Tracking Cork's best soccer players' path to the Irish squad

Five Leesiders are on Stephen Kenny's senior panel while Adam Idah would be there too only for injury
Tracking Cork's best soccer players' path to the Irish squad

John Egan with Sheffield United fans Jack Crowley and Ross Forde at the launch of Bishopstown GAA Healthy Club Initiative. Picture: Larry Cummins

TEN years ago, when Ireland travelled to the Euro 2012 finals in Poland and Ukraine, not one player from Cork was in the squad.

This was a sobering moment to the county, which produced world-class stars like Roy Keane and Denis Irwin.

A decade on from the European Championships and Cork players now dominate the senior team, with five in the squad for games in the UEFA Nations League this summer.

It would be six, but Adam Idah will miss out on this series of internationals, as he is recovering from a knee injury.

This new group will be tasked with getting a run of results that could qualify the country for the play-offs for Euro 2024.

This turnaround, which has seen Cork turn into the epicentre of the national team conversation, is the fruit of thousands of hours of work done by coaches and players on Leeside.

The current squad has Caoimhín Kelleher, John Egan, Conor Hourihane, Alan Browne, and Chiedozie Ogbene, and they all started playing at schoolboys level in Cork.

It is on the pitches scattered across the Rebel County that they first learned how to control and kick a football.

Years later, as they line out for the Irish national team in front of thousands, the coaches still remember the kids and their first footballing steps.

“We had Alan as a four-year-old on our Academy with Ger Mullins and he played in the seven-a-side U8 Southside Leagues at the time as a four-year-old!

“We developed and coached him right the way up to U16 and then he had a year and four months at Cork City before moving to Trevor Hemmings’ Preston North End,” Ringmahon’s Conor Brett told The Echo in 2017.

Ireland's Alan Browne scores against Belgium. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne
Ireland's Alan Browne scores against Belgium. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Their adult managers and coaches are well aware of the communal ties that they have.

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp made sure to personally thank Ringmahon Rangers in April 2022 after Kelleher scored the winning penalty in the Carabao Cup final.

The German sent them the goalkeeper’s jersey from the final, along with a personal thank you message.

The next stage in some of the players' development was joining a League of Ireland club’s academy, which was popularised after the creation of the Underage National Leagues in 2011.

This tournament was created to give footballers coming back from English academies a competition to play in and to have ‘the best playing against the best’ from a certain age group.

ACADEMY

It began with an U19 league and an U17 league was added to the developmental ladder in 2015. Two years later, an U15 league was formed and then an U13 league was introduced.

Cork City’s academy moulded current Irish internationals Alan Browne and Chiedozie Ogbene.

They played with the club’s U19s before graduating to senior football in Ireland and England.

The pair learned to play and how to win, as they both won the U19 title with City.

Ogbene, who recently won promotion to the Championship with Rotherham United, recently spoke about the role of Cork City in developing him as a young footballer.

“If I never got selected by Stephen Bermingham and Declan Coleman, I don’t know where I’d be right now,” he told The Echo last March.

“They tracked my progress at Everton and Corinthians. Playing for Cork City’s U19s was one of the best things that could have happened to me."

Rotherham United's Chiedozie Ogbene lifts the Papa John's Trophy final at Wembley Stadium. Picture: PA
Rotherham United's Chiedozie Ogbene lifts the Papa John's Trophy final at Wembley Stadium. Picture: PA

Ogbene and Browne’s development was the start of the club’s academy turning into a launch pad for local players to get onto the national team.

The U17s is the best example of this, as four of the 20-strong squad for last year’s European Championship Qualifiers were from City’s academy.

The Irish U21s also have former City academy players David Harrington and Jake O’Brien.

While some of the squad were learning their trade in Bishopstown, others like Egan, Kelleher, and Hourihane went abroad. They signed for an English academy as teenagers and fought their way into the first team.

This is a seemingly impossible route to becoming a professional footballer, and the three made it.

A friendly between Cork City and a Liverpool Development Squad in 2015 is the best example of this.

Out of the two teams that played for the Reds that night at Turner’s Cross, just two players are with the senior squad in 2022; Kelleher and Trent Alexander Arnold. The odds on a player breaking through like that is now slim over Brexit.

Irish talent has to wait until they are 18 if they are to sign for a club in the United Kingdom.

This means that there is a greater onus now on League of Ireland clubs, like Cork City, to scout and develop young players. The Rebel Army are already thriving in their new role as stories like Ogbene, and Browne, and the Irish U17s are a testament to that.

What this could also mean is that periods like 2012, when Cork had no player in the national team at a major tournament, will soon be nothing but a bad memory on Leeside.

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