The making of Dwight McNeil

McNeil has made 25 appearances for Burnley this season 

McNeil has made 25 appearances for Burnley this season 

IN a smart room leading to the indoor pitch at Burnley’s new training centre, there’s a row of illuminated pictures on the wall.

They show notable products from the club’s Academy and - without meaning to be rude - it’s hardly a who’s who of modern football. That could be about to change though, because the first photo on the wall is that of Dwight McNeil, the 19-year-old attacking footballer who took the Premier League by storm last season.

After making his first-team debut in the final game of 2017/18, McNeil made 25 appearances last term, scoring three goals.

He also made his England Under-20 debut and trained with Gareth Southgate’s senior side in March. Indeed his progress was so impressive that the respected CIES Football Observatory rated him the 15th most valuable player under 20 in the top five European leagues, ahead of Phil Foden and Callum Hudson-Odoi.

Not bad for someone who was released by Manchester United at the age of 14 and only signed scholarship forms at Burnley three years ago.

They’re very proud of McNeil at Burnley, because he’s a standard bearer for the most upwardly mobile Academy in English football; a player who shows prospective players and parents what can be achieved.

Technical Director Mike Rigg told TGG: “Youth development is about getting players through to your first team, and Dwight has shown the way our club should be doing that. With Dwight having been such an amazing success this year and how he has been developed, that shows what makes this Academy so important.”

At this point it’s important to re-iterate the fact that McNeil trained with Manchester United until he was 14 but, still, Burnley recognised his talent, developed him and gave him a sustained opportunity in their first team.

Other prominent players, such as Tom Heaton (a Manchester United schoolboy) and Ben Mee (Manchester City) have followed this same path, of being rejected by bigger clubs before finding a happy home at Turf Moor.

If you look at the starting team that drew 2-2 at Chelsea in April, every player was the product of an English Academy which, as far as we’re aware is aware, is unprecedented.

Academy Manager Jon Pepper explained: “Dwight came in before I was here, in 2014 (Pepper joined in 2016), on a three-week trial. He got signed at 14 and was playing in the Under-18s by the time I got here.

“I remember watching him playing up front for the U23s against Blackburn at Ewood Park when he was just 16 and he looked like a little boy. When Michael Duff got the role as U23s coach he took a group of second-year scholars and played them every week.

“They went through a period when they lost a lot of games, but they were young and Dwight really shone and got player of the year in 2017/18.”

Pepper believes McNeil was a big beneficiary of the integration of the Academy and first team at the club’s new £10.6m Barnfield Training Centre.

Ever since the facility was opened, the youth and senior teams have trained and even eaten side by side.

“Our infrastructure lends itself to communication,” he said. “The gaffer is aware of the best players in the Academy, particularly the U18s and U23s. He comes and watches them whenever he can, has lots of Academy players training with him and the first team staff are very good as well, such as (assistant manager) Ian Woan and (first team coach) Tony Loughlan.”

McNeil, who was born in Rochdale and whose father Matty was a pro for the likes of Macclesfield and Stockport, worked hard on his education despite his meteoric rise through the ranks.

“I don’t think he particularly loved the education, but he got his head down, worked hard and exceeded his target grades, all at the same time as he was training with the first team,” Pepper remembered.

“He was in and around the senior side and could have thought, ‘I don’t need to do this,’ but he completed his BTEC programme as part of his scholarship.

“He’s a good role model for the younger lads on and off the pitch and shows you can achieve big things by getting your head down, working hard and listening to the right people.”

The result is that Sean Dyche now has a midfielder worth £28.6m (according to the CIES) in his side, who he would otherwise not have been able to afford. He’s the type of creative gamechanger a workmanlike Burnley side has been crying out for and it’s no coincidence that his emergence corresponded with the team’s improvement after Christmas last year.

“Dwight is an attacking player and loves to get on the ball,” Pepper said.

"He has tended to play wide for he first team, but was mainly used in central midfield for the U23s, where he excelled.

“A lot of wide players like to dribble, get forward and put crosses in, but not necessarily track back.but Dwight has really added that to his game. From his scholarship years he has really bought into that and worked hard.”

The final words in this piece go to Dyche, the most important figure in the modern history of Burnley, who gave McNeil his senior debut and who also made improvements to the Academy a key focus for the club.

“Being fearless in tough situations and pulling things out that count - that shows character, mentality and strength,” he said of McNeil last month.

“He will continue to grow and mature and progress because he is some player for a 19-year-old.”

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