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'If young players have too much time on their hands, they'll turn to other things like drink and gambling'

Top schoolboy coach John Bolger has seen his former players go on to have varying degrees of success in the game.

Conor Clifford training with Chelsea's first team in 2010.
Conor Clifford training with Chelsea's first team in 2010.
Image: Chelsea FC via Getty Images

JOHN BOLGER HAS coached some of the brightest young footballers to come through the Irish system.

In more than two decades working with a number of the Dublin District Schoolboy League’s (DDSL) top clubs, he has helped to develop dozens of players who’ve gone on to carve out careers in the game — both abroad and at home in the League of Ireland.

Having started out with Kilnamanagh, Bolger enjoyed significant success at the unfancied Tallaght side before moving on to Cherry Orchard. After six years on The Lawns in Ballyfermot, ex-Ireland international John Devine asked him to link up with the likes of LOI legend Mick Neville and former Brighton midfielder Gary Howlett at Shelbourne.

There, he took over an U11s team that possessed bags of talent including Anthony Stokes, Robert Bayly, Simon Madden, Mark Byrne, Eoin Doyle and Gary McCabe, who — barring Bray Wanderers midfielder McCabe — all earned moves to British clubs.

Anthony Stokes celebrates scoring the second goal Stokes hasn't fulfilled his potential. Source: INPHO

“That was the best side I’ve ever been involved with,” Bolger tells The42.

“They were unbeaten in the league for five years. Simon was a great schoolboy player at centre-half. His reading of the game was exceptional. He’s a really good character too.”

Stokes was the pick of the bunch, and by 15, the striker had joined Arsenal. Highly-rated by Arsene Wenger, he worked his way through the ranks and enjoyed a productive loan spell at Falkirk, but the Dubliner only managed one first-team appearance for the Gunners before Roy Keane brought him to Sunderland for £2million in 2007.

Disciplinary issues have followed him throughout his career, and although Stokes spent six years at Celtic along with spells with Hibernian, Blackburn Rovers and current club Apollon Smyrni of Greece, the nine-time-capped Ireland forward has been unable to live up to the early promise.

“Stokesy was the most talented teenager to come out of this country — absolutely,” claims Bolger, who even rates his ability as a youngster above Ireland’s all-time record goalscorer.

He obviously didn’t achieve anywhere near as much as Robbie Keane, but he was a more talented player. He had two great feet, he was a super header of a ball and he had a brilliant football brain too. As a schoolboy player, he got 50-60 goals every season.

“But there are so many boxes you have to tick. It’s not about just having it down there [points at feet], you’ve got to have that fire in your belly. You have to want to be a footballer, be prepared to listen and take things on board.”

Bayly, meanwhile, moved to Leeds United at 14 but picked up a gambling habit and, after stints at several LOI clubs, the former midfielder was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison last week for transporting almost €200,000 worth of cannabis.

“Bocker was a bit of a wild boy,” Bolger says of the 30-year-old, “but he was a lovely young fella.”

Portsmouth v Leeds United - Carling Cup Bayly in action for Leeds United against Portsmouth midfielder Pedro Mendes. Source: Getty Images

The coach then made a switch to another of the schoolboy heavyweights, Crumlin United, where he had the likes of Richie Towell (Brighton & Hove Albion), Andy Boyle (Preston North End), Aaron Doran (Inverness Caledonian Thistle), Gavin Gunning (Forest Green Rovers), John Sullivan (Bray Wanderers) and Conor Clifford (Dundalk).

And while Doran and Gunning both agreed to join Blackburn Rovers, Chelsea won the race to sign talented midfielder Clifford. A teenage prodigy, he led the Blues to their first FA Youth Cup victory since 1961 in 2010 — scoring the decisive goal against Aston Villa in the final.

With owner Roman Abramovich ploughing millions into the Chelsea’s academy, it was an important milestone for the club and they have lifted the trophy five more times since then.

Thing haven’t gone so well for Clifford, however. A rake of loan spell and short-term moves followed and he wound up playing non-league football before returning to Ireland to join Dundalk a little over a year ago.

Having admitted suffering from depression in a recent interview with the Irish Independent, he is currently serving a six-month ban for breaching betting rules in the UK but hopes to make a comeback in April. It’s another cautionary tale for aspiring players and parents who believe earning a move to a big club is the be-all and end-all.

“Conor was brilliant,” says Bolger. “Unbelievable vision, the only thing he lacked was pace. As a midfielder, he just saw everything.

The way it went at Chelsea was a disaster. They hadn’t won the FA Youth Cup in 49 years, and Conor got the winning goal as captain. John Terry and Frank Lampard were going around with him on their shoulders afterwards because they were delighted with it.

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“I think something like seven managers came through while he was there. He would be called up to the first team but they weren’t giving the youth players a chance, they just wanted to bring in their own players on big money. That would have been very disheartening.

“If young players have too much time on their hands, they will turn to other things to distract them like drinking and gambling. Drink is a major problem when young footballers go away. They want to be out and girls are throwing themselves at them. They’ve nothing else to do.”

Manchester United v Liverpool: U18 Premier League Glen Macauley celebrates scoring for Liverpool's U18s against Man United. Source: Nick Taylor/Liverpool FC

Now with St Joseph’s Boys, Bolger also nurtured the talents of Glen MacAuley, who is lining out for Steven Gerrard’s U18s having joined Liverpool in June 2016.

They still have some way to go, but he has tipped the 17-year-old striker and two more of his former players — Mipo Odubelo and Festy Ebosele — for the top.

Both of Nigerian descent, Tallaght native Odubeko is with Manchester United’s academy, while Enniscorthy’s Ebosele opted for Derby County.

Festy’s a player to watch,” Bolger says of the Ireland U16 international. “He’s the fastest player I’ve ever seen with a ball at his feet, and he can use both of them too — absolutely brilliant. He’s going to be some player if he continues the way he’s going.

“There were other clubs looking at him and he could’ve gone to a bigger one, but he just liked it at Derby. That’s a really important factor when young lads go away, it has to be the right fit for them.”

Bolger has won somewhere in the region of 20 schoolboy league titles to date, but he believes player development is main priority and how you achieve that is by having those best-equipped to improve young footballers in place.

“I’ve been very successful in schoolboy football, and it’s not that I have a magic wand or anything,” he explains. “The key is to always have the best coaches. I know my limitations and you have to have the right people in to look after teams. ”

Image uploaded from iOS Bolger at The42 headquarters last week. Source: The42

Underage football in Ireland is going through major changes right now as the FAI brings in the U19, U17 and U15 National Leagues, with U13s on the way.

Uncertain about where the establishment of these new set-ups leaves them, a number of schoolboy clubs have raised issue with it and Bolger is wary himself.

“I was never up for this National League introduction,” he says. “I thought it was done for financial purposes. For as long as I’m involved in football, the DDSL were always trying to get their hands on some of the money clubs received for players going away. The schoolboy clubs need that for facilities and to keep them running.

And what’s going to happen to all the managers and coaches? Are they going to be taken in by the LOI clubs? I should hope they will be used. We’re going down to U13s next and that will stop schoolboy clubs getting any financial rewards, so the LOI clubs will get everything.

“I envisage the clubs becoming sort of kindergartens. If you look at the players that have come through DDSL, it has been a great set-up and there are some brilliant people involved.”

His own club, St Joseph’s Boys, linked up with Bray Wanderers, while similar partnerships have been agreed between LOI clubs and many of the top schoolboy sides. Despite his reservations, Bolger plans to row in behind the changes and continue to do what he loves best.

“It’s not going to change and this is the way they’re looking to move forward,” he adds. “If this doesn’t work, schoolboy football will collapse in the country. It has to work.

“There are some clubs doing good work out there, like Shamrock Rovers, who have taken a big step and are making an impact under Shane Robinson. If you look at them, they’re employing ex-LOI players, but just because someone had a good playing career doesn’t mean they’re going to be a great coach.

“At the end of the day, we should be all aiming for the same thing — for kids to come through and progress into the international squad.”

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