Keeping a close eye on future stars
The new season offers opportunities for young Irish players to take another step forward
A centre-half from Dublin who made the Liverpool bench for the Champions League quarter-final tie against Manchester City, a Cork goalkeeper who played for Jurgen Klopp's side in the recent pre-season wins in the United States over City and Manchester United, a left-back, originally from Cherry Orchard, who was on the same tour with Manchester City, promoted from a youth team coached by a former Ireland international, and an 18-year-old Southampton striker who made his Premier League debut against Spurs last season.
They might not make a single Premier League appearance between them this season but Conor Masterson, Caoimhin Kelleher, Tyreke Wilson and Michael Obafemi are just four of the Irish teenagers expected to be named by their clubs in the division's final rosters this week. And you can add Brighton's 18-year-old pair Jayson Molumby and Aaron Connolly, who both played in the Carabao Cup for Chris Hughton's team last season, and Southampton defender Aaron O'Driscoll, 19, another graduate of Manchester City's academy where Lee Carsley was among the coaches.
There is also a certain Declan Rice. With David Moyes out of West Ham since the end of last season, the 19-year-old utility player has a notoriously grouchy title-winning coach to win over now. Manuel Pellegrini has arrived along with more than £100m worth of signings.
This is a significant stage of Rice's career. He is expected to confirm his commitment to Ireland next month for the first competitive match in the Nations League against Wales. Martin O'Neill will hope the midfielder-cum-defender has another half-dozen games to his name by then. He played 24 top-flight matches last season, including 11 as a substitute. Of the 13 starts, most were made under Moyes, who had more faith than Slaven Bilic in Rice's role in a back three. Bilic used him mainly as a midfield replacement. He played for the post-World Cup Martin O'Neill in internationals against Turkey, France and the United States. He has excelled on every occasion.
Former Manchester City boss Pellegrini cut short earning his fortune in China to return to the Premier League and wasted no time spending a willing board's money to bolster his defence and midfield in particular. Although £60m pair Felipe Anderson and Andriy Yarmolenko are more attacking midfield players, West Ham have spent another £30m on Toulouse's Issa Diop and Paraguayan international Fabian Balbuena from Corinthians, as well as adding Arsenal's Jack Wilshere and Fulham youngster Ryan Fredericks on free transfers. Cheikhou Kouyate is the only notable departure so far after joining Crystal Palace for £9.5m.
But the signs from pre-season are encouraging for Rice and 22-year-old midfielder and Irish team-mate Josh Cullen, who also featured under Moyes towards the end of last season after impressing during his loan spell at Bolton Wanderers. Both can expect to be in the West Ham squad at least for the season opener at Anfield next Sunday.
Rice has started four of the Hammers' seven pre-season friendlies, mainly in defence, completing the 90 minutes in the draws against Preston North End and Mainz. Southend-born Cullen, meanwhile, started the first two friendlies against Swiss team Winterthur and League One Wycombe Wanderers and was a playing substitute for the last three games.
The elevation of two key members of Noel King's under 21 squad to the Premier League will come as no surprise to those who have been monitoring the pair since they could kick a ball. They are the first beneficiaries of a renewed effort within the FAI to ensure the path to the senior international team is a smoother one.
When Martin O'Neill took over, former Ireland and Newcastle international Mick Martin and ex-under 21 boss Don Givens were asked to oversee the scouting network for the underage teams across Ireland and the UK. At the time, the information was all there, but no one had found a way to collate it. That has changed and vast files now exist on every player.
Martin, who scouted senior Irish players and the opposition teams for Giovanni Trapattoni, is part of a team which establishes the initial contact and keeps track of every immigrant prepared to fight the dreaded homesickness in England. League of Ireland juniors are also being watched regularly.
Martin, who is still based in the North East of England, is out every weekend watching matches from under 15 to under 23 level and rarely sees senior professional matches now. Rice and Cullen have been on the radar for several years.
"I was aware of Declan before I went to see him at Sunderland a couple of years ago," he said. "I think it was Don Givens who had told me to keep an eye out for this boy, see what I thought of him, he was quite young and raw at that stage. So I was already looking out for him of course that day, but he definitely stood out. He played centre-back on that occasion. Very commanding, enthusiastic, good on the ball and a leader. Josh Cullen was another one I was tipped off about before that game. He can handle a football, good engine, strong midfield player. I gather he did well on loan at Bolton, then obviously got a little run in the team.
"I've seen them all when they come up to the North East and we have a few boys in the clubs up here to keep an eye on. There was a tournament at South Shields last week, they invited Marseille, Celtic and Southampton - the Ireland under 23 coach Paul Doolin came over - and Michael Obafemi was on the bench. It's difficult to judge a player in the short time as a substitute, but he looked sharp, very bright and he's a really good lad. He's enjoying himself and you can see it when he plays."
Before he left St Mary's last season, Mauricio Pellegrino gave Obafemi his Premier League debut as a sub against Spurs. Successor Mark Hughes has restricted him to the junior sides and his appearance on the English east coast last weekend suggests Martin and his scouts will be watching his development at academy matches rather than in the Premier League or Championship. It will probably be the same for Masterson, Kelleher, Wilson and young Liverpool striker Corey Whelan, who was on loan at Yeovil last year.
Patience will be the key for the players, the FAI coaching staff and senior management. Young players like Leeds defender Paudie O'Connor, who broke into the first team at Elland Road at the end of last season, have dropped a division and accepted a loan at Bradford City for the duration of this campaign. Cullen, Manchester United keeper Kieran O'Hara, Burnley defender Jimmy Dunne and Everton midfielder Harry Charsley know they could benefit from a similar experience of playing on loan in the Championship over the next nine months.
"Clubs and managers are very receptive to the idea of players going out on loan but, also, they clearly have a very good idea of what is best for a player's development," said Martin. "So while there is a lot to be said for getting game-time in the real world and senior football, playing under 23 football and establishing yourself at that level can be extremely beneficial too. Everyone is different.
"It is important that we do our homework and research. If I go to a game and see there's a lad called Paddy Egan on a team sheet, for example, then there is a pretty good chance he has an Irish background. It can be more difficult now to know whether a player is second or third generation but the clubs definitely help us, as they do with the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish teams and scouts. Clubs will often alert us to a player who might be of interest to us because it helps them too.
"The clubs are pleased to have their young lads as part of an international set-up and encourage them to get on board with us or the other nations. It is a brilliant experience for the players at any age, they will be playing with and against better players and they can only benefit from being among the international teams.
"Not all the players we are tracking will make it to the senior team, we know that, but we are giving them the best possible chance. There is no perfect route, there is no definite way of getting there but hopefully we are helping Martin and the coaching staff."
As he speaks, Mick Martin is watching his 12-year-old grandson kicking a ball with his pals near Malahide. The youngster has been over for a trial with some of his team-mates to Newcastle, where Martin earned his legendary Zico moniker and started his own international career. "If he's anything like his grandad, he's got a chance," he joked. "And you know we'll keep a good eye on him."
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