Doolin's new wave may turn the tide
The achievement of the Irish under 19 soccer team in qualifying for next month's European Championships in Romania was pretty extraordinary. In the qualifying tournament, an unfancied Ireland faced host nation Poland, Ukraine, a powerful force at this level who were European Champions in 2009, and Italy, who reached the under 17 semi-finals two years ago.
Yet Ireland defeated Poland 1-0, played a scoreless draw with Ukraine and sealed qualification by trouncing Italy 3-0 with goals from Conor Murphy of Bray Wanderers, Seán Murray of Watford and John O'Sullivan of Blackburn Rovers.
The geographical spread of the team is noteworthy. Goalkeeper Aaron McCarey of Wolves is a former Monaghan United player, centre-back John Egan of Sunderland, son of the legendary Kerry footballer of the same name, is a Corkman while his defensive partner Derrick Williams of Aston Villa hails from Tramore in Waterford. Left-back Joe Shaughnessy of Aberdeen is from Galway while striker Anthony Forde of Wolves is from Ballingarry in Limerick.
Several of the kids have already broken into the first team at their clubs. The season just gone has seen debuts for right-back Matt Doherty at Wolves, for Shaughnessy, for Murray and for Dublin-born midfielder Jeff Hendrick at Derby County, while there is a big buzz about midfielder Samir Carruthers, a former Arsenal schoolboy captain who moved to Aston Villa and played a huge role when the Midlands club reached last year's FA Youth Cup final.
In the finals, Ireland should be strengthened by the return of star defender Sean McGinty who missed the trip to Poland because he was playing for the Manchester United team which won this year's FA Youth Cup final. Kent-born McGinty, who qualifies for Ireland by having a Mayo grandfather, is an outstanding member of what is reputed to be one of United's finest underage teams since the teenage days of Giggs and Scholes.
This is, incredibly, the first time Ireland have qualified for these finals since we won the tournament in 1998, when the competition was for under 18s, with a team managed by Brian Kerr which included Robbie Keane, Richard Dunne and Stephen McPhail. The under 18s were completing a double as an under 16 team with John O'Shea, Andy Reid and Liam Miller had beaten Spain 2-1 in the final earlier the same year.
Since then we've been underwhelming at underage level as we've struggled to find another manager in the Kerr mould. But perhaps the search is over because the Polish round robin was the first qualifying tournament with new boss Paul Doolin at the helm.
Success and Doolin are hardly strangers, four league titles and six FAI cups as a player and manager, Drogheda United's only League of Ireland title attest to that, but it is a boost for domestic soccer to see him follow in the footsteps of Kerr by replicating local success at international level.
The league has its detractors but there's no doubt that between Doolin, Stephen Kenny, Pat Fenlon, Paul Cook and Michael O'Neill it has had tremendous young managers in recent years, all of whom have the ability to make a mark on a bigger stage.
Players from Kerr's youth teams played a pivotal role when Ireland qualified for the 2002 World Cup and our recent struggles at senior level may not be unconnected with our failure to repeat the heroics of 1998. Hopefully this week's victories may in time prove to be a turning point.
Sunday Indo Sport