WHEN Dave Parnaby stepped down from his role as academy director last year, and his departure was followed by the retirement of long-serving and renowned academy scout Ron Bone, it was clear he would leave big shoes to fill at Middlesbrough Football Club.

An academy system that had produced a long list of first team players, professionals and even internationals, had suddenly lost two of the men who had been there since that structure was introduced in 1998.

But things change, they move on, and the Middlesbrough production line has continued to flow regardless, even more so than in recent years following Tony Pulis’ appointment because he has shown he is not afraid to give youth a chance.

Craig Liddle was the man who was asked to step in as the academy boss at Rockliffe Park and, in his own way, has gone about trying to improve a system that was already hailed as one of the most successful in the country following Parnaby’s spell at the club.

Liddle will be proud again tonight when a number of the club’s youngsters get another opportunity in the Carabao Cup at Preston North End, where the likes of Nathan Wood, Stephen Walker, Djed Spence and Bilal Brahimi will hope for an outing, as well as the slightly older Dael Fry, Marcus Tavernier and Harry Chapman.

“We are proud of all of our players who make it to that level,” said Liddle. “What Nathan is doing, for instance, shows why we have such high hopes for him, given he is just 16.

“Nathan came in when he was 13 and Martin Carter (head of academy recruitment) and the recruitment team spotted him, viewed him and brought him in. Some are coming in at five and six.

“What I like to think is that here we are a team, we all play our part. It’s not just me at the top, or the coaches or the scouts, we all play our part in terms of education, welfare of the boys, there is so much behind the scenes that goes on.

“We have to be aware of that. We have scouts on the ground every night in the wind and rain, they probably don’t get the credit – they do from myself by the way – from the outside.”

Middlesbrough’s scouting of youth football casts the net wide. Whether it is Carter, who was Bone’s assistant and the scout who regularly watched Wood as a teenager as well as a long list of others, or someone below, Liddle was keen to stress the importance of everyone involved in helping to develop the next generation.

Liddle now has Neil Maddison, his former Darlington team-mate and an ex-Middlesbrough midfielder, going out into the field to work with youth football clubs across the Teesside area too, forging greater links with the Teesside Junior Football Alliance, and he also keeps an eye on assessments of players out on loan.

When Liddle chatted in his office at Rockliffe, in front of him there was a giant white board with plans on, and behind him there was a second board with the name of every academy player – of “which there are 170-180” – all colour coordinated in formation for each age group.

The 46-year-old said: “Just in the North-East you have the Sunderlands, Newcastles and us competing for the same boys. You have then got the Citys, Evertons, Liverpools, Chelseas, who can come into our area and take them down south by putting them in private schools.

“We are not just dealing with two competitors any more like it was not so long ago, we are dealing with nine or ten, probably more. It’s a challenge.

“A boy went to Man United, he left at the back end of last season. He made that decision, you can understand him looking and moving to a big club, possibly, but realistically where would his pathway be clearer?

“In my eyes you would have a better chance here to establish yourself. You see that now with some of the players here getting the opportunities. Would they get that at Man City, Man United? I doubt it, they would probably be still in the Under-18s or whatever.

“We do have scouts all over the country, but predominantly we would like kids in from the local area. If you look at that board there, with all those kids on it, hopefully some will go on and represent the football club.”

Liddle can’t make it to Preston tonight to see if there are young players mixed in with first team players because he will be hosting an academy well-being event. He never has much time to himself, but having started his youth football work at Darlington during a financial crisis between 2011-12 he is used to working hard.

“I was probably the only full-time member of staff when I was Darlington manager, so I would do first team on a morning and youth team on an afternoon, the academy on an evening,” he said. “It was stressful. Very. I probably work similar hours now because that is what I am used to and what I enjoy doing!

“It’s my own dedication, my own passion, addiction, whatever you want to call it, it’s something I would enjoy doing in my own time too.

“It probably has laid the foundations for how I operate now. I was hard working as a player too, but that period at Darlington will have helped me.

“If I didn’t enjoy it I would struggle, but it’s such a pleasure to come to work. When you see some of the boys hit the first team it makes you so proud, it’s all worthwhile.

“I have seen the likes of Nathan Wood, Stephen Walker play, and my son (Ben) played a couple of pre-season friendlies, and that gives you a massive amount of satisfaction and pride.”

And Liddle knows Pulis, focused on leading Middlesbrough back to the big time, wants to see academy players shine too. He said: “I have the utmost respect for the work he has done at other clubs before he came here. He says it as it is.

“Ultimately he wants to give players a chance if he thinks it will help the first team. He likes what we do, appreciates what we do. The boys can’t complain about that, the opportunities they have been given so far is fantastic.”