To mark Rovers having a graduate in 500 consecutive matchday squads, Academy chief Stuart Jones spoke to Rich Sharpe about the achievement.

Rovers Academy graduates accounted for almost a quarter of all minutes played by first-team players last season – and a change of focus could help see even more exciting talent come through the Brockhall ranks.

The 5-0 win over Wycombe last month was the 500th consecutive league fixture in which a graduate has featured in a matchday squad, with no signs of that slowing down.

And while it’s an accolade that the club’s head of Academy Stuart Jones says he and his staff are rightly proud of, it’s one they’re striving to see continue.

Rovers were led out for the Wycombe game by Darragh Lenihan who has taken on responsibility of captaining the side in the last 12 months, and one of the many success stories of the Academy.

Ryan Nyambe, Lewis Travis, John Buckley and Joe Rankin-Costello have become established first-team players more recently, and you have to go back to January 2009 for the last time Rovers didn’t include an Academy graduate in their matchday squad.

Many of those graduates down the years have been more defensively-minded, but Jones believes a change in focus, and the promising scholars coming through, could see that soon alter.

“We’ve made changes and our curriculum is a lot more technical now. The end goal for us is, and we’ve had discussions around this, is to produce Premier League quality players,” Jones told the Lancashire Telegraph.

“Hopefully that’s where we can get to and what we all want.

“What does that consist of? Well, it’s outstanding technicians, speed and agility is massive at the top level, and we’ve had to work hard and introduce those into our programme over the last few years.

“Our programme is a lot more technical now and the physical aspects are more about speed and agility.

“It’s been highlighted about the number of graduates that have been more defensively minded.

“I think that with regards to the programme being more technical, the physical aspects being more about speed, it will play into the hands of those attacking players.

“I think what’s important is that we nurture them in the right way and we allow them to go and express themselves as attacking players as part of their development.

“There’s certainly some exciting attacking players in the building and we just have to continue keep working with them.”

Jones has headed up Rovers’ Academy programme since July 2017, when the club continued their commitment to a Category One programme despite relegation to League One.

They became just the second club to have done that, a decision chief executive Steve Waggott feels the club are now reaping the rewards of.

Jones, who replaced Eric Kinder in the role, shared the credit for the 500 game milestone with the staff, past and present, as well as the first-team management staff who have been willing to give youngsters opportunities.

It is something the club are able to sell to players too, with Connor McBride, a summer recruit from Celtic, having highlighted the pathway as a key reason behind his decision to sign for Rovers.

And a time when every penny is being counted by clubs, the importance of Academies will only heighten in the coming years.

“Ultimately, that pathway can’t stop when they get to Under-23s there has to be opportunities to progress into our first-team and I think across the country Academies are going to become even more important in the current climate and producing your own players,” Jones explained.

“But ultimately you have to have a club philosophy, or a first-team manager has a philosophy, that they’re given opportunities and there’s a pathway into the first-team.

“And to be fair to the gaffer and Mark Venus they’re so supportive of the Academy. They want young players to come through our system which is brilliant for us really.”

Tyrhys Dolan was initially signed to boost the Under-23s attacking ranks this summer, after his release by Preston, but when opportunity knocked at first-team level, he’s taken that with both hands.

While not an Academy graduate, he’s one of a growing number of Rovers’ young crop of players who the club have high hopes for.

Jack Vale was the most recent Academy graduate, making his debut back in July, and despite his current injury, he’s among those with potential to star on the first-team stage, and beyond.

And while the milestone in itself is one to celebrate, Jones says it goes further, adding: “I was looking at some stats from last season and 24 per cent of the total number of first-team minutes available were taken by Academy graduates.

“I think we averaged four Academy graduates in a matchday squad so the stats have been really impressive.

“We’ve got some that we’ve got some real high hopes for. Tyrhys has come in, I know he’s not come through the Academy system as such, but there are others, (Luke) Brennan, Vale, some younger scholars who have high hopes for.

“I think it’s important from a staff perspective to recognise the level of work that goes on behind the scenes to make that happen. It’s important for the staff to know that we’re appreciative of them and the work they’ve done.

“I’m excited in terms of the next few years and how that looks with what we’ve got in the building.”

Rovers hope the shift in focus of their Academy programme, led by head of coaching Tony Carss, will enable them to produce players who can make an impact at Premier League level.

To do that, Jones says players coming through have to be able to meet the ever-changing demands of top-flight clubs, not least surrounding their technical and physical aspects.

A focus too has been upon development and learning, providing players with individual programmes to help nurture their talents, something which continued via online training sessions during lockdown, aided by their Category One status which allows for increased contact hours.

He said: “Ultimately it’s a big pull having a Category One programme, we’ve spoken before about Rankin-Costello and Butterworth coming out of Manchester United and for a lot of young players the category is a big pull because of the games programme and the resources that are given to those players in terms of facilities and staff they will have access to.

“It allows us to compete for those types of players and I think that’s why it’s really important moving forward that we retain that and the owners have been fantastic with that over the years.

“Currently we’re a Championship club and hopefully we can get out of it and back into the Premier League but we have to look at it and produce Premier League players and hopefully that’s for our football club, or if not, they become an attraction to clubs in the Premier League and produce assets for our club.

“We’ve worked hard over the last two or three years around our programme because it has to become more technical and we’ve put lots of things in place for that because we want to produce Premier League players, outstanding technicians and that’s what we have to do in terms of our programme.”