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A Shelbourne Rising – Shels in focus

shelbourne brexit alan caffrey

A club that is no stranger to setbacks, Shelbourne is a club on the rise once more after a decade of hurt, despair and heartbreak.

Shelbourne’s Champions League odyssey of 2004 arguably should have been the springboard for the club and assert themselves as the model for their League of Ireland rivals to follow.

However, the Reds’ fall from grace was sudden, and probably exacerbated by the financial crash of 2007 that came down the tracks. Shortly after winning their 13th league title in 2006, Shels were relegated due to financial irregularities. That would be where they stayed until 2012.

2012 was a respite of sorts after they won promotion to the Premier Division in 2011. They also reached the FAI Cup Final that year – but they would find themselves back in the First Division come 2014 and would stay there until 2019.

Shelbourne on the rise.

Yet, in typical Shelbourne fashion, they would be relegated straight away in a COVID-19 truncated 2020 season – but they are back in the top-flight after coasting to the First Division title in the 2021 season.

One defeat all season and a Covid-19 outbreak could not deny the Reds’ top-flight return as they saw off Treaty United to seal the almost inevitable return. Couple that with their flourishing WNL side, the club are well and truly on the up.

And while the focus at Tolka Park – to their fans – will always be on their first-team set-up, the club has made strides off the pitch to prime themselves for a return to their earlier heights despite the setbacks they have grown used to.

The Tolka Park outfit appointed David O’Connor as the club’s CEO in 2018 in an ambitious move under their new owner Andrew Doyle. But one of the most eye-catching appointments of all has been the arrival of Alan Caffrey as Technical Director at the club, joining from highly successful Dublin schoolboy club St Kevin’s Boys earlier this year.

Caffrey joins the Reds, having played a vital role in the early development of several current Republic of Ireland internationals such as Robbie Brady, Jeff Hendrick, Dara O’Shea and Jack Byrne. These ex Kevin’s players have amassed a total of over 100 senior international caps between themselves having all come through the renowned schoolboy system.

Alan Caffrey’s role at Shelbourne.

“My role at the club is to oversee the club’s football department and put some structures in,” Caffrey explained on his appointment.

“There are structures there already, but I’m looking to add to it and make it better by implementing a plan for the next five years.”

The Reds schoolboy system is one of the few schoolboy systems that feed directly into the League of Ireland underage system. Shamrock Rovers and Cabinteely are the two others – with many clubs forced to established partnerships with local schoolboy clubs in their vicinity.

“I’ve been working in youth development for the last 16 years professionally,” the former West Bromwich Albion academy manager said.

“It’s a massive part of what I have done, and it will be a massive part going forward for me at Shels, bringing academy players through the system and having them for the first team.”

Ian Morris.

Shelbourne’s rise has been encapsulated by a newfound air of vigour and youth at the club, with first-team manager Ian Morris a signal of that intent.

Morris was appointed as the Reds’ first-team in 2018 when he was just 31 years old. And since taking over the club, Morris has won two First Division league titles out of a possible three in his first foray into senior League of Ireland management.

Together with Noel King, the club’s Women’s National League boss, the pair are profiting off of Shels’ return to the big time with the work going on behind the scenes at Tolka Park.

Traditionally, Shelbourne’s academy sides play their games in the DDSL and train out of the AUL on Dublin’s Northside.

Although, they have yet to break into the mould of producing Republic of Ireland senior internationals from their schoolboy system, unlike their Dublin rivals Shamrock Rovers, and even their schoolboy counterparts at St Kevin’s Boys, Belvedere or Cherry Orchard.

That is not to say that it is not changing, however. This season, the club have had their first international call-ups from players in their academy since 2016.

And in recent times, the Reds have promoted Dayle Rooney and David Toure to their first-team ranks. Both have come through the club’s schoolboy section, with 16-year-old Toure already putting pen to paper on a professional contract with the club. Rooney is an established member of the first-team squad.

Fellow young pair Gavin Hodgins and Luke Browne have also been called up to the Ireland ranks in recent times, along with former Southampton full-back, and current Ireland Under-21 Kameron Ledwidge.

“It’s about pushing it on now and helping it onto a new level of coaching and playing,” Caffrey said on improving standards at the club. “If we want players coming through the first-team, we need to step it up, so we’re looking forward to the challenge over the next few years.”

shelbourne brexit alan caffrey

While at St Kevin’s Boys, Caffrey helped cultivate one of the most influential and renowned conveyor belts of talent that Irish football has seen in a while. During his tenure at the club, Kevin’s produced numerous Republic of Ireland internationals including current players such as Jack Byrne, Jeff Hendrick, Robbie Brady, and Dara O’Shea.

Shelbourne’s fall and rise.

As Kevin’s built their empire, Shelbourne descended into their darkest hour. Following the collapse of the early 2000s Shels dynasty, the Tolka Park outfit became a shell of its former self. Relegation to the First Division, along with crippling debts meant that the club had to embark on a path to redemption.

Even at the height of their success, the club had little success producing players for the English market, an entity that regularly plundered the Irish domestic game for talent. Anthony Stokes was the last player who has made a sizable impact across the pond having come through the club’s schoolboy system. However, Stokes joined the Reds later on in his schoolboy days, having played with Cherry Orchard before that.

“It’s pretty similar to what I had to work with at Kevin’s,” Caffrey said. “We only welcomed back the kids after Covid [in May], so I’ve only really been watching the first-team [before that], but the infrastructure is there. We need to push it on and make it better.

“We have a football club and an academy that leads into a first-team. But more importantly, we have an academy that goes from under-8s to the first-team, which some clubs don’t have – and that is good for us.”

shelbourne brexit alan caffrey

Several changes have occurred at the club since 2018 as they attempt to launch themselves back to their previous heights. Their ambition can be seen with the arrival of Damien Duff, the club’s under-17 Head Coach, and club captain Luke Byrne working as Duff’s assistant.

“You have to educate the coaches,” Caffrey adds. “You can’t just rely on coaching badges to do what is required. Seeing is believing, and the coaches need to see what is going on at the youth level across Europe and not just in this bubble because it’s not real at the moment.

“I don’t mean the top clubs in the top leagues in Europe; I mean the more minor leagues because it’s more relevant to us. Having people like Duffer helps. But that’s not to say the other coaches at the club aren’t good. They are. The more players you have as coaches and have played at a high level, the better.

“They’ll know what it is like. So that will help no shadow of a doubt, but it doesn’t mean that if you haven’t played at that level you can’t manage, it’s open to anybody.”

Build it and they will come.

Aside from the external movement away from Shelbourne, the Reds’ new Technical Director knows the importance of his club adding to what they have and improving standards in the process.

“We haven’t spoken about Brexit too much at the moment, but the main thing is that we produce good young players. If they are good enough, it’s simple, clubs from England, Scotland, Wales or Europe will come in for them,” he said.

“I think the Brexit debate can be blown up a little bit, and I do believe there will be a deal done for a change in the rules surrounding players joining clubs in the UK from Ireland. I think that’s just a matter of time before something is done, but I wouldn’t worry about it.

shelbourne brexit alan caffrey

He finished: “I think the only thing that we can do is look after our players and coaches. We can’t just look at what other clubs are doing, we need to look at what we’re doing and follow the FAI guidelines.

“We’re looking forward to working with [League of Ireland Academy Development Manager] Will Clarke and the FAI going forward. But ultimately we have to look after our players – playing and training.”

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