Sunday 15 December 2019

Inside the emerging talent factory searching for Ireland's next top stars


Next generation: Weza Louriero at the ETB FAI Player Development Course at Cabra. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Next generation: Weza Louriero at the ETB FAI Player Development Course at Cabra. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Aidan fitzmaurice

Tucked away quietly, in a suburb of Dublin's northside, is the small cage where dozens of footballers have been given their wings.

This evening, across the city in Dublin 4, two of them will line out in defence for Ireland in a match which will shape the short-term future of the game here, Mick McCarthy's side needing to beat Denmark to secure qualification for Euro 2020.

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Matt Doherty and Enda Stevens will be the full-backs, the pair with lots in common: both from the northside, both with a League of Ireland background, two men who had struggles in their club careers in England but are now Premier League footballers and internationals.

But Stevens and Doherty are also graduates of an FAI/ETB course, held in Cabra in what is officially called John Paul Park but is only known locally as The Bogies.

The year-long course is aimed at giving young footballers, who have left school but have yet to embark on the next phase in their lives, a grounding, and a path to further education, bypassing the traditional Leaving Cert.

Foothold

Some of the present 20-strong are quite young and have nothing more to their name than a Junior Cert. Others, like 23-year-old former Liverpool man Alex O'Hanlon, are older but still looking to get a foothold in life.

Of course they won't all earn a chunky five-figure weekly wage in the Premier League and play for Ireland, as Stevens and Doherty have done. But the two full-backs have shown the way.

Harry McCue, project leader and co-ordinator gets his message across. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Harry McCue, project leader and co-ordinator gets his message across. Photo: Steve Humphreys

"I'll have a sense of pride (this evening) when Matt and Enda play," says Harry McCue, a former League of Ireland player who heads up the Cabra course (there are 10 nationwide).

"I worked with the two of them with the under-21 team but to see them out there in such a big game, that maybe justifies the work we do. We don't get much publicity here or on the other courses, so we're on the outside a bit. But it's a labour of love."

Stevens (29) and Doherty (27) agreed moves to England from League of Ireland clubs around the same time (2011 and 2010, respectively), but both learned a lot in Cabra.

"Enda had left school and was playing for Cherry Orchard when he came here. He was a great kid, he's from Oxmantown Road, just down the road from here in Cabra," says McCue.

"He was such a nice kid but I told him that as a defender he needed to be aggressive. I never saw him get a yellow card. To be fair to him, he went down the leagues and came back to where he is now.

"A lot of these lads, like Enda back then, were training two nights a week and playing at the weekend. But they come in here and they are full-time, it gives them discipline. They come out of here fitter and, hopefully, better technically.

Dylan O’Neill, Jamie Redmond, Kevin Kelly and Davidson Okosun look on at training. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Dylan O’Neill, Jamie Redmond, Kevin Kelly and Davidson Okosun look on at training. Photo: Steve Humphreys

"I did think Matt and Enda had it in them, but I also thought Ian Bermingham could have gone very far. He went on trial to Doncaster but didn't want to go there. I knew Chris Forrester would do well, I knew Andy Boyle would go far. You never know, though."

Doherty was more of a project as he spent 18 months on the course instead of the standard year. "Matt didn't finish the Leaving Cert. I knew he had potential, I could play him in any position," McCue says.

"But he was on trials all over the place. I told him the trials had to stop and he needed to settle down.

"His father would drop him off here in the morning, Matt would be asleep on a bench down there, I'd have to wake him up when we came in, but that's Matt, he's just so easy-going. His attitude was a bit lackadaisical at times and maybe Martin O'Neill didn't take to that, but when he got on the pitch he was always fine.

"I can't say that Matt would have been lost to the game if he hadn't been here, but this certainly helped in his career. Matt's dad told me he always tells Matt, if you ever do an interview, give Cabra a mention as they were good to you."

McCue had to make a special case to the ETB (Education and Training Board) for Doherty to stay on for longer that one year. "Matt came in late in the year, he was always away on trials. The ETB are only interested in their careers and their progression. I could have a Ronaldo here and the ETB would say 'that's fine but did he get the QQI Level 5?'.

"He had potential. I had to make a case for Matt to come back for a second year, so Matt did 18 months. So he got to come here, sign for Bohs, Wolves came in for him and that was the start of it."

Of the current Cabra crop, seven have already been in England. St Kevin's Boys product Robert Dunne (20) spent two years at Sunderland, his time there disrupted by injury and he came home 11 months ago, signing for Cabinteely in a move wrecked by injury.

A striker, he won't be able to play until next April as he recovers from knee surgery so the course in Cabra offers him a chance to keep busy off the pitch and plan a revival of his career.

"I want to get playing in the League of Ireland and I want to get back to England, I just want to play football professionally," says Dunne, who left school midway through fifth year to chase his dream at Sunderland.

"I need to get qualifications to fall back on, my mind is on football but I need to keep occupied during the day and being here gives me that," he says.

Enda Stevens (right) in the classroom alongside Daniel Langan and Kevin Dawson.
Enda Stevens (right) in the classroom alongside Daniel Langan and Kevin Dawson.

Luke Wade-Slater is older (21) and had cross-channel experience, with Stevenage, before joining Bohemians at the start of the 2019 season but education-wise, he's no more qualified than a 16-year-old.

"Lads who were in school with me went on to do their Leaving. One of my best mates set up his own landscaping business and there was me, coming home from England and struggling to even get a part-time job," says Wade-Slater.

"When you make that move over at 16 you're not thinking about it, you don't really feel you will be coming home, but when you do come home you're in an awkward situation when you want to find work.

"You need education if you want to do something outside football, even if I do go on and have a career in football I'll have to give it up at 34 or 35 and do something else, so it's good to get some qualifications. If I wasn't doing this I'd be losing my mind, sitting around doing nothing."

A typical day sees the lads report in for 10am, have two hours of classes, lunch and 60-90 minutes of football training. Many of the graduates find work in the sports industry.

"They get a lot of information here about nutrition and fitness and that's always a help in their careers. Not all of them will go on to play for Ireland as Matt and Enda have done, but they can have good careers," McCue says.

Course

"I think we have 100 lads from this course playing in the League of Ireland, that says a lot. Seven from the FAI Cup final (two weeks ago) had been trainees here. Hopefully they will use what they learn here."

An income (€200 a week) helps. "That's a lot for a young lad. Football and money, that gets them in the door," says McCue.

Doherty and Stevens have established themselves and another generation are trying to do the same. Two Cabra graduates are on the books of Premier League clubs (Ali Reghba at Leicester and Warren O'Hora at Brighton).

Funding from ETB is essential but more funds are always welcome - a case is currently being made for a full-size astro pitch instead of the mini-pitch, the one in a cage, which the boys train on now.

McCue says the FAI/ETB scheme is "the nearest thing we have to an academy in Ireland". But the system here is far from perfect. McCue regrets that there's such a gap between the League of Ireland U-19 league and men's football, leading to the loss of players who have talent but are just not ready.

The lack of a safety net for "repatriations" is also a worry. "We need a liaison person in the FAI to deal with the lads when they come home from England. There's a big party when they go away. There's no party when they come home and there's no system for tracking players who are home, it's only by word of mouth that you hear a lad is home and we might get him here," says McCue.

"They are unemployable when they come home and if they don't make it in football, what else is there for them? You look at Robbie Dunne, who was at Sunderland and is back now, he has been out with a bad injury but he has only the Junior Cert, what's he to do? He has real potential and because he's been out with injury we've managed to get a second year for him but without this, I don't know how he'd get work.

"We're all delighted to see Matt and Enda do well, it's great for these young lads to see.

"But there is so much more work to do."

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