Colm Barron (centre) plans out part of the session with Shelbourne's youth players.
up close

Dedication and strain on frontline of a League of Ireland academy

The 42 visited Shelbourne earlier this week to get an up close look at the work being done by Colm Barron, Aaron Roe and an army of volunteers.

IN THE CONVERTED shower room that Colm Barron has called an office for almost three years, a small ray of light shines through the narrow window above his head onto the desk.

We are in a space about the same size as a box room.

When Barron took on the job as Shelbourne academy manager in May 2021 and got settled in the club’s rented training base at the Athletic Union League (AUL) Complex in north Dublin, directly beneath the landing path of the airport, he needed somewhere to work.

“You have to be creative,” he says.

So the old shower heads and tiles were ripped out and some leftover astro turf was laid out for carpet.

In the corner is a small IKEA storage unit for boots and on a white board opposite the desk is a list of some fixtures and upcoming events for some of the club’s 27 youth teams – from the Under-20 National League side to the Super Reds academy for four and five year olds.

There has been an added spotlight on League of Ireland academies in recent weeks, in particular Shelbourne’s, due to the forthright views of the club’s first-team manager Damien Duff.

“First and foremost it comes down to contact hours,” he said in February. “The onus is on academies to send away better players as the player going at 16 or 18 is too late to be polished up. Can we make better players from 8 to 16? Absolutely.”

Earlier this month, as the saga to appoint a manager for the senior men’s Republic of Ireland team continued, Duff reiterated his priorities.

“When I say the league is the future it comes from the academies. Get the best manager in the world, Pep Guardiola or whoever, it still starts with academies. The manager who comes in (now) will be long gone by the time academies start churning out the players. That’s why the league is the future.”

And that’s why The 42 is here on this Tuesday afternoon.

It is a little after 12.30pm when some of Shelbourne’s first team players are heading home after a morning’s training.

Barron opened his laptop to start planning his day at 6am and it will be 9.30pm when the final group of Under-17 and Under-20 National League players finish their second pitch session of the day.

“Sixty hours a week are the norm,” he says. “All of our coaches and manager who are volunteers, who have families and their jobs and lives of their own, are committing 25 to 30 hours as well as that.” 

Barron is one of only two full-time staff members designated to the academy, along with Aaron Roe who was made permanent last May having also volunteered in the previous two years.

Barron is long used to the long hours. From the moment he had to give up playing due to issues with his back and hamstrings while at Bohemians under Stephen Kenny and Gino Brazil, the Dubliner began a coaching journey that took him to various academies in Spain, St Kevin’s Boys, stints with Dundalk and Warrenpoint Town. He also opened his own individual academy to help nurture talent like Evan Ferguson.

Roe’s title is ‘Head of Small-Sided Games’, everything from those four and five-year-olds in the pre-academy to the Under-13 side in the Dublin District Schoolboys’ League.

He is on hand today, as he is every Tuesday, but his remit is dominated by everything below National League level.

The Super Reds train here for one hour every Saturday.

damien-duff Shelbourne's first team manager Damien Duff. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

The six and seven-year-olds get two hours a week with matches spread throughout the year. The weather has been so bad for the past few months the coaches here reckon November was the last time they were able to play on grass rather than astro.

The eight to 10-year-old group train for two-and-a-half hours a week with games on Saturdays and Sundays. The 11 to 13-year-olds get four hours of training in three sessions a week – one of which has been dedicated to futsal since before Christmas.

“We know it’s not enough but we are all putting everything we have into this,” Roe says.

Something has to give and it feels like it will eventually.

There is an army of volunteers keeping the show on the road – from the likes of Ronan Mulvey who works in tandem with Roe while juggling work and family life, to the retired John Moore who is on hand as manager of the National League Under-14 team while also doing a million and one other odd jobs.

It is approaching a year since Barron was able to successfully implement a small but important change in the schedule. When he first arrived, he recalls how training nights for the four National League academy sides were fragmented with sessions on different nights throughout the week.

That has now changed and they are all together on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

They are pushing to the limit with the resources – financial and human – available and yet… “I would ideally like us to be able to add in at least one more day like this one on a Wednesday,” Barron says.

This day sees all four National League sides spend five and a half hours at the AUL Complex after parents and schools agreed for them to get half days to be able to attend.

The U14s and 15s arrive for their first pitch session from 2.30pm until 4pm, which is taken by Barron and focuses on the core principles of play he has set out.

“We do two to three reports for each player a year and this is what it is linked to,” he says.

The players will then swap between the canteen for lunch and a 40-minute strength and conditioning session overseen by first team coach Mauro Martins.

An hour for homework is set aside before their coaches arrive for video analysis and an evening pitch session that follows the curriculum of 11 topics that Barron has established for all coaches.

“I don’t give them the session and tell them they have to do it like this, they need to be allowed use their own creativity and ideas to get it across, you have to allow them that freedom. How they reach the objective is up to them but the objective remains the same,” Barron says.

When the younger groups finish that first pitch session at 4pm, that is when the U17s and U20s arrive, following the same schedule and session plan as before.

“We want to create an environment for them that makes them all feel together, to create a culture where they build relationships and trust outside of just being on the pitch as footballers. They are more than that.”

Only 25% of each session is carried out unopposed.

“Communication, decision-making and execution in everything we do,” Barron says. “For that to happen, to use those elements of awareness of space and awareness of time, the work needs to be done under pressure so our players can gain the understanding and intelligence in a game.

For Barron, it’s not just about developing technique, it’s about instilling the confidence for the players to be able to use it and understand how to make the best decisions with the ball under pressure at all times.

“It’s been the case in Spain since 2001 so that shows you just how much we’re catching up,” he admits.

IMG_0053 Dan Ring (left) and Finn Sherlock.

Two of the older group thriving are U20 forward Dan Ring and U17 defender Finn Sherlock, both underage Ireland internationals.

Ring is from 10 minutes away in Bayside while Sherlock travels up every week from Cavan. On Tuesdays he gets a coach to Dublin airport and is then collected by John Moore. It’s a routine he has gotten used to over the last 12 months having initially decided to go for an open trial three years ago when GAA had been his primary focus until the age of 12.

In the summer, when he turns 16, Sherlock will head for Bundesliga club Hoffenheim having agreed a deal in recent weeks. He is already taking German lessons as he will be expected to be fluent by his second season.

“I’m ambitious and I want to see where it will take me, it’s exciting and I just want to keep working and pushing myself as much as I can to see what I can achieve, otherwise you will look back with regret,” Sherlock says.

Ring is a year older and acknowledges the impact of Brexit on players’ options when they’re under 18.

“The work we do here every week makes us feel like we’re getting better and improving. You want to learn the game and become the best that you can and if that means staying in Ireland and getting the chance to play in a first-team environment that could be the best thing possible to help.”

There have been a couple of meetings for Barron with FAI director of football Marc Canham as well as League of Ireland Academy Development Manager Will Clark.

The Player Pathways Plan that was published last month is a document that relies on the successful implementation of the €863 million Facility Investment Vision and Strategy for Irish Football.

That has been overshadowed by events involving the soon-to-be-former chief executive Jonathan Hill, who faced two gruelling sessions in front of Oireachtas joint committees and announced earlier this week that he will depart at the end of this month.

People like Barron and counterparts like Liam Kearney at Cork City, Conor O’Grady at Sligo Rovers or Mike Geoghegan at Waterford (to name a few) are working within what seems like a constant climate of confusion and uncertainty.

Current costs to run an academy in the League of Ireland – as is set to be explained by the FAI next week – range from €150,000 to €450,000. That is why plenty in the game would prefer to see the second stage – the Elite Phase – of the National League season extended from June to November to January to November.

“Ultimately, the National League is supposed to be about producing players that will be capable of playing for the senior Ireland team. That is what the basis of everything should be,” Barron says.

“How do we do that? How do we create an environment for these players to do that? That should be the vision, the end goal.”

There solidarity grants from UEFA to the tune of just over €60,000 per club while the FAI top that up by a further €15,000, although that is inclusive of travel grants and Shels alone spent in the region of €20,000 for that last season as costs continue to spiral.

IMG_0049 Part of an academy training session on Tuesday.

Amid the dedication of the players, coaches and staff, there is also a very clear strain on the various workloads.

When the academy system is still in its infancy and so much strain is being placed on those at the coalface, with no apparent easing of the burden, it seems clear that a natural consequence will be the burnout and churn of dedicated and talened staff and volunteers.

And for all the positive work being done on the men’s side, Barron accepts that the fact the two Women’s National League academy teams are not part of these Tuesday sessions are due to financial constraints.

“The club have been great with what they do but how much can clubs keep pushing themselves, there is a responsibility for help and investment to come in,” Barron says.

“That’s what’s needed for this to be successful in the long term but also sustainable.

“It feels like hitting a roadblock because we are getting close to as far as we can go with it, yet I’m looking at it like how can we do more, what more can we do to make this better?

“It’s not just us, we are all hitting the same constraints. Where is the progress going to come?

“Where is the financial backing to help the coaches so they can then get that extra 10% from themselves to be able to help the players.

“The players is who this is all about because it’s on all of us throughout the country to develop them and to do it at a standard that Irish football deserves.”

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