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Dublin: 6 °C Sunday 29 March, 2020

'It's difficult for Irish players when they train 2 or 3 times a week... Then they go to England'

National U15s coach Jason Donohue chats about the challenges facing young footballers.

Members of the Ireland U15s team.
Members of the Ireland U15s team.
Image: Seb Daly/SPORTSFILE

Updated at 12.01

IT COULD ALMOST be an average school classroom.

A group of around 20 young lads are gathered at the desks while a man stands in front of them giving instructions.

But the setting is the FAI’s base at Abbotstown and Ireland U15s are preparing for their game with Australia U17s later in the day.

The questions start coming, followed by answers, sometimes in unison.

“What’s your objective today?”

“Win the game. Clean sheet. Express ourselves. Play with high intensity.”

“How many of the zones out of the five do we defend in?”


Coach Jason Donohue goes through the team — the formation is a 4-3-3 that becomes a 4-2-3-1. Players are given individual instructions. “Play the high midfield position. Make it a flat-two when defending.”

Clips of a previous game, a 3-1 win against England, are shown to get the team in a positive mindset. What they do well is emphasised. A clip is also shown where one of the defenders goes long when he could have played it out from the back. Donohue tells his players to relax in these situations. If they make a mistake or the result doesn’t go their way, he says, he will take the blame.

The advice from Donohue and other members of staff has been getting through. Ireland U15s have been achieving impressive results. Later that day, they go on to beat Australia 2-0. In total this season, they have played 8, won 8, scored 27 and conceded four.

Afterwards, Donohue shows journalists a manual, a variation of which all of the players get for each game.

There are questions in it that they are expected to give written answers to, such as: “Three things they expect from the management. Also, what we expect from them. Then we do our own analysis.

“Our first game is Spain, so we write how they play. And each day, we make a reference reflection.

“Everything goes right through to Czech Republic, the third game, how we play.”

At the back of the manual are the words to Amhrán na bhFiann, which players are expected to learn off if they don’t know it already.

[The purpose of the manuals are so] we understand first of all how the kid feels when he comes in. Some of there are nervous. Alex Malone is a debutant, so he’ll write down he’s ‘nervous’. And also we have plenty of quizzes. What are our principles? What’s expected of you? You fill it all out.”

Donohue continues: “I’m very excited about this group. We’ve got a lot of players going forward. We’ve got good defenders who actually like to defend. Also, the togetherness they’ve built is the best I’ve seen in the 14 years I’m doing this. They all get on really well. They played a charity game recently. We do it for the homeless every year. The score doesn’t matter.

“When we scored goals late in the game, they were still celebrating as if it was their first goal. That’s always a good sign of a team really getting a good bond together.

“There’s no pressure on us to win loads of games at 15s. There’s no ranking points. Results are not really our priority. It’s more about getting them used to high performance and what it takes — eating, drinking, sleeping right, performing, reflection.”

unnamed (1) Ireland U15s boss Jason Donohue.

Donohue tells one anecdote that gives an example of how he prepares these youngsters for the more pressurised circumstances they will likely face in future.

“The Pinatar tournament we’re going to next week, it was the equivalent last year. We drew against Spain, drew against Holland and we were playing the third game — Holland were playing Spain and we were playing Hungary.

“We [pretended] if we won by three clear goals, we would qualify for a European semi-final or first phase group, it didn’t matter what Spain or Holland did once we scored three.

“So I put that mindset into their head and said: ‘This is going to be part of your development in a year or two, let’s have a go at it.’ So it was 0-0 at half-time, we came in and said: ‘Listen, you need three clear goals. Go for it, you’ve nothing to lose.’ If you’re in the Europeans, you go home unless you do [score three goals].

“It was funny because we were 2-0 up and there were about two minutes to go in injury time. The parents were saying: ‘Run into the corner, keep the ball.’ I’m saying: ‘No, you need a third one, two won’t do.’

“They scored in the third minute of injury time to get to three and they celebrated like they won the World Cup.”

We are gathered in a room where all the Irish managers from the various levels up to senior congregate once a month.

Mick [McCarthy] will go through Denmark, Switzerland, Gibraltar, I’ll go through Poland, England, Luxembourg,” Donohue explains.

“We go through every game, break it down, what players are doing well, where can they go, how can we make it better.

“[It's based on] the idea that we’re all working together, player identification, so we know who our best pool is.

“Then their skillsets. We judge it off communication, decision-making, execution. We don’t go tactical, physical, technical, because it’s decisions at the top level that will determine if you do well.”

Donohue continues: “I’m hoping we can go out today and play really well. I imagine we will do, because we don’t know any other way. We played Poland [a while back] and it’s the first time we went a goal behind all season.

“We went in at half-time. I said: “What’s going on?’ They go: ‘We don’t want to play this mid-block.’ I said: ‘Why? It’s part of your education.’ They said: ‘It’s not us. Let us go.’

“So I had to listen to them. Second half, they went out and I let them go — they won the game comfortably and they could have won it by a lot more.”

There is plenty of excitement about the new wave of Irish players coming through. Donohue worked with the likes of Troy Parrott, Adam Idah and Lee O’Connor when they were younger, and feels their success is reward for all the hard work being put in at grassroots level.

adam-idah-celebrates-scoring-a-goal Donohue has worked with many of Irish best young players, including Adam Idah. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Irish teams are often described by foreign coaches as full of “fighting spirit”. The thinly veiled implication being that they are not especially good technically. Donohue, however, believes there has been an evolution of late in the way the game is being played in this country.

“I think it comes back even to grassroots. Sometimes, I think we’ve gone full circle. The best pass is a longer one, but we still try to play short, when it’s probably not the best option.

“The grassroots clubs now are playing a better brand of football. You go to Belvedere, Shamrock Rovers, the grassroots play really good football.

“What happens is then the national league came in, the quality of the games, the closeness of the better players together have brought it up to a new level where they’re playing football at a higher level. What that’s done is it made the difference between us playing Australia or Spain closer.

“Whereas they play six or seven times with Ajax or Barcelona, our lads now are getting better equipped, because these games are making them better equipped to play at a higher level.”

Later in the day, after Ireland prevail, Donohue expresses his satisfaction with the performance.

“I thought we were playing an ’04 team. We’re an ’05 team. It’s transpired they were ’03, so they’re two years older than us.

So now I understand why there was a physical battle on the pitch. And what pleases me is how we handled that — still tried to play football, still tried to build up, still tried to apply our principles, and obviously came out 2-0 winners in the end.”

The topic of discussion then turns to these players’ futures. As impressive as they all look now, there will be setbacks along the way. The hard reality is that some of them won’t make it as professional footballers. Many will go to ply their trade in England, though only some will succeed there.

Aside from Rocco Vata of Celtic, Malaga’s Caden McLoughlin and an American-born attacking midfielder of Irish descent, Pearse O’Brien, who flew in from Oakwood FC in Connecticut specifically to make his first appearance, every other member of the squad is currently Irish-based. There are bound to be offers to move to Britain in the coming months. The players consequently face the dilemma of moving straight away or staying to complete their Leaving Cert and hoping offers from abroad continue to come flooding in thereafter.

“I don’t have an opinion on it [either way],” Donohue says. “Every family or every kid has to have a look and see what’s best for them. Do we have an environment in Ireland where they can stay and learn and do their education? I’m not too sure. Do we have the football environment to make sure that happens? 

“I would expect them all to go on to third-level education, if they go to England or not. One of my coaches, [former Ireland international] Sean St Ledger, had to give up the game very young with his knee injury. He would be talking to them a lot about the importance of education. If the career does fall short a little bit, you’ve got something to fall back on. And that’s what we do with these guys. So everyone is different. They live all over the country. They’ve got different offers. I just hope the parents do what’s best for the kid.”

republic-of-ireland-u15-v-australia-u16-international-friendly Irish U15s players celebrate a goal agains Australia. Source: Seb Daly/SPORTSFILE

Donohue is in a better position than most to offer his opinion on such crucial, potentially life-altering decisions.

A former amateur footballer, he started coaching when he was 16 and completed his B licence by 18. He has spent the subsequent 29 years as a coach, while the last 14 of those have been in various roles with the FAI. He started out as a video analyst for the U16s and U17s, and gradually rose the ranks at underage level right up to his current job.

Having witnessed so many young Irish players come through and graduate to the heights of the Premier League, while watching others fail, what attributes does he believe are key in order to come under the former category?

First thing I would say, family support. No peer pressure. Just let them play the game. But also, make sure that they’re prepared to play the game. And they recover well after games. So it keeps them healthy and fit. Once you’re healthy and fit, you can get yourself training more. And if you train more, your training load increases, your fitness increases. And you can maintain your actions on the pitch more. So you can play at a higher intensity.

“Because then they leave here and go to England, they could be training four or five times a week and playing a game. So they have to make sure their bodies accustomed to that when they go over, or they’ll end up being injured and miss two or three quality years.

“It’s difficult for Irish players when they train twice or three times a week, and go over to an environment where they’re training five or six times a week. Their bodies won’t be accustomed to it, so we’ve got to make sure that we as a society in Ireland, when our players go, they’re ready to step up to the challenge. That to me can determine whether they have a future in football or not.

“When they come into us they’ll always have talent or potential. It’s what happens after they leave us can determine are they going to have a good career. What club do they go to? Are they going to have enough minutes on the pitch?

“Adam [Idah] was really good with us at 15s level, started scoring goals at the end of the season, burst on the scene at youth 16s, signed for Norwich and it’s worked out great for him. He’s in a good environment, he’s been on the pitch playing, he’s been one of the mainstays of the players [at underage level] and now he’s played in the Premier League. So it’s worked out great for him in the club he went to, but there are other kids who will go and just don’t play enough minutes. To develop, you need to be on the pitch really. 

“There are so many different variables, it really is difficult. It’s a billion-pound business now, especially in the Premier League. So you’ve got to look at it and see what’s right for your kid before you send them away.”

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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