'It’s a no-brainer' - Calls to align calendars of schoolboy and LOI academy seasons

Head of the Cork City academy, Liam Kearney, talks to The42 ahead of the beginning of this season’s national underage leagues.

Liam Kearney.
Liam Kearney.
Image: Seb Daly/SPORTSFILE

AFTER AN OFF-SEASON not without acrimony, the League of Ireland underage leagues return this weekend. Well, all but one: the U15s, U17s and U19s leagues kick off this weekend, but the U14s has been delayed until July. 

Last December, the FAI board voted to delay the beginning of the U14 season to the summer to avoid the break-up of schoolboy clubs midway through their winter season. The misaligned calendars are a source of ongoing friction: the LOI academies play a summer season; the schoolboy clubs from whom they recruit play a winter season. 

The FAI decision was met with a furious statement by Shamrock Rovers, calling for an explanation of what they called a “random, ill-thought out” decision. With the FAI board sticking by their original decision, clubs have decided to recruit as normal and arrange friendly games among themselves until the league officially begins. 

This was met with reciprocal anger among schoolboy sections in the country, with the secretary of the Cork Schoolboys League, Eddie Doyle, condemning Cork City and Cobh for recruiting players, claiming they were “acting despicably” and denying players the opportunity to play in the long-running, representative Kennedy Cup. 

Liam Kearney is the Head of the Cork City academy. 

“Look it was a but disappointing to hear, how it was said and what was said”, he tells The42. ”There is frustration there, a lot of it can stem from the lack of alignment of the leagues. Do we want to be taking three or four players from a club halfway through their season? No we don’t. But at the same time, as a Head of Academy, it’s important we get the best players in to our structure for their development.

“To play with the best players and against the best players in the country. That, for me, is the biggest thing.” 

Kearney admits disappointment at how the situation played out – feeling there was little discussion over the matter and that it was implemented with no warning – but rejects assertions the friendly games being arranged between academy clubs are meaningless. 

“I know people say they’re meaningless friendlies but it’s about development. Results at U14 level don’t matter, whether they’re friendlies or official league games.” 

Kearney says he would like to see the leagues aligned as a summer season. 

“I think it’s a no-brainer. There’s a lot of reasons to me as to why the summer season is better. The pitches are better, the games are better and the style and standard of football is better. I’d like to see all leagues aligned to a summer season, the amount of games that are cancelled in winter anyway, weeks go by when teams don’t have any games.

“It makes sense for me. It’s a big conversation to have and I’m open to sitting around a table with all the different stakeholders. For me, it’s about building that relationship, that’s key. It’s not ‘them and us’, we certainly don’t want that. As I’ve said already, we get our players from the schoolboy clubs and we want to work with them as much as we can.”

Cork City’s academy earned lots of reflected media attention in recent weeks, with a publicity blitz accompanying confirmation of Cathal Heffernan’s transfer to AC Milan. Heffernan played with Cork’s U19s last year and made his first-team debut toward the season’s end, and last month joined the Italian giants on a six-month loan deal. 

It’s accepted across the board that the academy system in Ireland is underfunded, however, with Kearney one of just six full-time Academy heads in the country.

Contrary to what may be the perception, Kearney points to the quality of players and the style of play on show in games to say that the academy system in Ireland is in a  ”really good place.” 

He says, however, that academies like Cork’s are being run “in a professional way while not being professional.”

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“Sometimes it feels like you’re operating with one hand tied behind your back. I just want funding for the whole league. We’ve only six Academy heads employed full-time. If we’re talking about keeping players from signing for AC Milan, we have to be realistic about improving our professionalism. That means offering full-time roles, other than just Academy heads, and building the infrastructure.

“With pitches and facilities, we’re doing the best in our circumstances. [Treaty United manager] Tommy Barrett said in the spite of our lack of funding there’s still a great product here. We’ve got talent that matches the best internationally. We saw that lately with our U17s beating Belgium. We’re in a stronger position, but I’d rather not be saying ‘in spite of’ but ‘because of.’

There have been times that Kearney himself has had to find the money to fund aspects of the academy. 

“I came in last year and I’m trying to improve [from] where it was. I’ve said to the club that they’ve got to do more and in fairness to the club, they’re saying it [the money] is just not there. I understood that so I said, ‘Okay I’ll go find it myself.’

“There’s always something you need. Only yesterday, I spoke to Kevin Doyle. He’s a friend of mine and we played on the same Cork City team for years. I said, ‘Kevin, I need a mast for the cameras to record the matches’ and he said, ‘Alright, I’ll sort you out.’”

“You kind of have to lose that fear about asking people. Kevin was talking about having a great spell at Cork City and how he wouldn’t have gone on to have the career he did without them. That’s just part of the job.” 

mark-omahony Mark O'Mahony. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

In spite of the challenges, the Cork academy is stocked with talent: striker Mark O’Mahony has signed professional terms with the club and has been capped at U17 international level, along with another Cork striker, Franco Umeh. 

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Gavin Cooney

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