In the cathedral city of Lincoln, in the East Midlands of England, lies Sincil Bank, home to League One side Lincoln City.
One could be forgiven for not initially associating the Imps with being a hotbed for young Irish talent, but the times in Lincoln they are a’changin.’
During the January transfer window, the club bolstered their ranks by adding three Irish underage internationals; Zak Elbouzedi signed from Waterford, while West Ham duo Conor Coventry (on loan) and Anthony Scully also arrived.
“I said the other day to the CEO, we’re going to have to get a green away kit just for the Irish fans,” laughs Lincoln City’s Head of Football Jez George,
“Hopefully we’ll get a few over to watch us, it’s very cool.”
The Imps’ Irish influx, George admits, has been somewhat coincidental.
However, the Republic of Ireland Under-21 side are a team that the club have had their eye on for a while, with many of the players on Lincoln’s radar in January, even some they didn’t manage to bring to Sincil Bank.
First on the scene was Elbouzedi from Waterford, and in scouting him came the opportunity to also observe Coventry, whose influence was huge in bringing his former teammate Scully to the club. A domino effect.
“They’re all a little bit different,” George tells Pundit Arena.
“Zak Elbouzedi we were aware of through just watching a little bit of League of Ireland stuff.
“It’s a league where there are some really good players and there’s always players that have some real potential.
“The other players were probably players that we were aware of through watching U23 football in the UK. But we’re very aware that they are part of a very good generation of Irish players, that 21s group. Michael Appleton (Lincoln’s manager) went over and watched the game against Sweden in Dublin where he saw Conor.
“We’re aware of other players as well. Connor Ronan, we like him. Adam Idah we like him. Dara O’Shea too.
“It’s a very good group. We were very much aware that Ireland had a strong group of Under-21s. But, as much as anything, it was a bit coincidental that some of the players that we like, and identified from watching Under-23s football over here, all happened to be in that team.”
The trio are beginning to settle in at their new club. Scully found the net in just his third appearance against Accrington Stanley, while Coventry and Elbouzedi have both made five appearances each since their arrival.
“There’s a fair few Irish here now,” begins Scully, with the trio joining Lee Frecklington, Cian Bolger and academy prospect Sean Roughan as the Boys in Green at Sincil Bank.
“It’s brilliant coming in and knowing a few lads already like Zack and Conor. That’ll just help me even more settling in, with the three of us here. Coming in, it’s a really great place to be.
“I spoke to Conor a bit about Lincoln, and what it’s like, and he had loads of good things to say about the club. He said that there’s so much positivity about the place. So, that was a huge factor, knowing he’s been here and him telling me how good it is. It was definitely a big reason I joined. I’m staying with Conor too, so that helps a lot.”
Currently, Lincoln City sit 14th in League One, in a season that George admits is largely about consolidating their place in the division after promotion. They are also continuing to rebuild after the loss of their now-iconic managerial duo, Danny and Nicky Cowley. The brothers left for Huddersfield Town in the Championship back in September.
They are, however, a club with promise and ambition – something George is always keen to stress to potential new signings when recruiting them to play at Sincil Bank.
“I think that’s really important, the way that you go about trying to sign players and the way you sell your football club, it has a big impact on their attitude to the club.
“We’re like every club aren’t we? We’re trying to find our way of doing things to help make us successful. It’ll be different at every club, but for us at the moment, that’s to identify young players that have real potential and help bring them through.”
Both Elbouzedi and Scully wax lyrical about the pitch delivered to them by the club and manager Michael Appleton, and how crucial it was in their decisions to join.
“The club brought me and my family over (for the Tranmere game) so that was brilliant as well,” Elbouzedi told Pundit Arena.
“They’re really well run and they look like they’re going to be a great club for the future.
“The manager first and foremost,” began Scully, “when I met him, the way he was talking about me, his ambitions for the club, where he sees the club going in the future and also his ambitions for me were brilliant.
“The belief he had in me as a player was such big factor in thinking, ‘yeah I want to play at this club and under this manager.’ He was really positive about me and that was a huge factor.”
Perhaps the most unique tale though, of the club going above and beyond the call of duty to help a player settle in, came when they recruited another Irish talent, 16-year-old Sean Roughan, from Dublin club Phoenix FC.
Last year the club caught the attention of the Irish media when they advertised for an Irish language tutor to join their ranks in an unprecedented move for an English League One club.
“That was for young Sean Roughan,” explains George.
“Basically his Mum was really clear with us all the way through that process that he could come, but only if we completed his Irish Leaving Certificate.
“That’s a challenge for a League One English football club. We were able to hook up with an independent school called Lincoln Minster, who are able to deliver all the subjects bar Irish, and therefore we advertised to get an Irish teacher who could teach Gaelic and we’ve managed to do so.
“We found a lady lives who in Nottingham who is over there because her husband is involved with the Wasps rugby team and used to be at one of the Irish provinces.
“She teaches Sean twice a week and we’re hoping to get him through his Leaving Cert by the end of the year. That would be a great success for us because we respect that’s a really important qualification in Ireland and his family were quite right in not wanting Sean to give up that to pursue his football. So, we’ve tried to see if we could do both.”
It’s unlikely that Coventry, Elbouzedi or Scully will be practicing their cúpla focal any time soon, but the Irish influence at the club is continuing to grow and more importantly it’s being embraced.
For George it’s all about making each player at the club, no matter their background, comfortable in their surroundings and while building an atmosphere that helps each individual strive.
“I think with football you have to try and look after every individual. Every individual is different.
“For Sean Roughan, he’s 16 years old and we have to make sure he gets the qualification that he could’ve got if he was still in Ireland.
“With Zach it’s different, with Anthony it’s different, but for all of them it’s about making sure we give them the right opportunity and we make them feel valued and wanted.
The green away jerseys may have to wait until next season at least, but for Irish fans, Lincoln City will be a club to keep a close eye on for the remainder of the campaign.