An industrious and skilful Republic of Ireland U15 team overwhelmed their Czech opponents at Clonmel Celtic’s grounds yesterday afternoon.
Afterwards, FAI communications officer Stephen Finn was keen the performance wouldn’t go unnoticed amid the constant fretting about Irish football’s underage structures.
“We get enough stick when our underage teams lose. I hope we celebrate days like this.”
There was much to celebrate on a sunny afternoon in Clonmel. Powerful Corinthians forward Adam Idah scored two very different first-half goals to put Ireland in charge; first heading in Max Murphy’s precise cross; then outpacing the Czech defence to lift over keeper Adam Benada.
Then Belvedere’s impish midfielder Sean Brennan took centre stage, flicking in a corner before half-time and curling Ireland’s fourth after the break. Sub Seanie Mahon from Cherry Orchard slotted the fifth in between two consolations from Matyas Kozak.
Ireland passed and pressed with purpose throughout and compared favourably in most departments to the disjointed and sluggish visitors.
It was a proud day too for Tipperary football; the Clonmel pitch proving resilient to the weekend’s weather on its big day, and Nenagh AFC’s Barry Coffey — brother of Tipp hurler Andrew — impressive in midfield.
The army of cross-channel scouts that greeted their fellow soldiers beforehand and tucked their cards close to their chests must have jotted plenty of positive feedback in their dossiers.
And manager Colin O’Brien got almost everything he asked from the boys.
“Today, they had a task to put on a high press and they carried it out for long spells. I thought they were excellent and demonstrated that our players can play. And score high-quality goals.” So nothing broke after all then? Nothing to fix.
The schoolboy clubs supplying the players for this team might argue that is the case. Former Ireland international and current MK Dons coach Keith Andrews, helping out the group this week, acknowledged their contribution.
“Yep, they’re doing the right things. These lads are literally managing themselves. They’re drilled that much. The education they’ve already had, at club level and international level. And the Dublin Schoolboys League or in whatever county they’re from, has been first class.”
And there is the nub of the political impasse. Scan the Czech line-up, and the clubs are familiar; Sparta Prague, Slavia Prague, Zbrojovka Brno, Sigma Olomouc, Baník Ostrava. Almost all their players are already affiliated to professional academies.
But the most football-literate Czech visitor would probably struggle with Nenagh AFC, Lakewood, Kevin’s Boys and Gweedore Celtic.
That is how Irish football works, has always worked. Schoolboy clubs supply the players. English clubs scoop the pick of them to mould or discard. And League of Ireland sides pick up some of the pieces later.
But the FAI, and technical director Ruud Dokter, see a future where the ‘pathway’ for the best young players is through League of Ireland academies. And so schoolboy clubs like St Kevin’s Boys have been refused entry to the new National U17 and proposed U15 national leagues.
Kevin’s — who educated current Irish internationals Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick (Jack Byrne too) — supplied four players to this Ireland squad. Neil Fox explained the club’s concerns.
“We would like to join the FAI league but we were refused admission.
“The likes of ourselves and the other Dublin schoolboy clubs, Joeys, Crumlin, Cherry Orchard, we’re going to lose our players to League of Ireland clubs.
“Eventually what will happen is a player at five years of age will go into the academy of Shamrock Rovers or Pat’s and go through the system. A lot of these clubs don’t have academies but they will start them.
“It is a worry. Not to blow our own trumpet, but we are doing a very good job in coaching them. It’s well known we’re doing a good job.” League of Ireland clubs have yet to prove such credentials.
Liam Brady, a product of Kevin’s himself, has mixed feelings on the issue.
In the Irish Examiner recently, Brady worried Irish players are falling behind their English counterparts because they are not attending academies early enough and, as a consequence, aren’t exposed to enough coaching hours, at a sufficient standard.
“We rely on good schoolboy clubs but they don’t always play the kind of football that would develop a technical young player. So by the time our lads are going to England, at 15 or 16, they’re playing catch-up.”
Paddy Duggan, coach at Gweedore Celtic, who provided Marc Walsh to this Ireland squad, has seen enough youngsters depart for England with a head full of dreams and return broken-hearted six months later, to back the FAI plan, even if it affects his own club.
“I think the League of Ireland is the best platform. Ply your trade there first and foremost, like Seamus Coleman. Obviously it’s not for everyone, but I think they need to be a little bit more mature and then go across.
“The pathways are there. League of Ireland at U15 is a great platform for lads to stay with a club until U19, when they’d be more mature and experienced.
“But it’s starting to eat in here too. You’ve Derry City at one side and Finn Harps and Sligo Rovers on the other side. With pathways for U15s now, I think the clubs will lose them a lot earlier.
“We have a 3G pitch and great coaches, but I can never see Marc Walsh ever playing senior for Gweedore Celtic. And good luck to the lad, you can’t hold him back.” Walter Murphy, the Manchester United scout who brought Robbie Brady from Kevin’s to Old Trafford, was in Clonmel yesterday. He wouldn’t be drawn on the politics, but admitted the players he was watching aren’t getting enough coaching hours at the moment.
Brighton scout PJ Quirke agreed and feels the U15 League is a solid plan. “In my opinion, at U15 it’s a good thing. But the major clubs in Dublin don’t want it because they will lose players at 13.” Unlike with the other political impasse hogging the headlines, at least with football the good work continues regardless.
"These players haven't come off the pitch inferior to anyone," said a delighted O'Brien yesterday.
"It's very important to our players that they’re not going in feeling inferior to what they might consider more advanced nations.”
The sides will meet again at Cahir Park AFC tomorrow at 12 noon.
Certainly no inferiority complex in Clonmel yesterday, but the situation remains complex.
K Clarke (St Kevin’s Boys), K Ledwidge (St Kevin’s Boys), M Murphy (St Joseph’s Boys), N Collins (Cherry Orchard), R O’Sullivan (St Kevin’s Boys); A O’Reilly (Ringmahon Rangers); S Brennan (Belvedere), B Coffey (Nenagh AFC), T Wright (Lakewood), C Thompson (St Joseph’s Boys); A Idah (Corinthians Boys) Subs: J Knight (Cabinteely) for A O’Reilly, M Walsh (Gweedore) for T Wright; C Brennan (East End Utd) for B Coffey; S Mahon (Cherry Orchard) for A Idah
A Benada, M Kavin, T Vincour, S Gabriel, L Krobot, J Vokfinek, M Kostka, V Kolaf, O Hapal, M Kozak, C Lhotecky