Article: Academy nurturing club’s future stars


A recent report on the FAI’s Academy system made for grim reading. The country has 24 soccer academies but only ten full-time staff to govern them. In Portugal, by comparison, there are only seven academies but 315 full-time academy staff. No wonder the number of young Irish players coming through at major professional clubs has been in sharp decline over recent years. Only sustained government and FAI funding can help remedy what has become a genuine crisis, but given the continuing disarray of the football administration here, such investment is unlikely to materialise anytime soon.

Sligo Rovers is one of the ten clubs with a full-time academy director, and despite the obvious flaws in an underfunded system, Conor O’Grady remains optimistic, though not blind to the reality of the situation.

“The lack of funding and facilities is scary,” he agrees. “Major investment is required if we’re realistic about the development of young players.

“In our case, almost all of our academy coaches are volunteers. They give up two nights a week for training and possibly a full day for a game at weekends. How long can that continue? How much more can we demand from coaches who are doing the best they can for no pay? And it’s much the same at all League of Ireland clubs.

“Our underage teams train twice a week because it would be grossly unfair to demand more from our coaches. But the reality is that some teams in the local youth leagues get more coaching. That can’t be sustained in the long-term.

“But we get on with it. We have six academy teams and standards are improving all the time. We’ve produced numerous players for both the men’s and women’s first teams and for other teams around the country. Imagine what we could do with proper investment.”

Notwithstanding the limited resources, under O’Grady’s leadership, the academy coaches have done a terrific job in fostering and nurturing young

talent. The evidence is visible in the number of academy graduates who have flourished at senior level ever since the club’s first under-19 team, under the guidance of Ciaran Kelly and Gavin Dykes, produced gems such as Regan Donelon, Gary Boylan and Scott Lynch. The initial under-17 team unearthed the likes of John Mahon, Ed McGinty, Jack Keaney, Liam Kerrigan, Niall Morahan and Luke McNicholas. Later still, O’Grady was in charge of an under-15 team which nurtured an exciting crop of A-listers such as Kailin Barlow, Killian Heaney and Johnny Kenny.

Add in the likes of Sean McAteer, Owen Elding, Daire Patton, Conor Reynolds and Kyle McDonagh, currently on the fringes of the first team, and you get a flavour of the ongoing success. Mikey Place (Ballymena), Peter Maguire (Ballinamallard), Paul Doyle (Dundalk), Ruari Keating (St. Pats), Niall Holahan and Eanna Clancy (UCD), Jack Keaney (Drogheda), Mark Byrne (Treaty United), Darragh McCarthy (Kerry F.C) and Conor Walsh (Finn Harps) are illustrations of how other clubs are benefiting from Rovers’ development work.

The women’s academy teams, under-17s and under-19s, have been equally productive. Graduates currently in the club’s senior women’s squad include Sarah Kiernan, Kate Nugent, Ciara Henry, Kelsey Munroe, Muireann Devaney, Kerri O’Hara, Cara King, Keeva Flynn and Alice Lillie.

Girls who’ve gone on to play for other senior clubs include Roisin Molloy, currently starring for Athlone Town; Abegayle Ronanye, formerly of Galway United; and the former Peamount player, Kate O’Dowd.

For Conor O’Grady, being head of the Rovers’ Academy is more than a job; it’s a vocation of near religious fervour. The club has been part of his life since boyhood, when he’d hop over the fence of his grandmother’s Tracey Avenue home to watch his heroes. But his qualifications for the job run much deeper than mere sentiment. He’s played more than 250 senior games for the club. He’s a League Cup and FAI Cup winner, whose knowledge of the game was further developed during spells at Cork City, Derry City, Finn Harps and Ballinamallard.

O’Grady is quick to acknowledge the work done by local youth clubs in developing young players before they reach the Showgrounds squads.

“The local clubs do a terrific job. One of the first things I did when I got the Academy job was to meet with the Sligo/Leitrim Youth Committee, and the co-operation from day one has been fantastic. That’s not always the case in other counties, where there are sometimes complaints if the senior clubs recruit

young players. Here, it’s seen as an honour if a young girl or boy joins Rovers, and that’s how it should be. We’re giving talented young players something to aim for—the chance to play in the League of Ireland national leagues. It couldn’t happen without the co-operation of the local clubs. They’re a vital cog in the development wheel,” he asserts.

At the other end of the spectrum, when those raw young recruits have developed to the stage where first-team football becomes a possibility, it’s O’Grady’s job to advocate for his charges.

“My job here is to get as many players as possible into the first team. It’s as simple as that. I’m their advocate. I’ll be the one knocking on John Russell’s or Tommy Hewitt’s door, and in fairness, in recent years there has been a great willingness from the senior managers to give young boys and girls a chance. We’ve reached the stage where we can promise players that if they’re good enough and work hard enough, then their chance will come. There’s plenty of evidence in the current senior squads and in previous years to suggest we keep to that promise,” he says.

He candidly admits that the development of young players to a point where they can attract the attention of bigger clubs is also a target of the academy, and he believes the opportunities for talented youngsters have never been better.

“The club invests heavily in the academy, so it makes sense to bring in revenue if the chance of a transfer of a young player presents itself,” he maintains. “We have a good reputation here, so scouts are always watching. The exposure young players get has never been greater. Technology, the internet, and online streaming all increase access for scouts. In the old days, scouts were based mainly in Dublin, but now that all of the bigger clubs have access to all our games, they don’t need to be physically present. And, because of Brexit, the big European clubs are now beginning to look towards Ireland. In that sense, young players are in the shop window like never before, and we would never stand in the way of any young player who gets an opportunity to further his or her career.”

In keeping with the club’s stated objective to be a regional club for the North West and beyond, the Academy stretches its net far and wide in search of the best emerging talent. Currently, in the six academy teams, there are players from Mayo, Roscommon, Leitrim, and Fermanagh, as well as Sligo.

“I think the club has long ceased to be just a parochial football team. We have the facilities here, the ambition, great management on and off the pitch, six academy teams producing top players, and ambitious plans for the future. We are now a proper football club in every respect,” O’Grady maintains.

But none of that happens without massive behind-the-scenes work and commitment, the level of which even took O’Grady by surprise.

“I’ve been in football all my life, but until I started this job, I honestly never fully realised the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes. It’s been an eye-opener for me. I see firsthand the commitment of the coaches, who work all hours, day and night, the sacrifices parents make, and the loyalty and graft of the young players. It’s great to be in the Showgrounds when a young fella or a young girl gets a big ovation from the supporters, and that’s when it hits me how much work has gone into getting that young player to this stage.

“For me, its 24/7, relentless. But I love every minute of it. There’s a bit of Sligo Rovers in my blood, so, in that sense, it’s the dream job. I’m not saying we get everything right; it’s not perfect, but we strive to make it that way day in and day out. The payoff for all of us involved is to see the young kids come through, fulfilling their dreams. And, equally important for me, is that we maintain a good relationship with all the players who come through the academy and go on to do other things in life. There’s great satisfaction in that, too,” he explains.