With Dundalk currently flying high in the Europa League, the League of Ireland is enjoying a welcome spell in the limelight.
Attention is being attracted from sources previously oblivious to the Irish domestic game. The league’s top young talents are constantly being drawn across the water to English outfits but there are now even clubs from further afield interested in what the homegrown players have to offer.
Daryl Horgan is one such example. The plethora of British sides interested in the Dundalk attacker reportedly includes Newcastle United, Sunderland, Ipswich Town and Bristol City. Yet further afield, Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven are rumoured to be watching the former Salthill Devon and Cork City man. The League of Ireland appears to be gaining a newfound respect as a breeding ground of talented players.
The inevitable offers from clubs abroad will come, and while this poaching of players is unwelcome, it is a fact of life for smaller leagues across the globe.
There is a continuous stream of exciting, young players ready to follow in the footsteps of James McClean, Seamus Coleman and Shane Long in progressing to the the national side. U-17 and U-19 leagues (U-15s edition to come in 2017) have been introduced in recent years at a national level in this country. This has allowed the country’s top clubs to identify talent at an even younger age and can only be of benefit to all parties involved.
Here are just a small few of the rising stars that we expect to make it big in the game.
Trevor Clarke (Shamrock Rovers)
At just 18 years of age, Clarke could still play at U-19 level next season. However, he has already become a key member of Rovers’ senior side and that is unlikely to be the case. The promising midfielder began his career with prestigious footballing nurseries Crumlin United and St Kevin’s Boys. He then joined Middlesbrough, an English side famed for their work at youth level.
A return to Ireland in 2015 saw Clarke link up with Rovers’ 19s, and it’s safe to say that he hasn’t looked back since. The teenager signed his first professional deal with the club ahead of the 2016 campaign. Over the course of the season, he made 25 appearances in all competitions. Well capable of doing a job in defence and in midfield, he is sure to be a key part of Stephen Bradley’s plans for 2017. Middlesbrough could very well look back on Clarke in years to come as one that got away.
Connor Ellis (Cork City)
Ellis has long been hailed as the young, up-and-coming striker on Leeside; the heir to the throne held by past heroes such as John O’Flynn, Roy O’Donovan and Denis Behan.
The west Cork native won everything in the game at U-19 level and was a pivotal member of City’s dominant underage sides. He stepped up to senior level midway through 2016, before joining near neighbours Cobh Ramblers on loan. Seven goals at the First Division side indicates that this teenager from Kealkill is well able to adapt.
There are talks of another loan move in 2017, this time to a Premier Division club, however with Danny Morrissey already gone from Cork and Sean Maguire constantly linked with a move away, Ellis may find himself in John Caulfield’s plans in the coming twelve months. Whether his talents will be ultimately enjoyed by Cork City remains to be seen.
He may follow the likes of Shane Long, Brian Lenihan and Alan Browne from Turner’s Cross to England. Wherever he ends up though, Ellis is certainly a young player to keep tabs on.
Ciaran O’Connor (Dundalk FC)
Dundalk are simply the one club on everyone’s lips at present. In Ciaran O’Connor they have one of the brightest young stars in the country. The terrific striker has already had loan spells at Warrenpoint and Derry City and this has undoubtedly prepared him well for senior football.
2016 saw the striker complete his first full season as a member of Stephen Kenny’s Dundalk squad. His younger brother, Michael, is also making a name for himself at the club so don’t be surprised if either, or indeed both, of these young brothers enjoy prolific careers in the future.
Kevin Horgan (Galway United)
Footballing prowess is in the blood of the Horgan family, and goalkeeper Kevin is no different. He is the younger brother of Dundalk’s Daryl and Galway’s Colm. Kevin is only 19 years of age but has already made his Premier Division debut. The Galway man amassed four appearances for the Tribesmen last season.
A commanding and vocal net-minder since his days at Salthill Devon, Horgan swiftly progressed from United’s U-19 set-up to the senior squad providing backup to Connor Winn for the majority of the 2016 campaign.
Fellow Galwegian David Forde had a stellar career as a League of Ireland number one before moving cross-channel and onto the national side. This is a path very much open to Horgan.
Maxi Kouogun (UCD)
Kouogun has progressed immensely since joining the Students’ set-up firstly at U-19 level. A no-nonsense centre back, Maxi is also comfortable with the ball at his feet.
He has consistently been one of the First Division’s top defenders over the last two seasons and took part in UCD’s Europa League campaign in 2015. The young defender was also recently voted into the First Division Team of the Year for 2016.
The former Cherry Orchard man is currently on a soccer scholarship to the Dublin University, but do not be surprised if he follows the path of Ronan Finn, David McMillan and Robbie Benson, who eventually left UCD for some of the country’s top clubs.
Paudie O’Connor (Limerick)
First Division champions Limerick ran away with the title this year and 18-year-old defender O’Connor was virtually an ever-present in their back four despite his age. Making his senior debut in 2014, he has spent three seasons with the club’s U-19s before becoming a vital member of the first team this year.
Senior appearances were rare enough for the youngster in 2015. Nevertheless, one expects O’Connor to really make his mark in the top tier this season. It is rightly deserved having helped them to achieve an immediate return to the Premier Division.
Partnering the veteran Robbie Williams in defence has allowed O’Connor learn the game from one of the most experienced players around. This will only stand to a young player with immense promise.
The League of Ireland contains a vast amount of up-and-coming talent. This is just a small selection of the players capable of making it big in the game. They are well worth keeping tabs on.
Thomas Stafford, Pundit Arena
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