NIALL Heaton admits Bradford City are unrecognisable from his first spell at the club.
The former England schoolboy defender left Valley Parade as a 14-year-old to join Liverpool but returned last summer.
As he reports for duty at Apperley Bridge this morning as the youngest member of Phil Parkinson’s evolving squad, Heaton cannot believe how much has changed.
Heaton said: “It’s so much more professional now. Everything is look really good.
“When I left the first time, they were struggling in League Two and looking at relegation to the Conference.
“Coming back last year, they’d just got promoted and the club were on a high. It’s just built on from there and everything is different.
“The academy and youth team used to have to train at Goals in Bradford. Now everybody is at Woodhouse Grove where the facilities are great.
“It’s a brilliant environment to work in.”
Heaton hopes to emulate fellow teenager Oliver McBurnie by breaking into Parkinson’s line-up this season. Striker McBurnie made nine appearances last season, including two starts, after being promoted from the youth team.
The left-sided centre half is three weeks younger – he turned 18 last Wednesday – and believes that City’s treatment of McBurnie shows they are not reluctant to blood youngsters.
He added: “It’s a good club to come into. Olly got a good chance which shows that the gaffer is willing to try young players and hopefully that opens a door for me if I prove myself in pre-season.
“It’s exciting to think about. It’s everyone’s dream to become a professional footballer but this is only the first step on the ladder – I’ve not done anything yet.
“It’s a big season for me. I need to push on and show the gaffer what I can do and hopefully get a bit of first-team football.
“There is definitely some pressure. There are no reserves so I’m going straight into a first-team environment.
“I need to be on a par with the first-team lads but I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
Heaton and McBurnie are the only two to make the cut from last season’s second-year trainees. There were no contract offers for Jack Bentley, Nathan Curtis or youth-team skipper Jack Stockdill.
Heaton and Stockdill joined last year’s pre-season tour of Ireland and both got a first taste of senior involvement with a run-out in the friendly against Bohemians.
The defender could also have got a bench call when injuries started to bite into Parkinson’s plans during the second half of the league campaign – but Heaton was sidelined himself with an ankle ligament problem.
He added: “I got injured at the wrong time with the youth team.
“There were a few out in the first time and that was really my opportunity because I was having a good run and finding a bit of form. But I then got this injury around the time of our Blackpool cup game so that ruled me out.
“It was frustrating because I probably would have been involved but I’m sure there will be another chance this season. If it comes, I need to be fit and ready.”