The fleet of flashy sports cars and SUVs parked adjacent to the lush Carton House sports pitches give the impression Ireland’s Rugby elite are in camp at their training base.
Appearances can be deceptive, though, as the only sporting action under way behind the giant-sized mesh perimeter covering is of the round ball variety and involving kids aged just 13.
This spring morning in Co. Kildare has assembled some of the best youngsters north and south for a friendly match between Dublin and Linfield.
It may be the furthest thing from the kids’ minds as they showcase their skills that surveying from the sidelines are the money men with the clout and contacts to propel them into the industry of professional football.
Schoolboy football in Ireland is big business and there’s enough scouts and agents around eager for a slice of the pie.
Whereas before when only the occasional deals such as Arsenal capturing Anthony Stokes in 2002 or Conor Clifford joining Chelsea four years ago commanded the involvement of agents, nowadays third-parties are regular features of cross-channel transactions for teens.
Commercially, one such deal for a 15-year-old could be more lucrative to an agent than several years of toil attempting to export another client traipsing the League of Ireland circuit over a couple of seasons. Five per cent of a package — well into six figures — represents a neat return.
Retaining the services of an agent to handle their child’s future by parents has grown in tandem with the interest from clubs overseas in Irish talent.
A decade ago, the activity on the Irish football beat revolved centrally around Fifa-licensed agents Fintan Drury, Eamon McLoughlin, Eamon Collins and Kevin Moran. Nowadays, as demonstrated by their numerical presence in Carton House that day, over 20 parties are competing for the coveted few.
Into the field have come a number of big players, amongst them Impact Sports Management, represented by former Ireland goalkeeper Wayne Henderson, as well as Rory McIlroy’s first agent, Chubby Chandler of International Sports Management.
Dublin GAA goalkeeper Shane Supple, who played under Roy Keane at Ipswich Town, is handling the football division of the Legacy Group, an agency led by his county team-mate Bernard Brogan.
There’s also been a move by famous rugby agent John Baker to diversify into football while Damien Duff is a shareholder in the latest competitor, the IKON talent agency spearheaded by Brian O’Driscoll.
And, over recent months, the Players’ Football Association of Ireland (PFAI) have offered a different dimension to the table, sufficient to attract Celtic-bound U16 international Brandon Payne as their maiden marque signing.
While the consensus exists that Ireland is lagging further behind the continentals for producing technically-proficient teams, gems continue to be unearthed in spite of the system.
“All of the Premier League clubs, including the big six, monitor Irish players,” said McLoughlin, who a year ago left Drury’s Platinum One agency to set up Fortitude Sports Management, signing up a number of Irish and Belgium wonderkids.
“This is still the case despite competition with other nations. Belgium and Holland are major target areas for these clubs and gone are the days when the likes of Robin Van Persie moved to Arsenal from Feyenoord at 19 years. Clubs are willing to relocate the family of a special 13-year-old talent lock, stock and barrel.
“Ireland is fairly unique. While English clubs scout kids playing for the academy sides of Anderlecht and Standard Liege who train four times per week, they won’t mind watching Irish players being coached by volunteers playing in a public park.”
They do so, of course, with tangible dividends. Liverpool, without a first team Irish player since Steve Staunton in the early 1990s, have followed up the captures in recent years of Alex O’Hanlon and Conor Masterson on €1million-plus packages with another bumper deal for the latest teen genius, Glen McAuley.
Pool are not alone in valuing the Irish market. Mega-rich Manchester City have the pick of the globe for budding talent yet chose Ballyfermot in Dublin to sign two 14-year-olds from Cherry Orchard earlier this month.
Michael Collins, the club’s Irish scout, insists that City’s focus on Ireland has not diminished as their resources mushroomed from the investment of Sheikh Mansour.
“Ireland and Manchester City have been good for each other over the years,” said Collins. “Players like Stephen Ireland, Glenn Whelan and Stephen Elliott developed through the academy system at City before moving on to first teams at other clubs and that’s not forgotten at the club.”
Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and, in particular, Manchester United have not allowed their gaze on Ireland to let up either. The only difference these days is the necessity, in most cases, to conduct their dealings through an agent.
BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS
2000: Stephen Ireland (Manchester City).
By the time the diminutive midfielder landed at Limerick University in 1999 to captain Cork to the Kennedy Cup final, City had stole a march on the rest of the suitors.
Others subsequently tried and failed to prise Ireland away from City, who organised for the Cobh man’s mother to reside in Manchester to smooth the settling-in process.
Total package value: €400,000.
2003: Anthony Stokes (Arsenal).
Alex Ferguson was left stunned at losing Ireland’s hottest property to their biggest rivals at the time, especially as Stokes played for United’s Irish football partner, Shelbourne.
Like City did for Ireland, Arsenal showed their faith in Stokes by setting up a home for the player’s family during their stay in London.
Major expectations was, however, followed by indifference from Arsene Wenger as Stokes was sold to Sunderland in early 2007 with just one League Cup appearance at the Emirates.
Total package value: €1.1m.
2007: Conor Clifford (Chelsea).
Known for their lack of faith in the Irish market, moneybags Chelsea bucked the trend by chasing midfielder Clifford from the time of his 12th birthday.
Jose Mourinho welcomed his Irish addition and things looked bright when the Dubliner scored the winner in the 2010 FA Youth Cup final.
He failed to get on in his sole appearance on the first-team bench two seasons ago in a League Cup tie. Released earlier this year, Clifford now operates at League Two level for Southend United.
Total package value: €1m.
2008: Robbie Brady (Manchester United).
Manchester City were left fuming when winger Brady settled on United after learning his trade at St. Kevin’s Boys.
Brady’s progress was faster at international level than at United, however, as he swiftly became the top scorer for the U21s and gained promotion to the senior squad.
A debut against Newcastle in September 2012 seemed to signal a positive outlook at Old Trafford but a €3m offer from loan club Hull City tempted Alex Ferguson to do business.
Total package value: €750,000.
2012: Conor Masterson (Liverpool).
A product of his local club, Lucan United, Masterson’s versatility as defender and striker had all the major clubs scrambling for his signature last season. Kenny Dalglish and, after him, Brendan Rodgers pushed the boat out for the then 13-year-old and a deal was thrashed out which sees him move to Merseyside full-time on his 16th birthday. Masterson is the current captain of Ireland’s U16 team.
Total package value: €1.25m.
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