Clifford and Towell paths show there's no certainties
Published 04/05/2015 | 02:30
Even in a photograph of the Crumlin U-13s, there's something assured about Conor Clifford. The styled hair, no slouched shoulders, white boots and a look of confidence that comes when you're used to having cameras and eyes on you.
And why wouldn't he be confident? In every batch of schoolboy players there are one or two that are ear-marked as near certainties to 'make it' in England. In that year of footballers, Clifford was that player, even among several talented team-mates.
One of those was Richie Towell, standing behind and to the left of Clifford in a photograph taken almost 10 years ago, and the pair would go on to become underage internationals, along with several other Crumlin players.
Three years later, in another photograph before an All-Ireland final against Belvedere, and Clifford has the same look of assurance. Towell, sporting a quite magnificent hair-style, is standing next to current Dundalk team-mate Andy Boyle before a game when their opponents included Matt Doherty and Paul Corry.
After that U-16s final, Clifford, Towell and several others from that game went from being big fish in the small pond of elite schoolboys football in Ireland to swimming with sharks across the water.
At Celtic, Towell won some honours but wasn't able to establish himself beyond the youth teams - he featured just once for the senior team in the four years of his contract. In the last of those years, he went on loan to Hibernian but, after 30 appearances, it was time to come home. At 21, Towell was unemployed.
Clifford, too, couldn't quite make the breakthrough to the first team at Chelsea but, as captain of the side who won the FA Youth Cup final in 2010, there was a reasonable assumption that he had a greater chance than most.
In the final, a crowd of over 10,000 at Stamford Bridge - including then-manager Carlo Ancelotti, John Terry and Ashley Cole - saw captain Clifford hit a 25-yard winner in the 86th minute of the second leg as Chelsea won the competition for the first time in almost 50 years.
It was, in theory, the first building block a youth system where one of the richest clubs in the world would bring through their own players. In practice, of that squad, only Josh McEachran and Jeffrey Bouma made a senior appearance for the club who, last Monday - for what it's going to be worth to the players' futures - won their fourth FA Youth Cup in six years.
Like Towell, Clifford headed out on loan in an attempt to gain first-team experience but fewer than 30 games in five loan moves to Plymouth, Notts County, Yeovil, Portsmouth and Crawley Town weren't exactly conducive to a re-igniting a career that had promised so much.
When Towell's Celtic contract expired in the summer of 2012, he came home and took stock of where his career was going. He developed himself physically, signed for Dundalk the following December and, nearly three years on, finds himself as the fulcrum of the best team in the country.
The choppy waters of England's lower league, however, don't really allow much time for contemplation and Clifford found himself on the club carousel having been released a few months early from his Chelsea contract in the hope that he could be at the head of the queue before hundreds of others joined him in being chucked out of their clubs with their dreams in tatters that summer.
A short-term move to Leicester didn't work out and he signed a two-year deal with Southend in 2013 but this season, as manager Phil Brown put it, he had "a wall of players in front of him" before moving to Barnet on loan in February.
Both Towell and Clifford helped their teams to titles as Dundalk won the Airtricity League and Barnet took the Conference crown but where Towell will spend his summer looking forward to the Champions League, Clifford is likely to spend it looking for a club.
Towell's story is one that should shine like a beacon of hope for the dozens of players in England and Scotland who, this summer, face an uncertain future as they are released from clubs who took a chance on them a few years ago but no longer have any use for them.
His decision to come home and re-dedicate himself to his profession has given him a chance to return to England at a high level - if the opportunity arises and he so chooses - or to play Champions League football with a club that are on the rise at home. And the latter is far from a consolation prize.
For Clifford, the future is uncertain, which would have come as a major surprise to anybody predicting what might lay ahead for those 12- and 13-year-olds representing Crumlin.
The hunger and desire to prove themselves again is driving the likes of Towell and Mikey Drennan - and, in turn, hopefully, sparking the League of Ireland to be a place where players can have their best years to come rather those whose prime is in the rearview mirror.
Towell has already shown what the league can do for a career. Clifford would probably have to drop in wages from what he currently earns but, if it provided a platform to fulfil his promise when the alternative is becoming a journeyman pro, it might be a price worth paying.