Cork soccer crew playing their part as Irish underage soccer evolves 

Colin O'Brien is over the Ireland U17 squad with David Meyler also on board as a coach
Cork soccer crew playing their part as Irish underage soccer evolves 

Republic of Ireland's Tyreik Wright celebrates scoring with team-mate Evan Ferguson during the UEFA European U21 Championship qualifier.

HISTORY beckons for the Republic of Ireland U21s as they are a play-off away from qualifying for their first-ever European Championships.

Jim Crawford’s side navigated a tough group containing Italy, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Sweden to reach the next round of the tournament.

This is a massive turnaround for a country that started out life as the basement team in a number of qualification campaigns.

Their recent success is not the end of a fairytale run by a small nation in western Europe but the product of years of hard work inside a complex network of coaches at Abbotstown.

This group includes senior manager Stephen Kenny and he works with every underage coach, starting with Jason Donohue and the U15s. They have a monthly meeting where they share coaching ideas and swap stories ahead of qualifiers and friendlies.

In June 2021, Stephen Kenny gave a snapshot of what life is like inside the footballing ecosystem at Abbotstown.

“We share our ideas with all of the teams from the U15s up. That has been consistent,” Kenny said.

“That has helped us with the progression with a lot of the players over the last year. That is a real positive.

“Tom Mohan did terrific with the U19s at the European Championships. Colin O’Brien, Paul Osam, Jason Donohue, and Jim Crawford have been great. Andy Reid was coaching with us too. They are all progressive coaches and they are all an important part of the Irish international setup.”

Colin O’Brien, who looks after the U17s, gave a deeper insight into this world during a qualifying tournament in Cork last autumn.

Republic of Ireland U17 manager Colin O'Brien at Turner's Cross. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland U17 manager Colin O'Brien at Turner's Cross. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

“We meet every month as international coaches, from the U15s right up to the senior team and we always discuss what is going on in each team,” he said.

“Every international manager presents on our style of play and we say how we are doing with our functions of the game.

“There is a lot of joint-up thinking there. But if you look at our young teams over the last number of years, it is not just this year.

“We’ve been doing this for many, many years. Maybe now people are sitting up and taking note of it. I’m not too sure, it might be because players are coming through at the senior team. But if you look at some of the players that have played in the last number of months, they’ve been in this process since the 15s, 17s, and 19s. All those habits are there for them.”

The current Irish senior team contains a number of players who progressed through this pathway.

Examples include goalkeeper Caoimhín Kelleher, defender Dara O’Shea, and striker Troy Parrott.

This core group were on a number of successful Irish teams which consistently challenged for silverware.

In 2018, an Irish team containing Adam Idah were controversially knocked out of the U17 European Championships by the Netherlands.

Adam Idah and Jadon Sancho after an U17 clash. Picture: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Adam Idah and Jadon Sancho after an U17 clash. Picture: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

One year later, an Irish team made it to the semi-finals of the U19 European Championships. A number of players from this team, such as Mark McGuinness and Festy Ebosele, graduated to the U21s after this tournament.

The progression was immediately noticeable as the team finished third in their group, two points off a play-off spot.

That qualifying campaign saw a draw against Italy and victories over Sweden and Armenia. The team also played in the Toulon Tournament in France and they reached the semi-finals of one of the most prestigious underage tournaments in world football.

What was clear during this three-year spell for the underage sides was that they had a clearly defined style of play.

This way of playing had teams passing the ball and playing out from the back.

The idea behind this comes from the FAI’s Player Development Plan in 2015.

POSSESSION

The document, which was the brainchild of high-performance director Ruud Dokter, stated that the ideal system for developing players and maximising their abilities was a possession-based 4-3-3 formation.

This policy is the foundation of the current Irish underage playing style and it is now the way Stephen Kenny wants the senior team to play.

The overarching philosophy is made possible by the close-knit group of coaches at Abbotstown, a group who have years of interwoven histories.

All of the underage coaches have experience playing in the League of Ireland.

They also work with a number of former senior internationals; like John O’Shea and David Meyler, which gives them a rounded view of modern Irish squads.

All of this combines to maximise player development and to seamlessly integrate rising stars from one age group to the next.

The process is already underway between the U17s and the U19s with players like Mark O’Mahony and Kevin Zefi moving up from Colin O’Brien’s squad to Tom Mohan’s.

The senior team, who recently beat Scotland 3-0 at the Aviva Stadium, had six recent U21 graduates in the starting XI.

The FAI has ultimately created a developmental stepladder through the underage academies, that is nurturing young talent while getting players ready for senior international football.

This structure is slowly making Ireland a top-tier nation that regularly qualifies for major tournaments and competes.

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