"By working methodically, step by step, you can achieve good results," Lithuanian Football Federation (LFF) academy director Raimondas Statkevičius told UEFA.com as he reflected on the successes of his young charges.
Seven years have passed since the national academy and technical centre – part-funded through UEFA's HatTrick assistance programme – opened in Kaunas, and with UEFA EURO 2016 qualifying approaching the national team are starting to feel the benefits. Defender Aurimas Vilkaitis, signed up by SS Lazio in 2010, was the academy's first success story, with the class of players born in 1994 – who featured as hosts at the 2013 UEFA European Under-19 Championship – now becoming hot properties across the continent.
"They were the first graduates who underwent the full training programme," said Statkevičius, who has seen academy-reared playmaker Gratas Sirgėdas – joint-top scorer at the 2013 U19 finals – picked up by VfB Stuttgart, while foreign clubs have moved in for forward Simonas Stankevičius and midfielder Tomas Dombrauskis (Leicester City FC), winger Deimantas Petravičius (Nottingham Forest FC) and striker Lukas Spalvis (Aalborg BK). In the same period, two FK Sūduva youngsters – goalkeeper Tomas Švedkauskas and midfielder Giedrius Matulevičius – moved to AS Roma and Parma FC respectively, while midfielder Vykintas Slivka joined Juventus from FK Ekranas.
"Playing in the U19 finals earned our players real attention around Europe," Statkevičius noted. "It also helped to raise our profile at home and encourage more youngsters to join the academy and stay. Playing in the academies of top clubs around Europe, in a more competitive environment, will help these players' development and give them international experience."
The ultimate beneficiary is sure to be the senior national side, with Spalvis a case in point. Having seized the chance to shine as AaB won a domestic double in Denmark last season, the 20-year-old was swiftly drafted into Lithuania's first team, scoring his first goal in a friendly against Poland in June. Sirgėdas, Stankevičius and Petravičius have also made senior debuts.
"We have been monitoring the progress of these players at the academy for a number of years," explained national-team coach Igoris Pankratjevas. "That included directing a few training sessions, as well as inviting them to train with the national team to give them a taste of the top level and show where they could improve. Some of those players have already featured for the first team and did not disappoint. We are counting on them for the future. Spalvis is one who made significant progress and could be a key player in attack."
England, Estonia, San Marino, Slovenia and Switzerland await in Group E, but if the academy kids take their cue, playing the long game could yet take Lithuania to UEFA EURO 2016.
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