It may be the path many travel and few finish but the lure of chasing the English Premier League dream remains very much open for Ireland’s elite football teens.
This very week, some of the richest clubs in the world are in town battling to land kids as young as 13 on contracts worth hefty six-figure sums.
Trawl through the 20 Premier League clubs and all but three have an Irish presence are at some level, even if the task of breaking through at first team level is increasingly difficult due to the globalisation of the division, though Glenn Whelan, Seamus Coleman and Stephen Ireland are obvious current examples of those that have.
The fact that, almost three years on from Ireland’s U19s reaching the European Championship semi-final, none of the squad are playing at Premier League level this season reinforces the point.
“Of the squad that played at the finals in Romania, only Jeff Hendrick is a regular in the top two divisions in England,” noted Paul Doolin, Ireland’s U19 boss.
“Our players just don’t seem to be getting chances at club level.”
That seems a truism for players from a country the size of Ireland’s, but loses credibility when compared to Wales. Despite having a population of just three million, the Welsh FA have nurtured talent for the summit of the pyramid in the form of Aaron Ramsey (Arsenal), Joe Allen (Liverpool) and Gareth Bale (Real Madrid).
Call it the bravery of youth but Ireland’s latest exports to English clubs pay scant heed to what went before them. History might be against them, yet each has packed their suitcase for a stint in digs fully confident the journey is to culminate in the glare of television cameras.
Waterford native, 19-year-old Kenny McEvoy, is a rarity amongst his peers by having risen to the hallowed status of a first team squad member. When Tottenham Hotpsur travelled to Norway recently for the Europa League tie against Tromso, Andre Villas-Boas promoted his flying winger from the club’s U21 side.
“I chose to sign for Spurs in 2010 because I knew it was great club for a young player to develop at,” said the teen, nicknamed ‘Baby Bale’ at the club for his striking resemblance to their former star.
“Learning from world-class players such as Bale in training has helped my own career. It can only be a good thing to be in that environment,” he said.
Residing further north in Lancashire is an Irish goalkeeper already accustomed to big Champions League nights. Ian Lawlor was just 18 when Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini told him to upgrade his ticket from an U19 to senior squad member for the flight to Viktoria Plzen in September.
He was back working amongst some of the game’s richest stars last week for the Champions League win over Bayern Munich, a game he sat on the bench for to provide cover to Joe Hart and Costel Pantilimon.
Barely into adulthood, Lawlor is savouring the experience, albeit aware of the trek he faces to become a permanent fixture. It didn’t require the chats on the training ground with Hart to be aware England’s No 1 spent three loans spells away from City before deposing Shay Given.
“I’m still going through my football education, so a loan will probably be my first move,” he said. “I’m realistic enough to know that I’ve many more years to go before I could think about [playing] here at City.”
Predicting a youngster’s ascent is a tricky art but Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish made an exception during his pursuit of young Dubliner Alex O’Hanlon.
Back in 2010, Alex’s father was inundated with calls about his prodigious 13-year-old son from the cream of English academy figureheads — including Liam Brady at Arsenal and Manchester United’s Brian McClair — with even Real Madrid tabling an invite for a trial.
Liverpool impressed him most and, since his move to Merseyside, on-field progress has netted him an improved deal from Dalglish’s successor Brendan Rodgers.
“Kenny told Alex he’d be in his first team by 18,” his father Dominic recalled yesterday. “That sounded great but Kenny moved on. Alex will be 18 next April and, as well as he’s doing in the reserves, I’m not expecting a first team debut for him by then.”
After sampling what he describes as the ‘frenzy’ surrounding his son, Dominic can empathise with the current crop of parents dealing with cross-channel interest.
“One of the staff at Liverpool, who has since left, rang me every day for two months trying to sign Alex,” he explains. “After the deal was complete, the same person ignored me in the corridor at the training ground. I had to ask him, ‘why’? He was very honest in admitting he’d succeeded in recruiting the player he wanted and had moved on to the next target.
“Once the chase is over, everything fades away and you’re left missing your son who has left home for a different country. That’s the reality of the business.”
Willie Dennehy, having been through the grind with two of his sons, is further qualified to opine on the system.
A year after his eldest son, Billy, was recruited by Sunderland boss Mick McCarthy in 2005, the Kerryman lost another across the Irish sea when Everton snapped up Darren.
Both players are now reunited at Cork City replete with a mixture of positive and negative memories.
“My two lads are in the minority insofar as they’re still at clubs,” said Willie. “Several of their Irish teammates at Sunderland and Everton returned to Ireland disillusioned with football and drifted out of the game totally. More needs to be done by the FAI to help pick up the pieces if things don’t work out.”
While the League of Ireland clubs continue to operate against diminishing finances, an alternative springboard to professional football other than the UK route simply doesn’t exist for budding talent.
Until the powers-that-be prioritise this area for investment, bemoaning an overseas system which eventually frustrates more children and parents than it does satisfy them is futile.
Ciarán Clark, Graham Burke, Mikey Drennan, Kevin Toner, Robin Dempsey, Samir Carruthers (on loan to MK Dons), Jack Grealish (on loan at Notts County)
Owen Garvan, Paddy McCarthy, Damien Delaney
Seamus Coleman, Darron Gibson, James McCarthy, Shane Duffy, Ben McLaughlin, Matty Hewett
Damien Duff, Sean Kavanagh, Daniel O’Reilly, Dean O’Halloran, Noe Baba, Shane Elworthy
Robbie Brady, Paul McShane, David Meyler, Stephen Quinn, Conor Henderson, Sam O’Connor
Alex O’Hanlon, Daniel Cleary, Conor Masterson, Glen McAuley
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Ian Lawlor, Jack Byrne, Aaron O’Driscoll, Tyreke Wilson
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John O’Shea, Keiren Westwood, John Egan, Peter Burke, James Talbot, Dan Casey, Steven McCarthy
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WEST HAM UNITED
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