There are moments in football when you realise you’re watching a special player. Cork City hosted a Manchester United XI selection at Turner’s Cross in the summer of 2012 and aside from the fact that over 6,000 people paid in to see a team of United’s underage stars play on Leeside, the performance of the night came from Cork City’s underage captain at the time.
United’s line up included the likes of Michael Keane, Josh King and Adnan Januzaj amongst others but it was then teenager Garry Buckley that stood out, putting in a superb shift in midfield and leading his team, in every sense, to a 2-0 win over their opponents. Afterwards, United coach Warren Joyce spoke of how some of his players seemingly thought they’d already ‘made it’ in the game. City were happy with the significant gate receipts and simply hoped that some ‘first timers’ to the Cross would be back, given what they’d seen from the home side.
Fast forward four years and Cork City’s U19s side became the first League of Ireland club to take part in the Uefa Youth League on Wednesday night. Chelsea has won the competition on its last two outings, and the newly extended format included City’s underage champions following a specific set of results during the final qualifying round for this year’s senior tournament.
RTÉ’s recent coverage of Cork City’s FAI Cup game against Shamrock Rovers, which resulted in a 5-0 win for John Caulfield’s side, included opinions from pundits and commentators alike about the strong underage structure the Hoops have in place. It’s a huge source of pride in Tallaght – and rightly so – but the fact remains that Rovers and City play in the same ‘southern’ section of their respective U19 and U17 national leagues, and it is City’s sides that topped both and finished their league seasons unbeaten.
Stephen Bermingham’s U19 team are unbeaten in over 13 months of League competition. Let that stat sink in for a moment. They lost their opening League game last August (of a shortened, interim season) to UCD and haven’t lost a League game since (nearly two seasons). Of the five U19 League titles up for grabs since the competition’s introduction, City have claimed four. Venturing into Europe for the first time, therefore, is an absolutely massive milestone both for Cork City and the League of Ireland generally – and yet public interest has been scattered at best.
— Cork City FC (@CorkCityFC) September 11, 2016
Connor Ellis, an underage international, signed a professional contract with Cork City earlier this summer on the back of his exploits with the U19s, while two lynchpins of the group – Conor McCarthy and Chiedozie Ogbene – have both played in the SSE Airtricity League this season. These breakthroughs are being mirrored elsewhere in the League too – at Shamrock Rovers, St. Pat’s, Finn Harps and elsewhere. No longer is the League of Ireland a graveyard for retiring professionals to eke out a pay packet for another year or two. In fact, the League now has one of the youngest average ages for playing footballers in Europe.
The FAI, heavily criticised on a regular basis for a variety of different things, deserve credit for their role in introducing the underage national leagues. The best players in each respective age group now play against the very best across the country, rather than competing locally, and there isn’t a coach anywhere in the world that would argue that isn’t a step forward. The U17s national league came into being last year and continues in its second season at the moment, with plans for an U15s national league from 2017.
These competitions are simply building on work being done at grassroots level in the game across the island though – through via various Emerging Talent squads and structures implemented by Regional Development Officers, and every person involved with the underage national leagues you speak to is always first to highlight the great effort being made at schoolboys’ level in every county.
Which makes Wednesday night all the more relevant. Not only did a League of Ireland side take part in the U19s Champions League for the first time, but Bermingham’s side secured a 0-0 away draw against HJK Helsinki and were unlucky not to grab a vital away goal on the night. The return leg will be played at Turner’s Cross on Wednesday, October 19.
— HJK Helsinki (@hjkhelsinki) September 28, 2016
It was a boost to see a number of Ireland internationals wearing their former League of Ireland club’s jerseys at a photoshoot at the 2016 European Championships in France but supporters of Ireland’s domestic competition are much more ambitious than being satisfied with the odd clever marketing ploy. Half of the Premier Division’s clubs this season are supporter-owned via cooperatives or members’ clubs and there are no more ambitious owners than fans themselves.
Supporters, inevitably, want the best of everything for their club rather than solely recording a big profit margin at the end of each financial year. League of Ireland fans, in particular, want to see their game to continue to improve on the field while seeing stability, sustainability and progress off the field. Some positive steps have been seen in recent years at a number of clubs; however, there is plenty of work for all stakeholders to get their teeth into in the coming years.
Wednesday night’s result also comes on the back of the most successful season, perhaps ever, in Europe for League of Ireland clubs. St. Pat’s and Cork City recorded three wins and three draws between them in qualifying rounds for this year’s Europa League, the Leesiders putting in two particularly impressive displays away from home in Sweden and Belgium. Gone were the tepid, defensive displays that League of Ireland supporters had become accustomed to.
And all that’s before we mention Dundalk. Anyone that watches domestic matches on a regular basis won’t be surprised at the Lilywhites’ achievements in reaching the group stages of the Europa league, following a number of notable wins in the Champions League qualifying rounds. Stephen Kenny’s squad are an excellent side, well-organised and supremely fit, and have been the team to beat in Ireland for some years now.
In the wake of Ireland’s latest appearance at an international tournament this summer gone, there was plenty of debate and chatter about the number of Ireland internationals playing at various different levels of the game in England and further afield. The influx of money into the Premier League, among other reasons, has hugely reduced the volume of Irish (as well as English and Scottish) players reaching the highest levels of the game there.
However, instead of trying to improve a situation that is out of our control, we should, as a footballing nation, look towards what’s within our own grasp and, judging by the result in Finland on Wednesday night, there is plenty being done right in Irish football today. The next sign of progress, however, will be when our sport-loving nation sits up and starts to take notice and when our own successes right here, right now are widely highlighted, praised and celebrated as part of normal day’s conversation.
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