THE waiting is almost over for Blackburn Rovers’ young guns – they kick off their U21s Premier League Division Two campaign on Monday.
After a six-match unbeaten run to end their pre-season programme Eric Kinder’s side get the real action under way when they make the long trip to new boys Brighton and Hove Albion (7pm).
Rovers finished bottom of the standings in 2013/14 after a testing and transitional year in which head coach Kinder rang massive changes.
But, now one of 12 teams competing in the second tier after the league was split into two divisions, there is real hope they can have a better season this time around.
The ultimate aim for Kinder, however, is not measured by individual results and final standings.
“A good season for me would be three or four of them being involved with the first team before the end of the season and probably one or two making their debut,” said Kinder, who returned to his boyhood club Rovers last summer after seven years heading up Carlisle United’s academy.
“I’m honestly not concerned about how we do as a team, I’m not concerned about finishing in the top 10, if we have two or three around the first team come the end of the season then that’s success.
“But then again we don’t want to finish bottom like we did last season – and I’m sure we won’t do with this group.”
Rovers will not be taking on the likes of Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United and Manchester City this season.
The big four in the U21s game, instead, will be playing in Division One.
Kinder sees that as a shame.
He has no doubts, though, that there will still be tough tests ahead for Rovers, whose squad is mainly made up of players who could still turn out for the club’s U18s team.
But after an encouraging pre-season in which they beat Knaresborough Town, AFC Darwen and Annan Athletic, and drew with Penrith, Workington and Padiham, he is optimistic.
“Pre-season has gone a lot better than expected to be honest because it’s a really young side and we’ve played a lot of non-league sides and they’ve had to stand up for themselves,” said Kinder, who first arrived at Rovers in 1999 when then academy boss Bobby Downes invited him to take charge of the U16s.
“We’ve got to remember the vast majority of these players could still be down at the Academy.
“They’re going to have to step up pretty quickly but I’ve been impressed by the way they’ve handled the non-league teams and the way they’ve stood up to the physical side of it.
“They’re hungry and they’ve still got everything in front of them.
“But they’ve also got to understand they’re playing in a Premier League competition and every game is going to be hard work.
“They’re going to have to settle down and get to grips with it pretty quickly as otherwise they’ll have a rude awakening.”
There has also been change off the field with John Filan, the former Australia international goalkeeper who made 73 appearances for Rovers from 1997 to 2001, returning to Brockhall to take over from Colin Hendry as the U21s’ assistant coach.
“I’d never met John before but he’s been in here now for 10 days and we get on like a house on fire,” said Kinder.
“It’s like we’ve known each other for years and hopefully we’ll have a good season together.”
Filan was offered the job as Kinder’s right-hand man after first-team manager Gary Bowyer was impressed with the work he did with the club’s senior keepers in the summer while standing in for injured goalkeeping coach John Keeley.
“I’m not anything to do with the goalkeepers now, it’s purely an outfield position,” said Filan, who returned to the UK with his English wife and children 18 months ago after spending six years back home in Australia following the end of his playing career.
“I’m here to learn off Eric Kinder and all the other staff here and focus on trying to get the best out of our young players.
"There a lot of different aspects to outfield coaching. I was a goalkeeper and did goalkeeping coaching for a lot of years, so now I find this a real challenge.
“That’s what I was looking for and hopefully everyone will be happy with my work and I can develop as a coach and develop the young players here.”
Rovers U21s take on Aston Villa at Leigh Sports Village in their first home game of the campaign on Monday, August 25 (7pm).