In Sean McLoughlin, Cork City may have one of Ireland’s most promising young defenders on their hands. Pundit Arena’s Thomas Stafford sat down with the Cork native.
To say that it’s been a good week for Cork City defender Sean McLoughlin would be somewhat of an understatement. Within eight days the Cobh native made his home debut for the double champions against Shamrock Rovers, picked up the Man of the Match Award in Cork’s 3-0 win over Bohemians and was named FAI Colleges and Universities Player of the Year.
Add in his first Munster Derby away to Limerick and it was a busy week for the 21-year-old former University College Cork defender.
The appearance of both McLoughlin and Conor McCarthy in the starting eleven against Rovers had some City fans nervous about involving both youngsters from the start. They need not have worried however and McLoughlin especially impressed in the 1-0 victory. His performances since then have continued to draw plaudits, so much so that Alan Bennett will have a tough time dislodging the young apprentice when he returns from injury.
“It’s definitely been an enjoyable few weeks. The FAI award topped off what was a good two years in college football for me. Getting my chance then in the starting team has been great and it’s going very well.”
Sean first began playing locally with Springfield Ramblers in Cobh and gradually progressed in their setup, making the prestigious Cork Kennedy Cup side at u14 level. Even at that stage he was keen to make a career out of the sport and had high ambitions about his footballing future.
“Since a young age I always had aspirations of becoming a professional footballer. I knew that some way or another I would be playing football at a high level and it’s great that it’s the case at the moment. Hopefully I can keep it going for as long as possible.”
Having finished with Springfield in 2013 a move to the League of Ireland underage ranks was the next logical step and Cork City’s U19 side first came calling. The progress throughout the club since then has been more than significant, something that McLoughlin is keenly aware of.
“John Caulfield came in as senior manager during my first year with the u19s and he has really helped to bring the club on. I returned to the club last summer after two years away and I’ve noticed a huge difference. Everything is run so much more professionally and I think that John has created a solid structure from the bottom up which is having a huge impact on the pitch.”
The defender’s two-year period within the u19 ranks was a successful one. In his first season the side were crowned league champions, their third national title in a row.
A firm fixture in the starting eleven, McLoughlin played at centre back, left back and midfield over the two campaigns alongside the likes of Cian Coleman, Conor McCarthy and Darren Murphy. His first spell at the club came to an end after two seasons and Sean wasn’t too surprised when he wasn’t kept on to play senior football.
“I don’t think it was particularly hard to leave as I knew my time with the u19s was limited due to me being over-age. It’s something that I expected. Being honest I wasn’t doing enough to be kept on at the club. It was obviously strange to move on from the club after spending two years there but I saw it as a new challenge and I was looking forward to the future.”
There are countless graduates of u19 sides across the country who never play for their League of Ireland club again, however Sean felt that he would be back in the green and white of City at some stage in the future.
“I think it was always in the back of my mind. I knew that I had the potential to play for the club but I just didn’t have the proper dedication off the pitch to stay on when I finished with the u19s. I knew that if I improved off the pitch and worked hard I would be good enough to come back at some stage in the future.”
McLoughlin finished with City’s u19s at the same time he finished secondary school in Coláiste Muire, Cobh. Third-level education was the next step and UCC provided McLoughlin with the chance to combine a BIS degree with an impressive standard of football.
While his debut season was about finding his feet and making an initial mark, his second year at the historical Mardyke club was when the defender really stood out. He was named Player of the Tournament as UCC won the 2017 Collingwood Cup for a 13th time.
A Munster Senior League title followed soon after as Sean grabbed the stunning winner in the final day decider against Cobh Wanderers. The defender is very grateful for his time with the college side and is in no doubt as to the excellent opportunities it brought him,
”When I joined UCC I think that I started to focus more on my football. I sorted out my diet, got into the gym and worked hard in training. UCC really was a great place for me to play. It has some of the best facilities in the country, which gives players every chance to improve.
We were playing Munster Senior League Premier football and I think that playing against men every week tested me in a way that maybe u19 level did not. I definitely feel that college football is underrated in Ireland.
There are huge opportunities for players who play with their college. I’m glad to see that it’s getting more attention recently as it has helped me hugely with my own development over the past few years.”
His time at UCC was clearly going well and inevitably scouts began to hear about this impressive ball-playing centre back. He had been picked in the Irish squad for the World Universities Games and had also represented the Munster Senior League at the Interprovincial tournament.
In the summer of 2017 Sean faced a major football decision; John Caulfield was keen to bring him back to Turners Cross.
At the same time, Dundee wanted him to join their ranks in Scotland. Sean decided to go with the former and thankfully has reaped the rewards since.
“At first it was a hard choice for me to make. Going over to the UK to play football was a dream of mine since a young age but as soon as I met with John I knew that signing for Cork was the right decision.
It enabled me to stay in college which is important to me and I could also stay closer to home. You see far too many young lads going over to the UK and it not working out for them. I stayed in Ireland which I do not regret in the slightest.”
Sean gradually got a feel for the squad and his not-so-new surroundings. He made his debut away to St Pat’s in the final league game of the title-winning 2017 campaign but knew it would be 2018 before he could truly become a full part of the squad.
An impressive pre-season laid down a marker, with particularly impressive displays against Waterford, Cobh Ramblers and UCC. It was then up to John Caulfield to put his faith in the young centre back and recent weeks have shown that confidence to be repaid in spades.
“During pre-season I worked as hard as I could to get into the team. Even though it didn’t happen for me in the first few games I just kept my head down and made sure that if I got my chance then I’d take it. I’m happy with how it’s going at the moment but I need to push on now and keep up the hard work in order to give myself every chance.”
While playing with City is the day job, his BIS degree in UCC still needs to be completed. It cannot be easy to balance but the 21-year-old is trying his best.
“I can deal with missing a few lectures here and there during the normal year as I make the efforts to catch up. But when it comes to exams or assignments then it definitely becomes difficult to manage.
We do get free time as players which enables me to do a bit of study if I need to. I only have one year left in the degree so if I’ve made it this far then I’m sure I’ll manage one more year.“
Impressive performances for the League of Ireland champions at just 21 years of age will invariably attract wandering eyes from across the channel and as more and more of the league’s graduates get picked up by English sides, it’s very possible that McLoughlin will be another candidate to follow the likes of Seani Maguire, Daryl Horgan and Chiedozie Ogbene.
“I think for any young footballer, playing professionally in England is something that appeals to you. I wouldn’t say it’s in the back of my mind at the moment as I’m just focusing on Cork. I’ve only played a couple of games this year and if I started thinking about moving to England then I would be getting ahead of myself.
I just want to do as well as I can in each game that I’m involved in and see where it takes me in the long run. As a squad we know that we are champions but we can’t get complacent and must work even harder to maintain that.There is a hugely talented squad there and I want to contribute as much as I can.”
Although it is early days in his career many are expecting big things from the Cobh man. The experiences of tough Munster Senior League battles out in The Farm for UCC, combined with leaving City as an 18-year-old knowing that improvements had to be made, have moulded a grounded footballer well capable of going far in the game.
Sean McLoughlin has come a long way from the same Springfield Ramblers u11 side as this reporter and that journey is far from over yet.