This weekend night sees the start of a new era for domestic football in Ireland as the much-debated Under-15 edition of the League of Ireland gets underway, with Cork City and Kerry facing off in the first game on Thursday.
The tie in Bishopstown may seem relatively minor on paper but it is a clear sign of the changes afoot in the underage game here.
This is the first time that the League of Ireland has fully entered on schoolboy territory, which concludes at u16 level. The powerhouses of the underage game have had it their own way for many years. Now is the time for change, according to the FAI. The u15 league joins the much-heralded u17 and u19 editions of the league and is initially a truncated version which will conclude in November.
? The @SSEAirtricityLg U15 National League is set to begin!
— SSEAirtricity League (@SSEAirtricityLg) August 17, 2017
Schoolboy clubs were denied entry to the league and instead entered into ‘partnerships‘ with League of Ireland clubs. Home Farm linked up with Drogheda United, Malahide partnered with Dundalk and St Pat’s joined forced with Crumlin, Belvedere, and Cherry Orchard among others. This arrangement appeared to work well until it was announced that St Kevin’s Boys, a Dublin schoolboy superpower, were permitted into the league. The allowance is only for one season and they will then partner with Bohemians. Understandably this did not go down well with the clubs who went down the partnership route, and there were even talks of a boycott taking place and clubs not letting transfers through. Thankfully that has subsided of late.
Some New Faces
The competition also highlights the continued expansion of the League of Ireland family. Kerry and Monaghan/Cavan have been welcome additions to the underage leagues and take their place in Groups 1 and 3 respectively. Mayo have entered a team in a positive boost for Connacht football, their first foray into underage national football. Alongside the aforementioned St Kevin’s and the twenty current League of Ireland clubs, four healthy groups of six teams will battle it out over the coming months to be crowned inaugural champions.
Plenty of familiar figures will be occupying the dugouts over the season. Former Irish international Damien Duff is in charge of Shamrock Rovers u15 side while Finn Harps have club legend Kevin McHugh at the helm. Cork City, meanwhile, have former players Dan Murray and Billy Woods overseeing their operations.
With twelve games across four divisions taking place over the weekend, the controversy can take a back seat. The best 14 and 15-year-old footballers in Ireland playing each-other on a regular basis can only be a good thing for development. It may take time for all to see that but for now, it’s time to let the football do the talking.
GROUP 1. Finn Harps v Sligo Rovers, Longford Town v Derry City, Mayo v Monaghan United-Cavan FP.
GROUP 2. Athlone Town v Bray Wanderers, Shamrock Rovers v Galway United, U.C.D. v St. Kevin’s Boys
GROUP 3. Cork City v Kerry, Limerick v Waterford, Wexford v Cobh Ramblers
GROUP 4. Bohemians v St. Patrick’s Athletic, Cabinteely v Drogheda United, Dundalk v Shelbourne