TEN years ago, the FAI redrew the Irish football landscape by abolishing the A Championship and replacing it with the U19 National League.
This did away with the third tier of League of Ireland football and established a new competition based on youth development.
This new tournament was designed to give footballers coming back from English academies a place to play and have ‘the best playing against the best’ at U19 level in Ireland. This season there were League of Ireland teams at U14, U15, U17 and U19.
The decision to move to this academy system was an immediate success with a number of top players emerging within the first season. Cork City led the way with nurturing and producing young footballers in the first few weeks of the inaugural U19 National League.
This trend wasn’t a flash in the pan, but the beginning of a conveyer belt of talent at the club.
The first team from Cork to compete in the competition won a league and cup double. One player to stand out from this squad was John Kavanagh, whose performances earned him a call-up to the senior team in October 2011 for a league game against Monaghan United.
The right-back was an unused substitute that night and he made his first senior appearance a few months later, against Rockmount in the Munster Senior Cup. Kavanagh fully stepped up the senior team in 2013 by making eight appearances.
Garry Buckley was another member of this U19 team who graduated to City’s senior team. The attack-minded midfielder was first called up to the senior squad for an FAI Cup clash with Athlone Town in 2012.
A few weeks later he started his first league game and he scored that night against Derry City at the Brandywell. Buckley made his full breakthrough in 2013 by making 22 appearances for City.
The pair went on to become important components in John Caulfield’s all-conquering Cork City team which won a near clean sweep of domestic honours from 2016-17.
Buckley also made a number of appearances in the Champions League and Europa League for Cork City.
The most high-profile player to emerge from the U19s during this period was Alan Browne.
The midfield joined the club in 2012 from Ringmahon Rangers and his ability to control games was praised all across the country. Browne’s performances earned him a place on the senior team’s bench twice in 2013 for games against Sligo Rovers and Drogheda United.
He then went on trial at Preston and he signed for the club on January 1, 2014. Browne is now a well-experienced Irish international who captains Preston in English Championship.
City’s U19s clinched another league title in 2015 and this qualified them for the UefaYouth League, the underage equivalent of the Champions League.
They entered the competition in 2016 with a squad stacked with future stars including Chiedozie Ogbene, Conor McCarthy, Aaron Drinan, Cian Coleman, Alec Byrne, and Denzil Fernandes.
That core group beat HJK Helsinki 1-0 on aggregate before losing to AS Roma in the next round.
This group of players have all established themselves in Ireland and in England. Ogbene is a regular Irish international who has scored two goals for the Boys in Green.
McCarthy is currently with St Mirren in the Scottish Premiership. Aaron Drinan is with Leyton Orient and he has scored eight goals in 15 League Two appearances this year.
Cian Coleman and Alec Byrne are still with Cork City, while Denzil Fernandes plays for Shelbourne.
The production line has been helped in recent seasons with the addition of the U15 and U17 National Leagues.
These have added to City’s fertile ground for nurturing young talent on Leeside.
Harry Nevin was one of the first names from Cork to come out of this new pathway. The defender joined City’s U15s from Douglas Hall and he was quickly called up to the U17s. His performances caught the eye of Preston and he signed for the club in 2020.
Crystal Palace defender Jake O’Brien also followed this pathway. He progressed through City’s U17s and U19s before moving up to the senior team. O’Brien made eight first-team appearances in 2020 which provoked interest from England. Crystal Palace won the race for the defender’s signature and they brought him over on loan.
O’Brien settled into life at Selhurst Park immediately and played a key role in the club’s U23s winning promotion to Premier League 2. The defender was then rewarded for his defensive work with a permanent contract.
Cork City haven’t just used their academy as a launchpad to get young players over to England.
Their underage sides now provide the foundation for the senior team. This was evident on the final night of the 2021 First Division season, with five of the starting 11 against Galway United all graduates from the club’s academy.
Four of the subs who came on — Cian Bargary, Cathal Heffernan, Darragh Crowley, and Beineon O’Brien-Whitmarsh — were also with squads in the underage National Leagues.
The last 10 years have been an extraordinarily productive period for Cork City’s academy.
The next decade will be massive as they look to build on a phenomenal period of success at Bishopstown.