With teenage sensations Idah, Connolly and Parrott on everyone’s lips,reports from behind the scenes in Abbotstown as the newest generation of Irish internationals continue with their higher education.
HERE is a sentence you don’t read every day: all is sweetness and light in the FAI boardroom.
Or at least such was the undiluted mood of positivity and purpose at 11.30am on Saturday morning, as Ireland’s Under-15 squad gathered for their pre-match briefing ahead of a 1pm kick-off against Australia in Abbotstown.
With their usual conference room required for a refereeing course, head coach Jason Donohue, his staff and players have decamped to the boardroom for final match preparations, the same room, incidentally, where all the Irish international managers — from Mick McCarthy on down — get together once a month to talk through games and players and ensure that the lines of communication are kept open across all the international age groups. And it’s not hard to imagine that the names Troy Parrott, Aaron Connolly, and Adam Idah would have featured prominently in these exchanges over the past 12 months.
On this cold but bright winter’s morning, with Donohue standing in front of a big screen and the latest generation of emerging talent arranged before him in rows, there is a definite air of the classroom about the scene — except that, for these elite pupils, the imminent examination is the enviable challenge, at once thrilling and demanding, of donning the green shirt to play international football for their country at the highest level their tender ages permit.
The U15s have come into this game with a 100% record this season, winning six out of six internationals, the most recent a hugely impressive 3-1 victory over England in St George’s Park in December. To foster “a positive mindset” for the test ahead, Donohue screens clips of some terrific Irish pressing, passing, and penetration from that game, telling his players “this is as good as I’ve seen in this age group”.
With all the side’s fundamental principles of play well enshrined over the course of the season, the players are almost able to answer in unison when he asks them to identify their main objectives today. “Win”. “Clean sheet”. “Express ourselves”. “Play with high intensity.” The coach reminds them to stay calm and stresses that they shouldn’t be afraid to take risks. “If we get beaten, I’ll take the responsibility,” he says.
Footballers, of every age, always want to win, of course, but the U15 level is primarily about player development. “There’s no pressure on us to win loads of games at 15s, there’s no ranking points,” Donohue tells me later.
“Results are not really our priority. It’s more about getting them used to high performance and what that takes on the pitch and off it.”
Still, there’s nothing quite like serial success to keep the confidence flowing, and no stone has been left unturned in a bid to make it seven out of seven against the visiting Australians.
With the Irish team already named and 14-year-old Cork City centre-back Cathal Heffernan — son of Olympians Rob and Marian — given the honour of captaining his country for the first time, Donohue hands over to his assistant Will Doyle to go through the team’s well-drilled set-plays — defending and attacking corners, free-kicks, and throw-ins.” (Another of the U15 coaches, former international Sean St Ledger, is unavoidably absent today).
But Doyle also reminds the players that, if the opportunity presents itself — say for a third player to involve himself in a short-corner routine — there can be room for improvisation too. Urging them to take the initiative on the pitch, he says: “Don’t be afraid to change it up and try something different.” As the players troop off to the dressing room, Donohue takes a moment to reflect on his conviction that the stubborn caricature of Irish football as being mainly about bark, bollock, and bite is at odds with the reality of an evolution in how the game is being coached and played in this country.
“I think it goes back even to grassroots,” he says. “The grassroots clubs now are playing a better brand of football. Go to Belvedere or go to Shamrock Rovers and they play really good football. And with the National Leagues bringing the best players together, that’s brought it to another level. For us, it means our lads are better equipped now to play at a higher level. Nobody can tell me we can’t play football. I’m hoping these will go out today and play really, really well. And I imagine they will do because they don’t know any other way.”
But an additional challenge emerges for the young guns at kick-off. What the Irish camp has been led to believe is an Australian U16 squad — who have come to Ireland on the back of a tour of the UK — actually turns out to be their U17s, and, in the game’s opening exchanges, there are a few worrying signs that the physical gap might simply prove too big to bridge, as a couple of Ireland’s lighter players come off second best in muscular challenges.
But, to their enormous credit, far from buckling, the home side stand up well to the challenge, and are soon imposing their manifestly superior brand of football on the opposition. Key to an increasingly dominant attacking display is Kevin Zefi — one of eight players from the Shamrock Rovers academy in the squad — whose close control in tight situations and electric dribbling coming in off the left flank, are a constant torment for the Aussie rearguard. But for two clearances off the line and, at times, a lack of precision with the final ball, the Irish should probably be two up coming up to the break.
But then, almost on the stroke of half-time, they get a reminder of the need for maximum concentration until the whistle blows, when a rare lapse at the back allows Australian’s Sebastian Hernandez a clear sight of goal from close range. Fortunately, under-worked Irish keeper Conor Walsh reacts well to make the save and defender Sam Curtis — another young Hoop who has previously captained the 15s while still only 13 — is able to clear the loose ball.
Soon after the restart, the Irish deservedly break the deadlock with a goal of exquisite quality. The high-tempo, one-touch build-up down the left deserves the ultimate reward, and leading scorer Zefi is there to provide it in style, finishing off the move by opening up his body and curling the ball into the top right-hand corner.
In the 52nd minute, Ireland double their advantage with a goal of different but no less admirable quality. This time, the assist comes from Cian Barrett (son of former international Graham) aggressively winning a tackle in midfield and then immediately releasing a through ball for Alex Nolan who, already on the turn, is able to take the pass in his stride and outpace his marker before drilling an angled shot low into the corner.
Thereafter, amid a raft of substitutions on both sides, the Irish manage the rest of the game without too much fuss, Cathal Heffernan an always commanding and composed figure at the back as a clean sheet is secured to wrap up a display in which the Irish have had to show plenty of steel to underpin their style.
It’s a point seized on by Jason Donohue in the aftermath when I ask him for a word about man of the match Zefi.
“Kevin reminds me of a tricky winger like Damien Duff or a Hazard,” he observes. “He’s got a great skillset going forward. At times he’s not sure what he’s doing so it’s hard for defenders because it’s so natural to him. But what people don’t notice is that, in the 80th minute, when Australia were breaking, Kevin did a 55-yard run to get back and get a tackle in. And that’s the part we all make sure the whole team understand — go forward, yes, but the game is about the other side too.”
Ireland’s defensive work was exemplified by the performance of Heffernan, described by Donohue as “arguably our most improved player since we began this process in August. Physically, he’s got all the attributes — he’s big, he’s powerful, he’s athletic. And where before he might have been more inclined to kick it long, now there is a lot more composure in his play.”
Cathal, who won’t turn 15 until April, will already be a familiar face in many Irish households after helping his parents and footballing sister Meghan to (hardly surprising) success in a charity fund-raising edition of ‘Ireland’s Fittest Family’ on RTÉ.
A sporting all-rounder from the earliest age, he says he was about 11 when he made the decision to focus on his football.
“It’s not that I didn’t want to follow in my mam and dad’s footsteps, it’s just I didn’t want to do athletics,” he says with a smile.
But even if he has opted for a very different sporting discipline, he admits that having Olympians as parents is a definite plus. “They give me so much advice on what to do, with their insights into high performance,” he says.
He is also quick to pay tribute to the coaches who have improved him as a player, from Ringmahon Rangers on to Cork City and now the Ireland U15 set-up. In particular, Heffernan cites the influence of former players Billy Woods and Dan Murray at City.
“The two of them taught me loads because their goal was to get me up to where I am now. Every training session and every match, they were testing me. They taught me different ways to play out, what to do if you’re stuck. They changed my mindset.”
And under Jason Donohue and his staff, his higher education continues.
“I’ve learned so much even since the first assessment last June,” he enthuses. “It’s phenomenal how much you learn. I didn’t know I could take in so much.”
He deliberately kept his captaincy on Saturday as a surprise for his parents. Watching from the sidelines, the first they knew about it was when they saw him leading out the team wearing the armband.
“It was brilliant, it was lovely,” his beaming father Rob told me afterwards. “Even if he gave up sport in the morning, to say that he captained his country at U15, and all the experience he’s had up to now, he can bank all of that. Being made captain, that was a new pressure and you’re wondering how does he react to that — is it a positive reaction? And I think it was.
“Ever since he’s come into the squad he’s grown, because he just needs to be in an environment where he can learn. And this is brilliant, the set-up they have here, the professionalism, the mix of the education that they give them on a professional basis and then, when they go out on the pitch, how aggressive they are and the pace they play at.
“They have a really good mix there and, as a sportsman, I love watching it.”