clarets ’ most successful manager – has not made its way to Academy manager Blake’s desk by accident.
It has not been mixed up with other items during the removal from their offices in the corner of the James Hargreaves Stand to the former leisure centre unit on the other side of the car park.
It is as important to him as history is to the football club.
He is in no doubt that understanding the past can help shape Burnley’s future.
“We’re trying to modernise the club but we’re not letting go of what we were in the past,” said Blake, who doubles up as Burnley’s development squad coach.
“Listening to how Harry Potts believed in youth, he had very strong principles, we’re building that into what we’re doing.
“It’s so important to empathise with the history of the club. It has to be ingrained in what we’re doing and we have got a great tradition of youth development.
“When you watch the Harry Potts DVD it’s important the staff see the vision of some of these people.
“We’re bringing in our vision, but they did it decades ahead of their time.”
Outside factors are dictating to an extent, however, what Burnley – and other teams – can achieve through their youth system.
The EPPP (Elite Player Performance Plan) on paper seems to favour the big clubs and undermine the smaller clubs – the key factor being that Premier League clubs are now able to take the cream of the crop from the Football League for a fraction of the cost.
But Blake insists it does not need to be the monster it has been purported to be.
“EPPP is a good thing in my opinion,” he said.
“Yes the recruitment side is a challenge – that’s put a lot of clubs on edge, and that’s probably an area I don’t agree with – but in terms of the other stuff it raises the bar, and that can only be a good thing.
“It puts positive pressure on the staff to make sure things are done properly.
“I’m not saying in the past they didn’t, but raising the bar is really important. And the staff have reacted really well, they’re quite excited by it.
“We’ve decided internally we’re going to see the EPPP as a positive thing and hopefully it’s going to make Burnley produce even more young footballers for the first team.
“We use Jay Rodriguez as a great example because our challenge internally is not to produce players for the Championship but we want to produce players for the Premier League. Hopefully that takes Burnley there.”
Of the possibility of nurturing players only for Premier League poachers to benefit, Blake added: "There are certain strategies that we’re looking at. You can’t protect yourself but I think you have to work with these clubs rather than work against them.
“I would like to think the process can be managed between a good relationship. I would hate to think they would just come on our turf and cherry pick.
"We're not just going to roll over and have our bellies tickled. We're challenging for players. My remit is that I want every club in the north west to know that Burnley is going to be a thorn in their side in terms of recruitment. We're not going to accept that the best kids go to the big clubs."
Another key aspect has been the categorisation process - from one at the top, to four at the bottom - where facilities and finance are a factor.
Burnley have pitched for Category Three. Some fans feel this shows a lack of ambition for the youth structure, but Blake believes that, according to EPPP stipulations and guidelines, it is a realistic target at present. By the time the club is audited in around 12 months, they may even qualify for Category Two, which would provide a better standard of opposition for the Under 18s.
"From our point of view we're not sitting at Category Three and saying 'that's what we are' but at the moment because of certain factors that are long-term in terms of changing, like having to renovate the building in order to get Category Two status," said Blake, who previously worked in the youth set-ups at Southampton and West Ham.
“Under the stipulation of the categorisation process we’re going to come out at Category Three at the moment for one reason and that’s the indoor facility not being beig enough in terms of dimensions.
"So we're looking at things saying 'can we be Category Two on as many aspects as possible so that when we get audited we would get a tick in the box for that?' and on a lot of the things we are.
"A lot of the supplementary facilities like classroom spaces, meeting rooms, parents rooms, educations areas - between this building, the club and the training ground we tick a lot of the boxes for Category Two.
"I've spoken to the board and the manager and our plan is to be Category Three today, but within the next maybe two to three years can we get as close to Category Two as possible.
"It's not been confirmed completely yet but we think the auditing process will be done on a three-year cycle, so when our next audit process comes round in 2016 potentially, can we be in a Category Two position then?"
But after seeing nine scholars, including Steven Hewitt, Cameron Howieson and Shay McCartan, earn professional contracts with the Clarets last season and make their debuts - after reaching the FA Youth Cup semi-final for the first time in 34 years - Blake feels their biggest challenge is to maintain that internal production line.
“The biggest challenge is always managing the transition from a schoolboy to a scholar, from a scholar to a development pro to a first team pro. Hopefully now with a consistent set of principles, in a year, two years, five years, we will see those transitions are a lot more minimal and those players can make the step up, understanding the key consistent themes as they go through," he said.
"For a group to take nine players from scholarships to professional contracts, that doesn't happen very often at clubs.
"The FA Youth Cup run was brilliant, but it's actually the nature of that group that puts pressure on because you want to make sure players are coming through with the same work ethic, the same standards, the same individual care and attention to what they do on the pitch, but equally what they do off the pitch.
"We talk about where we are in the food chain, but our biggest strength is that we've shown as a club that young players will get a chance in the first team."