BREAKING into the Boston United first team just is as hard now as it was when the Pilgrims were a Football League club.
That is the opinion of York Street’s head of youth Steve Welsh, the man charged with turning promising Centre of Excellence youngsters into stars of the future.
Since its inception in 2005, youngsters such as Lewis Brooks, Tom Hurst and Nathan Forbes have all progressed through the ranks to taste League Two action.
The biggest success story of the Football League era was Jamie Stevens, who played 12 times for the Pilgrims, even marking his debut with a headed goal in the 3-3 home draw against a Notts County side that included current United managers Jason Lee and Lee Canoville.
As the club found itself demoted three divisions, further players have progressed through the ranks, including Simon Ashton, Nick Jackson, Aaron Butcher, Alex Beck and 2009 Player of the Year Adam Millson.
But Welsh argues that his task is just as tough now, despite Boston competing in the Blue Square Bet North.
“It’s no easier getting lads into the first team now than when we were in the Football League,” Welsh said.
“Whether it’s Jason Lee or Steve Evans in charge, they want the same thing - the best players possible for Boston United.
“And it’s my job to try to give them the best young players available.
“You may say it’s easier to make it in the Blue Square Bet North, but to play for Boston you’ve still got to have the right mix of dedication, desire and ability as always.”
And Welsh thinks the knock-on effect of clubs up and down the country feeling the pinch could leave less opportunities for young players to progress.
He added: “Record amounts of footballers are being released by league clubs, making it more competitive for players to break into teams.
“Those senior pros who have to go part time will look to a big non-league club like Boston as the place they want to be.
“We have to make sure our young players can compete with that.”
However, Welsh believes that his task of progressing lads and retaining them under the Pilgrims banner has been made easier by the return of a reserve side.
The current Lincs League champions have given Welsh a chance to hand a number of his under 18s a glimpse of life in senior football, toughening them up a little and giving them a further option to remain at the club when they outgrow youth football.
“It’s important to the players’ development progress that they can go out on loan or play for the reserves,” Welsh added.
“Playing youth football against some top teams is great, but it’s no substitute for playing men’s football, kicking off at York Street at 3pm on a Saturday.
“That and going to some not-so-nice places will toughen these lads up.
“(Reserve boss) Glen Maddison wants his sides to play good football, he wants his players to be winners.
“It’s a good stepping stone to the first team and a big bonus to have the reserve team here again.
“It’s an important phase in our players’ development.”
However, the first team remains Welsh’s key objective.
“This club has just had two terrific seasons after coming out of the Football League. And nothing pleases me more than a couple of local boys making the first team,” he added.
“We need to make our young players as prepared as possible. We need to find the local lads who have the ability to take Boston United to a promotion.
“That’s what this whole club wants.” Welsh’s near-paternal pride at witnessing his youngsters achieving success is something shared by club director Chris Cook.
Despite being the club’s all-time record goalscorer, finding the net at Wembley and even managing the club, Cook says his finest memory at his home-town club was developing youth teamers into first teamers during his time as academy supremo.
“Leigh Taylor was the first to come through,” said Cook. “He was 16 and took my record as the youngest player to play for the first team at the time.
“It was my proudest feeling to see a player move up into the first team.
“Ross Nicholls and Danny Seager also came through. As someone who did the same thing, it was a good feeling to see other local lads play for the first team.”
But while Welsh is quick to praise the newly-reformed reserves, he believes the success of the Centre of Excellence is rooted firmly in its foundations.
“We wouldn’t have a successful centre without the coaches,” he said.
“They’re responsible for their players’ development, they find new players to bring to the club. They make the players stronger and make them want to keep coming back.”