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Ireland's young footballers and their 'dream' moves to England - the good, the bad and the ugly

David Sneyd talks to a player, a parent, an agent, and a head of recruitment about what goes into making the decision.

Seventeen-year-old Jack Byrne playing for Manchester City in the 2013 Uefa Youth League.
Seventeen-year-old Jack Byrne playing for Manchester City in the 2013 Uefa Youth League.
Image: EMPICS Sport

THE WORD HAD spread around Jobstown of Alex Ferguson’s imminent arrival.

By the time he pulled up to Bernadette Bradley’s house at 6pm, children swarmed around the road in anticipation. But the one that the former Manchester United manager was there to meet – Bernie’s son, Stephen — was nowhere to be found.

“I was still on the streets at a quarter to, playing with the lads,” Bradley, now Shamrock Rovers head coach, recalled.

This was the late 1990s and Ferguson was on a flying visit to Tallaght to convince the most promising prospect in the country that Old Trafford was the place his football dreams could come true.

Bradley, 15 at the time, was on the radar of every club in Britain and, while he would eventually sign for Arsenal due to the influence of Liam Brady, this was Ferguson’s attempt to swing things in United’s favour.

The Scot took Bradley and his mother for dinner in an Italian restaurant off St Stephen’s Green in Dublin city centre and, a couple of hours later, another crowd had formed outside for a glimpse of United’s doyen.

He left disappointed, his powers of persuasion falling flat with the Bradleys on that particular occasion.

Such tales of grandiose coaxing attempts have always spread like legend around Irish schoolboy circles, including the tale of how Anthony Stokes, now a footballing nomad in Iran, was in such high demand during his DDSL days with Shelbourne, that Arsene Wenger gazumped Fergie by replicating his visit to the family home.

January and February are, traditionally, the months of the year when British clubs will ramp up their efforts and begin to make formal offers to teenagers on these shores whom they want to bring into their system ahead of this summer.

In theory, a child here can only sign with a British club from 1 January of the year in which they will turn 16. Clubs will find a way around that, of course, ensuring things move quicker if needs be.

“There was a loophole so I was able to go over when I was 14,” Jack Byrne recalls of his move from St Kevin’s Boys to Manchester City almost a decade ago. “I didn’t mind that because the way I saw it I didn’t want the others getting a head start on me. I wanted to get into that environment at City as soon as I could because I didn’t want to be left behind.”

Sarah Mandroiu, mother of Bohemians playmaker Daniel, recalls her own helplessness at seeing her son make the decision to move before his 16th birthday. “I cried for a week, probably longer. I knew he wasn’t ready, he was still only a baby, but he kept telling me it was what he wanted and Dano was so determined,” she tells The42.

For the Mandroius, they had the choice of Southampton and Brighton. The latter won out, not only because Southampton put forward a proposal of coming over in six-week blocks as opposed to full-time life in England, but because of the influence of academy chief John Morling, who previously worked for the FAI. “I remember being on the phone to him every other day,” Sarah remembers.

“That is something I would recommend to any parent who is in that situation now. You have to be sure the right support will be there, that is so important. It’s the most important thing. There will be tough days and weeks and you need to know they will be looked after properly.

“Brighton were great because when Dano did start having problems, they were able to get him speaking to a counsellor to help. It was right for him to come home and I’m glad he did because he has been so happy since playing for Bohs.

“I have my boy back and it’s great to hear him singing around the house again.”

Mandroiu recently turned 21 and the fact he has remained in football since coming back is a positive in itself. The experiences for many in England can be galling, leading to isolation, but that won’t diminish the dreams of the next batch of hopefuls – especially when there are teenage role models such as Troy Parrott (Tottenham), Adam Idah (Norwich City), Aaron Connolly (Brighton) and Michael Obafemi (Southampton) all getting a taste of the Premier League this season.

oxford-united-v-brighton-and-hove-albion-u21-checkatrade-trophy-southern-group-g-the-kassam-stadium Danny Mandroiu at Brighton in 2017. Source: David Davies

British clubs will, of course, have had their specific targets here some time, but the intricacies of deals on offer means agents have become more prevalent in helping to arrange the moves.

“It’s an investment from us in the player,” one agent explains.

“There is no big pay out for us in the short-term, that’s not what we get, even though that seems to be the perception. What we try and help with is the breakdown of the contract that they are getting offered.

“For example, if a club wants to give a three-year contract, we will go through with the player and the parents whether that will be two years as a YTS (youth team scholar) with one year as a professional. It could be one year as a YTS and two as a pro. The pro year might not even be guaranteed and only an option.

“All this has to be considered. You have to be honest and up front with the kids, and the parents. It is a ruthless business. You want to make sure they are as best prepared as possible and go into things with their eyes open. The end goal should always be about becoming a footballer, making a career for themselves.”

It is important, too, because the nature of the business in Britain is so perilous. For youth team scholars, the offer of education in conjunction with their football career is a prerequisite. Such a scheme is subsidised by the British government so teenagers heading over to some of these wealthy clubs will still only be able to earn a maximum of £180 a week before turning professional.

For agents, the hard work has to be done on the ground once kids make their move. Arranging driving lessons and organising bank appointments to set up accounts so they can actually be paid by their clubs are some of the more practical services, while regular visits to check on players’ welfare are of far greater importance.

“You need to always be available and on hand whenever they need you so you know what’s going on with them,” the source adds. “If you can’t physically meet them you have to be on WhatsApp or on the other end of a phone, you have to be the one picking up the phone to them to make sure they are OK.”

The hard truth of it is that their initial investment in the player will only see true monetary value if their client can get that second contract.

While it is the FAI who must sign off all international clearance forms to finalise the transfer of any player from this jurisdiction, they do not have a live database of players who have moved, or returned, in recent years.

“We wouldn’t have exact numbers – something which we are trying to address going forward,” a FAI spokesperson said. “We have a scouting network, but that isn’t something we would share publicly.”

brighton-and-hove-albion-v-tottenham-hotspur-premier-league-amex-stadium Galway's Aaron Connolly scored twice on his first Premier League start for Brighton. Source: Gareth Fuller

From the outside, there is a sense of cloak and dagger with regards to how clubs operate, too, but Middlesbrough’s head of academy recruitment, Martin Carter, is keen to stress the more holistic approach they are taking to player development.

Callum Kavanagh, son of former international Graham, is their only current academy player to have represented the Republic of Ireland at underage level, while Boro have also established a link with Portadown recently.

“For a lot of parents, the attraction for them is when they might see the big global clubs get involved,” Carter says.

“And that’s understandable, they are some of the biggest clubs in the world but that doesn’t always mean that they will be the best environment for the son to become a professional footballer.

“For us, we take the approach now that we don’t want to rush the boys we have coming through. We will be willing to wait longer to see their development and to try and reach their true potential because we know not every stage is reached at the same time.

“It might sounds like a cliché but we want to create an environment for our boys to flourish, they’re working here in an open environment, where every door here is open for them to talk to us, they will be encouraged to become mavericks and have a real understanding of the game.

“That pathway to the first team is there for them and that is crucial because, at the end of it all, that is what everyone wants to see,” Carter, who has seen nine graduates taste competitive action under manager Jonathan Woodgate, adds.

“The first-team manager and along with Robbie Keane they have been so brave in taking the stance that they want to give academy kids a chance. If they take that chance and show they are up to the challenge then they will stick with them.”

It is, of course, impossible to have a discussion about the topic of the youth market without mentioning the vast sums of money in the game across the water. The rules are clear, from the age of 12 to 15 a club which develops a player would be entitled to €10,000 for each of those seasons.

Matters change when the player turns 16, with Category One academies – such as Middlesbrough –required to stump up an additional €40,000.

That has led to scenarios whereby clubs will try and rush through deals for Irish players in the days and weeks before they celebrate their 16th birthday simply to reduce their costs.

League of Ireland clubs can strengthen their own hand in negotiations if they manage to get a player on a professional contract – as was the case with Shamrock Rovers and 16-year-old goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu prior to his record move to Manchester City last year.

But even that does not guarantee a better cut for the selling club here, and for Martin Carter at Middlesbrough is not shy about refusing to be drawn into a wage-war with rivals for a youth prospect.

“For us, we would not be interested in a player that would choose us over another club purely because of the money,” Carter continues.

“The rewards will come eventually and the fact is that if a player at such a young age is making their decision based solely on where they can get the most money they will struggle to make a proper career for themselves.”

The culture in Irish football, one which stretches back decades, is one of exporting talent to England and Scotland. That continues to be the primary goal of teenagers making their way in the game here and, while League of Ireland clubs are beginning to put the structures in place to offer a valid reason to hang on, the process to creating a sustainable football industry will be a long one.

Brexit is another factor that could change the landscape, should Irish players under the age of 18 be prohibited from signing for clubs in Britain, yet the official line is that such a drastic outcome is deemed to be unlikely amid the general confusion.

Indeed, the English FA released this brief comment on the matter to The42: “We are continuing to work with the Premier League, EFL and a range of government departments, including: Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS); Home Office; and Treasury during this consultation period.” Privately, there are concerns among clubs in Britain that their ability to sign Irish teens will be limited.

In the meantime, offers are about to roll in and decisions will have to be made that will shape the future for some of Ireland’s brightest prospects.

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