Rural regions like West Cork are key to FAI plans to nurture young soccer talent 

Rural regions like West Cork are key to FAI plans to nurture young soccer talent 
Jean-Yves Poame, Republic of Ireland, speaking to manager Niall Harrison during squad training for the U15s in 2012. Picture: Barry Cregg/SPORTSFILE

THE FAI National Emerging Talent Coordinator Niall Harrison believes rural regions such as West Cork will continue to produce quality footballers over the coming years.

Harrison is a former Republic of Ireland U15 international manager and ex-League of Ireland Sligo Rovers player who went to the USA on a scholarship during the 1980s. Once finished playing in America, Harrison was bitten by the coaching bug and began working as a Regional Development Officer with the FAI in 1999.

Since then, the 55-year-old became one of the most respected coaches in the country and played an integral role in launching, promoting and implementing the FAI’s Emerging Talent Programme. Harrison believes that the FAI’s ETP remains as important as ever when it comes to helping produce the next generation of Republic of Ireland footballers.

“The ETP is very important for players in all rural areas including West Cork,” Harrison told The Echo.

“Young people from rural parts of the country might never have gotten the chance to play international football or even the chance to train at a high level without the ETP.

“From my own area up here in the Sligo Schoolboys League down to the West Cork Schoolboys League and in between, the ETP is now absolutely vital for aspiring young players to get a chance to show what they can do. Put simply, the programme offers footballers an opportunity to train with and play against the best players at their particular age groups. Our Emerging Talent Programme provides that opportunity both regionally and nationally.” 

The West Cork Schoolboys U12 Inter-League side that lost 3-0 away to Kerry in Group 2 of the SFAI Subway Munster Championship in Killarney earlier in the season.
The West Cork Schoolboys U12 Inter-League side that lost 3-0 away to Kerry in Group 2 of the SFAI Subway Munster Championship in Killarney earlier in the season.

Equally important is the qualification path for the next generation of Irish football coaches. Within the FAI structures, it is now possible for any individual with the requisite interest, commitment and talent to gain the highest possible UEFA licence qualification thanks to the FAI’s coaching structure.

“I always say that the Emerging Talent Programme cannot be taken as a stand-alone approach,” the FAI employee admitted. 

“What has gone on in coaching education, working with the various schoolboys leagues and players, is absolutely phenomenal over the past number of years. The education that each one of our qualified coaches has put themselves through is what has made the ETP the success that it has become.

“You cannot have stand-alone programmes as the be all and end all and I would never profess that. Everyone working in schoolboy’s circles, together and in collaboration with one another, for the betterment of emerging players is hugely important. As coaches, we approach and develop the best possible benchmarks from what we have researched and absorbed from other European and international setups.” 

One of the most important developments in Irish schoolboy’s football has been the FAI and SFAI’s commitment to promoting and delivering a higher quality of inter-league competition over the past decade.

ETP squads facing one another in regular, round-robin Subway SFAI inter-league competitions plus the annual Kennedy Cup has provided the platform for some of the country’s best young players to showcase their talents.

“The inter-league games are so important because it asks each player to take what they have learned on the training pitch into a competitive environment. Thankfully, we have been able to move on from the days of one knockout game and that was it, if you lost. Now, there are games in round-robin format and Plate competitions for teams that don’t make the knockout stages of their provincial championships.

“John Earley of the SFAI brought in that change to allow kids in the ETP to play a minimum of five or six games a year in their respective inter-league championships. You would like to see a lot more games at this level, but it is still a huge change from a few years ago. The increased number of games have been a massive help in developing our players, no doubt about it.”

The West Cork Schoolboys U14 Inter-League squad that defeated North Tipperary 3-0 in the Munster Inter-League competition at the Baltimore Road in Skibbereen last season.
The West Cork Schoolboys U14 Inter-League squad that defeated North Tipperary 3-0 in the Munster Inter-League competition at the Baltimore Road in Skibbereen last season.

These are changing times at the FAI Committee and international coaching structures with Stephen Kenny’s ascension to the senior manager’s job the most high profile in recent months. Irrespective of results, a steady improvement in the Republic of Ireland’s performances between U15 to U21 level has helped unearth gems such as Adam Idah. Yet, the latter is not the first Irish international to benefit from revised underage structures and will certainly not be the last.

“Former Republic of Ireland international and Premier League player David Meyler came out of the Emerging Talent Programme in Cork,” Harrison commented.

Conor Hourihane.
Conor Hourihane.

“We go up the list, the likes of Conor Hourihane (Aston Villa), John Egan (Sheffield United) and many others were in the ETP at local, regional and then moved up to national level. You are talking about ETP graduates who became internationals, players born in 1989 up to those I am currently dealing with who were born in 2007. Those include the likes of Cathal O’Sullivan and Dylan O’Neill.

“So, even though the programme started in 2006, so many players who born in 1989 and upwards have benefited and come through the FAI’s Emerging Talent Programme. Alan Browne (Preston North End) was another. He as an individual we classified as a late developer, very light when he was young but technically, he was very good and developed into a man mountain of a player.”

More in this section

Sponsored Content