On Tuesday, the Republic of Ireland’s U17 footballers qualified as top seeds for May’s European Championship in England with a 100% record, and only one goal conceded. Their head coach is former Cork City midfielder Colin O’Brien, who has worked with these players since Ireland U15 level.
All but three of Colin O’Brien’s U17 squad play their football in the UK. At Premier League academies are Troy Parrott (Tottenham), Jordan McEneff (Arsenal), Sean Brennan and Kameron Ledwidge (Southampton), Nathan Collins and Max Murphy (Stoke), Oisin McEntee (Newcastle), Marc Walsh (Swansea). This week, Cork-born Norwich striker Adam Idah was linked with Manchester Utd.
Q: I saw a lot of these lads as U15s hammer the Czech Republic two years ago. Is it unusual to have kept so many of them together to U17?
A: "Well, even before the 15s, it’s important to acknowledge the Emerging Talent programme and our schoolboy clubs. Because a lot of these players would have been identified well before U15 level.
"They’d have been involved in league centres and regional centres throughout the country between 11 and 14.
"And those players doing well in the 12 regional centres at the time would have come in to national assessment.
"They go through the U15, U16 process and those two years are massive for players regarding how they are taught about the game, the environment they are brought into, the values we look for in the players, the principles we talk to them about regarding the game.
"Everything then is geared towards trying to build a squad for a competitive U17 season."
Q: While the Republic U21 team features a lot of English-born lads, the 17s are predominantly Irish-born, with a good spread around the country. Is the pattern changing?
A: "That trend has been there. What we’re beginning to see with the structures improving here is that there is good talent around the country.
"In my opinion, since the Emerging Talent programme came about in the last six or seven years, it doesn’t matter where a player is from in the country.
"If a player has talent, there is something for him in that region. It’s never been as good for boys in terms of recruitment, in terms of seeing their matches.
"We’ve a lot of people involved in recruiting around the country. Not every player will get through. But they might come through later or at a National League club."
Q: At 15 all of these lads were at schoolboy clubs. Almost all have since left for England. Does the FAI advise them on the moves and do you keep in touch with them through the English academies?
A: "The boys who went to the UK, a lot of the work is done between the club in England and the club here.
"If the clubs need to seek advice through the FAI, that is there for them. We have a communication channel not just with the UK clubs, but with all our National League clubs.
"And that’s a very important part of your role as head coach, monitoring the players, seeing them play, but also staying in communication with the clubs."
Q: At U17 level, how do you balance the developmental side with winning matches and qualifying for tournaments?
A: "They’re at that stage now where the will to win is there in any young player. But we still focus very much on our values, our principles.
"A lot of them are in the system three seasons now, so that helps. They are highly competitive young men and we look for everyone to do their best."
Q: We hear a lot about the underage Irish teams being obliged to play the (FAI High Performance Director) Ruud Dokter way. Have you played a consistent style since you’ve worked with them?
A: "It’s important we don’t get too hung up on the tactical side of the game with young players. The biggest thing with international football is to be able to adapt. People think, sometimes, when you play in these tournaments you’re playing on pristine pitches. It’s not that way all the time.
"Sometimes you might want to play a possession game, but you might have to be a little bit direct in the game. We teach the players that you need to be able to handle the ball in international football. But at certain moments of the game, things could change.
"How you press, how you attack. Being able to adapt is important. We do have an identity. We know our values and what we’re good at as Irish people, as Irish young players. It’s important to tap into that identity.
"We have good hard-working players, good mentality. We’re hard to beat. But at the same time, what we’ve been trying to develop is our players getting better on the ball, looking at a possession-based style. But it’s without the ball too.
"You’re put under real high-intensity pressure by a lot of these European teams when they are pressing you. And that’s a big challenge.
"The tempo of the game is at a really high level. And at other times teams play on the counter-attack, So it’s a brilliant education for the players about international football."
Q: Dealing with the ball under pressure has traditionally been difficult for Irish defenders and midfielders. Is that changing with the youngsters?
A: "It is of course. But it comes down to how coaches work their training sessions. They must be game-reality sessions.
"You have to be able to design sessions where players are put under pressure and that tells you how you have to go about your plan for the team."
Q: What’s your own role in between the international meet-ups?
A:"I work as part of the FAI High-Performance unit. So as well as head coach of the U17s I’m also one of our coach educators.
"The further you go in tournaments, the more time that takes up, but there are also courses and educational stuff I’m involved in. I’m based in Cork but it’s a national role.
"We’re talking about players coming through but the coaching pathway has evolved enormously and that’s really important, the link between the two pathways."
Q: The FAI envisages a scenario where players at this age would choose to stay at home and play in the U15, U17 and U19 National Leagues with League of Ireland clubs, rather than go to England. Is it realistic and would it make your job easier?
A: "The alternative has improved at home now, with the National League clubs. There are some cracking coaches working with the players.
"And what they’re putting on the table for players to stay at home has definitely improved. We’re still very much in the infancy. It needs to be given time and things will need to be tweaked down the road.
"That’s something in the Association we’ll look at. And it’s important for the clubs that whole collaboration with schoolboy clubs and how it will help the whole regional setup in their area.
"As to where a player goes, it’s very easy to say he shouldn’t be going here or going there, but you have to look at every case individually."
Q: How excited should we be about this group, about their potential in England in May and their chances of making it as senior players?
A: They’ve done great so far. But I’ve a lot of experience with youth football, with young players it’s important you don’t get too carried away when they are doing well and also when they’re not doing so well.
"That’s when they need help, that you don’t get too down or they get too down.
We’re still five weeks out from tournaments. So much can happen. They’re coming into a peak game programme with their clubs.
"We’re all very proud of them. What they have done so far is a massive achievement. But what they are going into is a huge challenge.
"Every challenge so far they’ve embraced, but a lot can happen in five weeks. Until that first day when they’re all in and we start working on the plan..."
Q: Finally, now that rugby is our new national sport, have you noticed any fall away in the numbers of youngsters playing football?
A: "None whatsoever…"
Q: You played Gaelic football and hurling yourself, as well as soccer. Is it getting any harder for Irish soccer to keep its most talented players at 15/16?
A: "I was interested in all the sports. All sports are trying to develop a pathway for their younger talented players and we’re no different. But I’ve not noticed any fallout of our talented players."
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