IN his time as Head of Academy at Carrigaline United, Pat Looney has seen the club grow into a hotbed of talent.
Alongside his dedicated coaching staff, Looney has watched on academy graduates Shane Griffin, Alec Byrne, and Aaron Drinan all stepped from Ballea Park to professional football with St Patrick’s Athletic, Cork City FC, and Ipswich Town.
This season, Cian Spillane, Ryan Delaney, Mark O’Mahoney, and Robert Barry will be looking to follow the same path after signing for Cork City’s U15 squad.
“Seeing the young lads play in the League of Ireland and in England is brilliant for Carrigaline United and I am thrilled for everyone associated with the club,” Looney told The Echo.
“I’m especially happy for the players and their families. Getting to play at such a high level is a real testament to the hard work and dedication of the players.”
This explosion of talent from Carrigaline United has not been an accident, with youth development a core principle at the south Cork club.
“We have one of the biggest academies in the country with 540 members. We have been putting a huge emphasis into this academy structures over the last number of years and it is slowly paying off,” says Looney.
“We take in players as young as five years old. Everything starts here. First, we make the academy a social outlet for them, so that even if they don’t love playing football right away they are at least having fun and making friends.
“The challenge is trying to balance the kids who are there to have fun and the ones who want to play seriously and have dreams of going on to play at a higher level.
“Thankfully we have training programs that really balance this and get the best for everyone.
“From a football perspective, the overall focus of the Carrigaline United academy is on the individual. This is all about building a young player’s technical ability. All of the sessions we have at this point are on the kids’ control of the ball.
"There is no point in doing sessions on sprints and this early in their development as the kids are still getting used to the ball itself. That is why we want the kids to have the ball at their feet from an early age. When they are finished skills work, we have a game of ball in training.
“When the kids are 12-years-old they start playing competitive games. At this point, we really try to encourage them to be creative when they are on the ball.
"We don’t try to be too critical of the kids at this stage because we want them to develop their own decision-making skills. We do not want to hurt their confidence. This is all part of our football development plan.”
All these sessions are boosted by the helping hands of academy graduates Shane Griffin, who now plays his football with St Patrick’s Athletic, and Aaron Drinan, who is on loan from Ipswich Town at Ayr United in the Scottish Championship.
“The lads who have gone on to play in the League of Ireland and in England are always coming back to help the academy. Aaron Drinan, who is also an Irish underage international, would often be down doing what he can at training sessions with the kids.
"They love it when he is training them. They lap up anything he has to say about playing football. He is a real role model for them.
“Former Cork City manager Damien Richardson had been helping us with the coaching. He got involved a couple of years ago as a coach to the coaches. He has taught us a load about motivating players and tactics. He was also really good at working with the kids. They loved listening to him and really took in what he said.
“When you look at some of the players we have produced over the last number of years, there really seems to be something in the water in Carrigaline. With the amount of players we have in the academy and the work that we are putting into coaching, we really want this pipeline of talent continue.”
With all football activities shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Looney has been forced to think outside the box to keep this long term project going: “The kids are really missing football at the moment with the lockdown. We have made attempts to remedy this with a home study programme which allows them to work on their skills. This training programme has a lot of 1v1 attacking moves which they can practise at home.
“It allows them to work on their step overs and drag backs. There is a part of the programme also on receiving the ball. With this the kids are hitting a ball against a wall, again and again, to improve their first touch and receiving the ball.
“We did an online football quiz with the kids as well. They loved doing it but you could see that they just want to be back out playing football with their friends.”