Young Guns

9 footballers poised to make the breakthrough in 2024

We take a look at the youngsters that might shine at senior level this year.

AHEAD OF THE pre-season tournaments, county managers will be throwing their options open and having a look at some prospects that could add an injection into their team for the 2024 season.

Here, we look at some of the recent stars of recent U20 campaigns and those bubbling under who can make a serious impact in the next couple of seasons.  

1. Luke Marren (Sligo – Bunninadden)

A key figure as Sligo won the Connacht minor championship in 2021 and the Under 20 provincial crown last year, Marren finished as the overall top scorer in the competition with 0-31 from five matches.

luke-marren Luke Marren. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

This is all the more impressive, given that their conquerors in the final, Kildare, played seven matches given the way the early stages of the Leinster championship was played as a round robin.

Sligo manager Tony McEntee did not try to rush the likes of Marren, as well as the commanding figure of centre-back Canice Mulligan through to the senior team over the summer. 

Blessed with a cuteness beyond his years in terms of off-the-ball movement and phenomenal accuracy with ball in hand, we will see Marren soon enough.  

2. James McGrath (Kildare – Athy)

With Kildare winning the All-Ireland U20 Championship, Kildare’s James McGrath was named Player of the Year at this level.

james-mcgrath James McGrath. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

He was also a key figure in the side that reached the 2022 final against Tyrone but truly grew into his role in 2023. Against Dublin in the Leinster final, the side had a nervy display but McGrath stood above the fray with his leadership as the game went into extra-time a huge factor as they won 0-16 to 0-13.

Has yet to be given a chance at senior county level and is not one of the names included for tomorrow night’s Dioralyte O’Byrne Cup meeting with Carlow.

3. Seanie O’Donnell (Tyrone – Trillick)

A key figure of the Tyrone side that won the U20 All Ireland in 2022, O’Donnell seems to have jumped the queue into a senior spot for the Red Hands senior team.

seanie-odonnell-celebrates Seanie O'Donnell. Andrew Paton / INPHO Andrew Paton / INPHO / INPHO

A nephew of Peter Canavan and therefore first cousins of Darragh and Ruairí Canavan, the Trillick lad is earmarked for a bigger contribution in 2024 by joint-managers Brian Dooher and Feargal Logan after he came on in championship games against Galway, Westmeath and Kerry.

One of the stars of Trillick’s run to the senior title domestically, he scored an incredible 1-1 in two minutes against Scotstown in the Ulster semi-final with forays upfield. 

4. Cillian Burke (Kerry – Milltown Castlemaine)

Jack O’Connor watched his sons claim Kerry intermediate honours in November, when facing the scoring might of the Clifford brothers from Fossa, but his eye will have been drawn that day to another Milltown-Castlemaine player.

cillian-burke Ben Brady / INPHO Ben Brady / INPHO / INPHO

Cillian Burke was terrific for the champions, an all-action power runner in the middle, as evidenced by his break for the crucial second goal in that game.

He had also featured for Mid Kerry in the Kingdom senior decider in November, 15 years after his father Mike captained the division to lift the Bishop Moynihan Cup.

On the inter-county underage stage, Burke has picked up Munster U20 medals over the past two campaigns in Kerry colours and a call-up to the senior ranks appears imminent.

5. Theo Clancy (Dublin – Kilmacud Crokes)

It was a year of major assignments at the edge of the square for Theo Clancy.

theo-clancy Theo Clancy. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

He began on 8 January in Croke Park as Kilmacud Crokes passed their All-Ireland semi-final test against Kerins O’Rahillys, and finished in the same stadium contributing to a Leinster title victory over Naas.

In between, he won an All-Ireland medal for his club and aided them in the completion of three-in-a-row in Dublin.

His assured play and range of defensive attributes mark him out as a player to watch. Lined out for the Dublin U20 team that contested the Leinster final last April, only handed off after extra-time by Kildare.

Kilmacud will be his focus with the upcoming All-Ireland rematch with Glen, but there seems good potential of a rise with Dublin.

6. Ciaran Caulfield (Meath – Trim)

As Colm O’Rourke looks ahead to his second season, he will be looking for even more from Ciaran Caulfield.

ciaran-caulfield-with-liam-kerr Ciaran Caulfield. Evan Treacy / INPHO Evan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

At the back end of the season, he gave him a taste of Tailteann Cup action and he started the final as the Royals beat Down. Caulfield has been showing promise through the system and in 2020 won a Special Recognition Award for Leinster after organising a 500km socially-distanced walk that raised funds for the ‘Do it For Dan’ campaign.

A good ball carrier suitable for the half-back and half-forward line, Caulfield is a thoroughly modern player and with Cian McBride back from the AFL, O’Rourke’s hand is strengthened.

7. Ruairi Forbes (Derry – Ballinderry)

Under previous manager Rory Gallagher, Derry often went to games with a light panel. Even in last summer’s Ulster final they only had 29 players in the programme, while opponents Armagh named 51 players.

ruairi-forbes-with-nathan-farry Ruairí Forbes. Declan Roughan / INPHO Declan Roughan / INPHO / INPHO

However, they have plenty of underage talent coming through and one of those is Ruairí Forbes. Playing for the U20 side this year he looked physically huge up against his opponents and scored a glorious goal after just six minutes in their first game against Fermanagh, advancing from half-back.

Already has come under the notice of new management Mickey Harte and Gavin Devlin – who will be well aware of Forbes given the relationship between clubs around his own area – and is expected to make an appearance in the Bank of Ireland Dr McKenna Cup.

8. Sean Morahan (Mayo – Castlebar)

Named as captain by manager Maurice Sheridan for the Mayo U20 team last year, their season was over in mid-April with a defeat to Sligo.

sean-morahan Sean Morahan. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Has been drafted into the Mayo senior team’s plans after Kevin McStay included him in the squad that played the Mayo Club All Stars team last Saturday in the Connacht GAA COE Air Dome.

Another defender on this list with a central role, he has shown maturity beyond his years while Mayo are still seeking the long-term replacement for Colm Boyle.

9. David Buckley (Cork – Newcestown)

Buckley really burst to prominence in 2021 when the Cork U20s landed Munster football honours.

david-buckley David Buckley. Bryan Keane / INPHO Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

He fired 0-10 (seven from play) in that provincial decider against Tipperary in a highly impressive showing.

Reward came in the form of a senior breakthrough in the 2022 league, starting the opener against Roscommon, but injuries have stalled his progress at different junctures since.

Sparkled for his club last season, shooting 0-9 (six from play) as Newcestown won the county final last November that promoted them to top-level senior football. Named to start tomorrow night in Cork’s McGrath Cup opener against Clare.

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel