Teenage midfielder Dylan Moonan is nearing the end of his first year as a ‘scholar’ in the Clarets’ Academy.
Moonan has therefore been a full-time footballer with Burnley – combined with his in-house academic studies – for approaching 12 months.
The central midfielder has been a regular in the Clarets’ U18 side this season and helped Tony Philliskirk’s side reach the quarter-finals of the FA Youth Cup, scoring in both the fourth and fifth-rounds wins over Mansfield Town and West Bromwich Albion.
During the U12 season my ability started to emerge, playing as a defensive midfielder and having possession of the ball for long periods – I took lots of inspiration from my two favourite players (Iniesta & Xavi).
This was when my first opportunity to play for the age group above arose. The feeling was immense and at 12 years old I was loving my football and playing with an unbelievable amount of confidence. Playing 15 games for both age groups and improving massively, you really start to feel the effects of the highs that football brings.
I was extremely happy and couldn’t wait to next train or play. For me I used to chill out on Saturday nights and often my mum would get a call about 7pm informing me that I am wanted to play for the U13s the next morning.
One particular Saturday night the call came through to tell me that I was selected for an U14 game. I was buzzing that all my hard work in training had paid off. Amongst many big characters and real eye-catching players, thankfully my coaches could see my ability to read the game and take what I had learned from training into games.
As my end-of-year review came about, I was told that I would permanently train with the year above and start a new day-release programme with them. I couldn’t wait.
Moving onto the U13 season, I initially had a difficult time to convince my headteacher to let me go ahead with the day-release programme, which entailed training and spending the day at the training ground instead of going to school.
The club wanted us lads to be taken from school once a week to get an insight into being a footballer. To my shock, I was completely refused the chance to have this opportunity, despite my constant hard work both in and out of school.
It got to the point where I could no longer enjoy my summer holidays because I was seriously considering moving schools, as I knew they allowed the chance for other lads at Burnley FC. I felt like I had a tough decision between football and friends. How was I supposed to make such a big decision with the U13 season fast approaching?
Eventually, after many emails, meetings and phone calls, the headteacher and my mum came to an agreement for me to leave school on a Tuesday in the first week of every month. If things ran smoothly, I would be allowed to do it more frequently. It was a huge relief.
The days were very beneficial to me as I was exposed to a test of mental and physical strength at a young age – I was the only one from my age group on the programme. Throughout the days I had the challenge of also making relationships with new sets of lads and full-time staff.
In this environment I was around lads sometimes 3-4 years older than myself which meant I trained with players like Dwight McNeil. Although it was daunting and intimidating, I stayed composed and true to myself which helped me cope with being out of my ‘comfort zone’.
As a result, I really started to find my voice and captained about 30 games for my own age group and played seven for the year above. Mid-way through this season, my coach Mark Edwards recognised I had potential at centre-half and wanted to play me there for about six weeks, which turned into a great position for me.
I’ve just grown about a foot; my body is all out of proportion but luckily, I’ve still got my footballing co-ordination. I returned to the U14 season being a central defender/midfielder. The day release programme had stopped because a new training facility was being constructed, which was an exciting prospect for the future of the club.
But I continued to train with the year above and was really enjoying my football. Because I was an academy footballer, a lot of my games were not properly competitive in the sense that there was no league and no silverware to be won. In my opinion I wished there had been more opportunities as it relates to the real game more.
It teaches about team spirit, having a fighting edge, handling pressure and nerves and having a winning mentality – which I am now more often experiencing as an U18. However, I did experience being a part of a big cup when I was selected for the U15 team to compete in the Floodlit Cup. I frustratingly sat on the bench and only got a few minutes against teams like Stoke and Everton.
I know that many would sulk about this, but I understood that it was part of my development as this is what football is like. I had mixed emotions, excitement and nerves because the cup was a big thing and we played Category 1 clubs, which were better than us ‘on paper’.
Towards the latter end of the season, I found real good form at centre half and played roughly 10 games for the U16s (two years above my own). My family and coaches used to joke about the sheer size of some of the strikers I was up against. They didn’t faze me and I would try to use my body to wrong-foot them and dribble off into midfield. This challenge was different for me and I really enjoyed playing with lads due to become scholars, even more so when I played in a friendly U17 game.
Around Easter time I was selected to play in an U15s tournament at Liverpool’s academy which was very exciting. I even noticed Steven Gerrard watching. I was itching to get on the pitch in whatever position because I really enjoyed the tournament atmosphere. There was some kid playing for us on the wing from Northern Ireland who I didn’t know but noticed he was really decent; his name was Chris Conn-Clarke (now my current U18 teammate).
Only a few days after, I was selected to play for the U16s with Chris in the same tournament, which was quite strange. I got some minutes playing right full-back this time and showed I can play that position too.
It was around this time that my team-mate Lewis Richardson was offered a scholarship. I was chuffed for my good mate of 5-6 years at the club and knew he had special ability, but at the same time couldn’t help feeling a bit confused. I couldn’t quite work out why I didn’t get one as well as Rico.
I was playing well at the time for not only my own age group, but the age groups above too. As a centre half I knew it would be hard to be a stand-out player as more-often-than-not, goal scorers are more recognised.
However right at the very end of the season when it was the end-of-year review, I walked into the room with my coaches, mum and dad and sat down at the round table. I was quickly ‘pleased as punch’ to find out that I was offered the scholarship which I had been working so hard for. The moment was surreal; I felt a great sense of achievement knowing I was going to play for Burnley FC at U18 level.
In the pre-season of U15s I was selected with one other player my age (Mathew Carson, who is a current U18 team-mate) to play in the Rey Cup for the U16s in Iceland. We took a flight from Manchester to Iceland and arrived on the small island.
For the five-day tournament, our team slept in a portacabin at a school near to the pitches. The days were intense, especially in the heat, and we played quite a few teams over the course of the week, including Sunderland and other Icelandic teams.
Day-release started back up again, since the new facilities had finished being constructed; they looked amazing. Again, day-release was a great chance to be around the senior players and to experience a long hard-working day at the training ground. Normally I would wake up about 6:30am to be on time for the minibus collecting me at the services and my days would finish at 7pm which was exhausting at first. On one of these days I was lucky enough to be given the chance to play in a training game with the U23s, coached by Michael Duff.
One of the highlights of this year was the U15 floodlit cup where this time I was involved in our run. We played Everton and Liverpool at Padiham FC which was a great experience under the floodlights with quite a lot of spectators. Our great team spirit pulled us through in the group stages where the team had beaten Blackburn, Everton and Liverpool and we felt unstoppable as a team going to the quarter-finals.
The fixture was Stoke away and the energy in the changing room was electric. Unfortunately, we were beaten by a late Stoke winner. I felt hard done to after a frustrating night of decisions not going our way.
Worryingly I started to feel a niggle in my lower back, although at first, I managed to play through the pain. It got increasingly worse coming to the end of the season which really got on my nerves as I knew I was going to lose game time, but I had to be sensible and knew I wasn’t fighting for a scholarship. Unfortunately, I could see some of the pressure and tension that some of the lads were facing; a lot of them were getting stressed out about the upcoming decisions. I was feeling a mix of emotions because some of my mates of many years were getting released.
The U16 season started off very positively; my first game back I played 45 minutes for the U18s and was hoping to soon make my debut in the league playing in central midfield again. But in fact, this season was the worst I’ve had as my back injury became more serious and the physios said I had a stress response in my lower back.
This kind of setback was a huge hit to me as I had never experienced anything like this before. With this injury I wasn’t allowed to do any form of exercise for many weeks and months. You can only imagine what this was like. I went up to the club to receive physio two nights a week and only bumped into team-mates and coaches a couple times which made me feel a bit forgotten about.
The only thing I was doing was playing Xbox and was just desperate to play football. It took me a while to get back fit (about 4-5 months) and felt I had taken a huge backwards step especially with me not having a chance to meet the new U18 and U23 coaches. This was one of my very few lows in football and during this spell I was a completely different person; a moody, argumentative teenager that my family found difficult to live with!
I’m actually glad this happened though, because it taught me a lot, and now, I know how to better deal with injuries and other low times that I will have to face in football. It probably wasn’t much help with the pressure of GCSE’s coming either but at least we eased up on the football to concentrate on them.