TONY McMAHON knows all about the importance of giving local youngsters a chance.

In 2002, as a fresh-faced 16-year-old, the Bishop Auckland-born defender signed his first scholarship terms with Middlesbrough. Two years later, in 2004, he was captaining Boro’s youth team to the FA Youth Cup title. Six months on from that, and he was making his senior debut in front of more than 75,000 supporters as Steve McClaren’s Middlesbrough side claimed a 1-1 draw with Manchester United at Old Trafford.

Plenty has happened in the decade-and-a-half since, with McMahon carving out a hugely successful career that has featured junior international caps for England, European outings with Boro and more than 400 senior appearances for clubs including Sheffield United, Blackpool, Bradford City and now Darlington. But as he looks back on his career, the 35-year-old cannot help but wonder what might have happened had he not been given the opportunity to prove himself in those formative years at Rockliffe Park.

Every successful footballer needs a first chance. So, as he prepares for the start of another season as the head of Darlington’s recently-revamped academy, McMahon is determined to ensure a new generation of North-East youngsters get some of the same opportunities that made such a difference to him almost 20 years ago.

“When I look back now, the way we were looked after and developed at Middlesbrough was incredible really,” he said. “We had a great crop of young lads coming through, and quite a lot of us have gone on to have long careers in football. But we wouldn’t have been able to do that if the opportunity wasn’t there in the first place. No matter how good you are, you need that first opening to get into the game.”

Last autumn, McMahon was back at Middlesbrough, working with the club’s Under-14s team. He received a phone call from Darlington boss Alun Armstrong asking if he would put his boots back on to play for Quakers in National League North. Had Armstong stopped there, McMahon would probably have said no. As well as playing though, Armstrong wanted his new right-back to take charge of Darlington’s academy, overseeing a complete overhaul of the club’s youth set-up. Despite his lifelong association with Middlesbrough, it was too good an opportunity to turn down.

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“To be honest, I wasn’t really looking to play again,” said McMahon. “But then Alun said, ‘Look, the academy will be yours. Do it how you want to do it – grow it how you want to grow it’. That excited me straight away.

“With everything the club has been through, the youth side of things had to take a back seat for a while. But we’re in a position now where we can invest and make really positive decisions for the future.

“We’ve got a full-time academy group of 29, who are all aged 16 and over so come after they’ve finished their GCSEs. They train with us every day. They do their coaching in the morning, and then they do their education in the afternoon.

“At the moment, we’re working with an independent provider to offer a BTEC course, and that’s pretty standard right across football. Ideally, though, I’d like to do something different. Quite a few of the lads we have at the minute are quite academic, and we’re trying to set up a partnership that will enable us to offer A-levels if that’s what our players want to do.

“There’s not really anywhere else that does that, so that would be really exciting. Come and try to make it as a footballer with Darlington, and we’ll do everything we can to try to make that dream a reality. But if it doesn’t work out, get a really good education and you can still end up going away to university or whatever.”

McMahon’s vision remains at a formative stage, but the fruits of his labour are already evident when it comes to players progressing into Darlington’s first-team squad.

Nineteen-year-old midfielder Rhys Armstrong is an academy product who has established himself in Alun Armstrong’s senior set-up - the Darlington boss is a regular at academy training sessions - while 18-year-olds Harvey Woodhouse and Sean Chidanyika have also been handed senior squad numbers.

The benefits of a successful academy flow both ways. If youngsters see players progressing into the first team, they are more likely to want to sign up and be a part of things. If Darlington can develop their own talent, they will flourish on the field and potentially unearth the one diamond that could transform the club’s financial position. When Ben Godfrey left Norwich City to join Everton last summer, his first club, York City, received a windfall of around £1m.

“That’s the dream,” said McMahon. “It would be great to help develop that one star that goes on to succeed in the Premier League. We obviously sold Harvey Saunders to Fleetwood not that long ago, and the money that brought in was a big help.

“But it’s not just about focusing on the best talent. I want to help all our lads be the best they can be. And then if football doesn’t work out for them – and let’s be honest, for a lot of lads at every academy in the country, it won’t – I want us to have helped them be able to go in a different direction with their life.”

And McMahon’s future? He will be back in Darlington’s first team next season, and will continue with his coaching. Ultimately, though, he would like to move into management.

“This is a great grounding for me,” he said. “It’s a chance to be really hands-on and build something from scratch. It might not be the traditional route to becoming a manager, but I’m learning so much that will hopefully help me further down the line if I get a chance to move into management. I’m just so pleased I said yes when Alun called and asked me to come on board.”

* If any potential players of a school-leaving age want more information about the opportunities available with Darlington's academy, they should contact the club via Email on