WITH Premier League giants Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea all circling overhead, Torquay United moved to sign up their 17-year-old 'scholar' Jake Hutchings to a professional contract this week partly to stop any big club from snapping him up on the cheap.
The Gulls have offered 'fast track' senior contracts to Londoner Hutchings, a centre-half, and promising Plymouth-born forward Danny Sullivan.
Sullivan would have completed his two-year scholarship at Plainmoor in May, but Hutchings has only been with United since last summer.
The signings of Hutchings and Sullivan are the latest signs that United's commitment to youth – the club relaunched its Centres Of Excellence five years ago and its Academy in 2008 – is paying off, and sooner than expected.
Niall Thompson, Kirtys McKenzie and Ashley Yeoman have all started for the first team this season after graduating from the Academy.
And Cornish-born winger Saul Halpin, who joined the Gulls through their Soccer Course link with Paignton Community College, has nine substitute appearances to his name.
"You've got to protect your assets, and having a boy under a senior contract gives you more bargaining power," said United's Head Of Youth Geoff Harrop.
"No one at Torquay is going to stop a lad from going to a big club, and we'll support them in any way we can, but they're not going to get them for nothing.
"We had Chelsea, Arsenal and Man United coming to our game (against Exeter City) last Saturday.
"It was a shame that it was called off, and we had to ring them up and tell them not to come.
"But people from big clubs are coming to watch us on a regular basis now.
"The board at Plainmoor have invested good money in the Youth Scheme, and we have to protect that investment."
Harrop credits two things for the way the Scheme is working – a culture of keeping the trainees close to the first team and hard work by staff.
"At the training ground the boys change in the next room to the first team.
"The senior pros talk to them and they train alongside them as well," he said.
"It's something that Martin (manager Martin Ling) encourages, but it's something that doesn't happen at a lot of clubs in my experience.
"We want our boys to look at our senior pros and say to themselves 'I want to be like him'.
"That's really the essence of what we're trying to do.
"But also Robbie Herrera (coach), Gareth Law (physio) and Cedric Munslow (youth coordinator), and Matt Williams and Malcolm Moore with our Centres, work their backsides off not only during the daytime but at nights as well."
Harrop added: "We try to be disciplined, at the club and away from it.
"We have our odd moments, when someone lets us or themselves down from time to time, but we don't tolerate it.
"We have a meal out every Thursday evening, and it's great to hear staff and other customers commenting on the boys' manners and the way they clear up after themselves.
"We had to pull a boy the other day because he swore at a friend when he was out – you can't go swearing in public in a Torquay United tracksuit.
"But any success at the end of it all comes down to countless hours of hard work, and convincing the boys that all the repetition, repetition, repetition isn't boring – it's all about them learning the game."