LEO GRAY TALKS TO SLIGO TEENAGER, MARK ROSSITER, ON THE EVE OF AN EXCITING SEASON WITH SUNDERLAND AND THE REPUBLIC OF IRELAND U.19 SQUAD.
Life couldn't be better for Mark Rossiter at the moment. This week, the Sligo teenager returned to Sunderland for the most important year of his young career and next week he'll be off to Norway with the Republic of Ireland international squad for the European Championships.
"It's a very exciting period in my career and I just can't wait to get back into the thick of things", Mark told 'The Sligo Champion' before he left Sligo to commence his fourth year at Premier division club, Sunderland, earlier this week.
Mark, who hails from Cranmore in Sligo town, attracted the attention of several cross-channel clubs after a number of sensational performances for Summerhill College and Abbey United in the local youth soccer leagues.
Eventually, he chose Sunderland and made the big move to England at just sixteen years of age.
"It was a big decision at the time but I've no regrets", he says. "It was the best move I ever made. I've learned so much over the last three years and have had the privilege of representing my country on the international stage at all the under-age levels".
He was fortunate in that a number of Irish players joined Sunderland at the same time, among them Stephen Capper who is also in the Irish squad for the Euro U 19 Championships later this month.
"We all helped each other settle in and, of course, Niall Quinn was also a big help to all the young Irish lads at the club.
"There's quite an Irish contingent at the club now and if rumours are to be believed, this could increase further next year.
"That will be a big plus for all the Irish lads, particularly the young boys coming over for the first time because they'll have plenty of people to show them the ropes.
"In fairness to Sunderland, they are a great club for treating their young players the right way. There's a great spirit at the club which extends from the first team right down to the reserves and the youths", Mark points out.
Although versatility is perhaps Mark's greatest strength -- he played up front regularly for Summerhill College in his schoolboy days -- he has developed into a solid defensive player at Sunderland, operating at right back or centre-back.
Last year, he graduated from the youth team to the reserves and will be on the fringe of the first team during the current campaign.
"The reserves and the first team train together so I will be part and parcel of the first team set up for the first time next season. That is a very exciting prospect and, hopefully, I can do well enough to force my way into consideration for the first team squad.
"I have one year left on my current contract at Sunderland so next season is going to be vitally important. I've done very well at the club so far and, hopefully, I can make further progress over the next twelve months.
"It was great to be at home during the summer and watching the heroics of the Irish team in the World Cup certainly kept the boredom at bay. The close-season has flown by. I've been training with Sligo Rovers for the last few weeks and I feel in good shape going back to the club.
"The coming season promises to be a very exciting one at club and international level and I just can't wait to get going again", he adds.
Mark's immediate priority will be to help Ireland do as well as possible in the European Championships in Norway. They are in a tough group along with Belgium, England and Germany with the top team qualifying for the final. The first three teams in the group will go forward to the World Youth finals in Saudia Arabia next March so there is no shortage of incentive for Brian Kerr's squad.
"It's a tough group but I don't think we need fear any of our opponents", says Mark.
"We came through a difficult qualifying group which included Latvia, Austria and a very highly-rated Croatian team, and then we beat Holland over two legs in the play-offs.
"We are in the finals on merit and we've got a decent record over England and Belgium at under-age level in recent years. Germany, who beat us at U.16 level with virtually the same squad three years ago, are probably the toughest team in the group but we would be quite hopeful of doing well against them.
"There isn't a lot between any of the teams and, given our excellent record in the qualifying stages, I think we can go to the finals with a very good chance of doing well", he adds.
If the spirit and togetherness in the Irish senior squad is the stuff of legend, Mark reveals that the bonds of friendship between the younger players are just as strong.
"Ten of the squad travelling to Norway for the U.19 championships have been together in the Irish panel since the U.15 grades.
"We keep in touch all the time and meet up as often as possible. The bond between the players is very strong. The craic is great when we get together but there's also a very strong work ethic.
"Brian Kerr has been a major influence on all of us and he'll have the squad very well prepared for the European Championships.
"After the senior team's efforts in the World Cup, the future looks very bright for Irish soccer and it would be a further boost if we could do well in the European championships.
"I'm certainly looking forward to it. It's a great way to start the new season", says Mark.
The Sligo defender will be joined in the Irish squad by former Summerhill College team mate, Keith Gilroy, the exciting young Middlesbrough midfielder.