Celtic FC manager Neil Lennon has helped to launch the third year of the Irish Football Association (IFA) centres of excellence, sponsored by DFDS Seaways.
The centres, which help to nurture Northern Ireland's best young players, were attended by more than 780 footballers aged between 11 and 15 during the 2009/10 season. Under the expert guidance of county performance coaches, the goal is to improve and develop youngsters' football skills, conditioning, diet and general lifestyle.
At the launch, Lennon highlighted the importance of good coaching and praised the work of the centres of excellence. "The standard that young players have to reach now to become professionals is getting much higher as clubs cast their net far and wide to attract the most talented footballers," said the former Northern Ireland midfielder. "This is why the centres of excellence are so important, not only for young players in Northern Ireland, but also for the international teams of the future.
"The importance of the early teenage years in a player's development cannot be understated. This is when quality coaching is vital as what players learn at this age can have a major influence on how they develop physically and emotionally. These centres are providing great opportunities for the development and improvement of Northern Ireland's potential stars of the future."
Nigel Best, national performance manager, added: "The centres of excellence are vital in providing the required additional structured coaching sessions for the top youth players across the six counties. This additional coaching time goes some way to making up the shortfall in the time Northern Ireland players have to practise compared with their counterparts in England."