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Wirral's footballing Rovers; Exclusive report: Youngsters from Peninsula snapped up by Blackburn's youth Academy to train as stars of future.

Byline: CHRIS WRIGHT

IN JUST two years Jonathan Walters has gone from the Eastham Junior League to the verge of the FA Barclaycard Premiership.

The Birkenhead youngster was playing for Shaftesbury under-16s when he was spotted by Blackburn Rovers' coordinater for Wirral and Wales Mike O'Brien.

The 17-year-old striker is now part o the Lancashire club's reserve side after signing as a full-time professional in August.

Walters has made significant progress in the last 12 months and has already scored three goals in the FA Premier Reserve League and 15 in all games.

Last season he bagged 36 goals for Blackburn under-17s side in the FA Premier Academy League and was part of the club's youth side which reached the final of the FA Youth Cup, only to be beaten over two legs by Arsenal, who retained the trophy they had won 12 months previous.

And he is back in Youth Cup action next Tuesday, December 4, when Rovers take on Chelsea in the third round.

Walters is becoming an increasing rare phenomenon, in that he was not signed up to any of the local professional league clubs in the area, and therefore had not had the same coaching as many of the players he now plays with and against.

With the proliferation of Academies, centres of excellence and youth development programmes the battle to unearth the stars of the future is fierce.

There are seven Academies and 20 centres of excellence in the North West area within the oneand-a-half-hour catchment area from which, under FA rules, youngsters must live from the club they join.

So the best players can increasing pick and choose what clubs can provide them the best footballing education.

Blackburn's recruitment team is headed by Academy director Bobby Downes, who had a playing and coaching career spanning more than 25 years.

For the last four of them he has been first head of youth football and Academy director at Blackburn. He was director of youth football at Watford. So he has vast knowledge in nurturing the best youth talent.

Blackburn built their pounds 7million Academy just over two years ago at Brockhall and the facilities are some of the finest in the game. There is an indoor soccer area with the latest playing surface, a gymnasium, physiotherapy room and a hydro pool to aid injury recovery all in the state-of-the-art complex.

Downes is happy with the current players and set-up he has. He said: "Jonathan is probably one of the people clubs missed. It is unusual that he came so late into the system.

"But we are delighted with his progress. He scored 36 goals last season and he has continued that this year. He is doing well for us.

"As well as Jonathan we have Jay McEvilly from Cardinal Heenan school in Liverpool, we have Neil Danns, who we got from Liverpool and paid compensation for and Michael Taylor, who we also paid Tranmere compensation for.

"So Wirral and Merseyside are areas we look at as they come in our range. Obviously there are Liverpool, Everton and Tranmere looking for players there as well.

"Although we don't particularly target the area as such, we are always looking for players and hopefully there will be more to come in the future."

And it would seem Walters could be just the start of what Blackburn hope will be a production line of talent coming from the Wirral.

Mike O'Brien has been at Blackburn for three years after he had scouted for Everton and Tranmere. After a non-league career with Ellesmere Port and in the Welsh League, he took up coaching at 30 and has passed on his expertise to youngsters for 25 years, as well as scouting for new talent in 17 of those.

O'Brien first spotted Walters in the Eastham League and he is just one of several youngsters he has brought to Blackburn from the Wirral.

He said: "He was at Shaftesbury under-16s when I first decided he had something. I had been watching him for the previous two years but his physique wasn't what it should be. But once he got to 16 you could see him developing.

"He was always quick. He played against Tranmere and scored three for Merseyside Schools, so I made the decision to bring him in and he scored two against Manchester United on the Saturday and we signed him on the Monday.

"If a player is a bit special you need to make a quick decision.

"And it paid off because the gaffer (Graeme Souness) thinks a lot of him.

"But I'll never predict what he can do or if he is close to making the first team. All I will say is the lad is scoring goals for the reserves and if he continues to do that he's got a chance."

Already O'Brien has recruited several Wirral boys in all age groups.

In August Wirral youngster Dominic Holden beat one of Liverpool and England star Michael Owen's goalscoring record.

The Aberystwyth tournament is a prestigious event that attracts League clubs from all over the country, as well as Welsh and American sides from age groups from ten to 18-year-old.

The 11-year-old striker hit 24 goals for Blackburn's Academy side in the tournament beating Owen's 20-goal record from when the Liverpool forward was the same age as Holden.

O'Brien said: "He is an excellent striker. He has got a good attitude even at his age and he has the ability to be similar to Jonathan Walters if he can keep up his progress."

Two other youngsters from Greasby, Peter and Paul McGinley, have the rare distinction of being one of the few brothers to play at the same Academy.

Paul plays in the under-12s side at Rovers on the wide left of midfield, while Peter is in the under-11s in the centre of midfield.

CAPTION(S):

SIGNED UP: Brothers Peter and Paul McGinley from Greasby with Blackburn scout Mike O'Brien HOT PROSPECT: Jonathan Walters signs for Blackburn, watched by Mike O'Brien YOUNG GUNS: Football prospects (front row, l to r) Anthony Gardener, Peter McGinley, Paul McGinley, Paul Byrne and Jame McKennen, watched by (back row) Dave Sanderson, Jon Walters, coach Rob Upton, Wirral scouting coordinator Mike O'Brien and recruitment officer Martin Glove at the Blackburn Academy
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Nov 27, 2001
Words:1048
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