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'There’s a lot of money in the FAI - what have they got to show for it?'

Alan Caffrey, the Head of Youth Development at renowned schoolboy club St Kevin’s Boys FC, speaks to The42.

Jeff Hendrick has been with Derby County since 2008.
Jeff Hendrick has been with Derby County since 2008.

IT IS THE club where two of Ireland’s most gifted footballers, Liam Brady and Damien Duff, learned their trade.

On Monday night in the Stade de France, two more graduates of the famed academy, Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick, will hope to have their say against Sweden.

And in 20-year-old Jack Byrne, they have another rising star tipped to play a major part in things to come.

St Kevin’s Boys has long the forefront of schoolboy football in Ireland but instead of being helped by the FAI, the Whitehall club feel they are being marginalised by the association.

The FAI has rejected their application to join the new U17 National League, and St Kevin’s have been left frustrated.

Duff Damien Duff went on to win 100 caps for Ireland after leaving St Kevin's for Blackburn Rovers.

The national underage leagues have been developed under FAI Technical Director Ruud Dokter as a pathway for the best schoolboy players to move on and play competitive senior football in the country. As St Kevin’s don’t offer their players that avenue, they were denied entry.

Consequently, the club could face the prospect of losing thousands of euro in compensation fees when one of their players moves to a club in England. Although they will be entitled to some remuneration, the fee they would be entitled to once the player reaches 16 years of age increases significantly.

St Kevin’s did look at the option of joining the League of Ireland First Division as a way to gain entry, but this is not something that is in their plans in the near future.

“I think it’s because we are another Dublin team that [the FAI] have an issue,” says Alan Caffrey, Head of Youth Development, citing the Kerry District League and Salthill Devon as examples of teams that gained entry in similar circumstances.

“I agree that there are too many clubs from Dublin but just because you have a history of 100 years you shouldn’t automatically get in.

How can the FAI trust League of Ireland clubs to provide players for the future, when most of them are struggling to fund and manage their own senior sides?

“It is leading the best players to play in clubs where the full-time sides are struggling. Some League of Ireland clubs have players paying for the bus to matches. The requirement should be investment, not who you know, or what your name is.”

Despite the setback from the FAI, the future still looks bright for the Dublin club having beaten Barcelona earlier this year in the Academy Cup.

The annual competition, which they organise and host themselves, has attracted some of the best club sides from across Europe to Ireland in recent years, namely Arsenal, Ajax, Celtic and Real Madrid.

Caffrey, who has worked as an Academy manager at Premier League side West Brom, believes that if the tournament was held in England it would be heavily backed by the FA, and is disheartened by the FAI’s attitude towards youth football.

“Barcelona were highly complementary of the tempo we brought to it. They were very surprised how well we did on the ball.”
He adds: “The clubs are doing the job of working with the coaches and getting the [Irish] team qualified. There’s a lot of money in the FAI – what have they got to show for it?

The clubs should get recognised because the players are not coming through the FAI. Nobody from the FAI has spoken to me in the last eight years I’ve been here.

“If you go to some of the former clubs of the Irish players, you probably see the team changing at the side of the road.

“Look at the Dublin [GAA] starting team this summer and compare it to their clubs they come from and look at their investment. There’s a big difference in grassroots football in this country.”

St Kevin’s, who will be holding trials for new players this summer, have a close link with West Brom with up to five sides travelling over to the Premier League club each year while their coaches also go over to share ideas. Working with the Baggies also helps the club identify the type of players they should be recruiting.

You’ve got to have enthusiasm and love for the game. Players that want to play, want to train, want to learn.

“All of our teams play the same way, it makes it easier for the best players to make the step up.”

Caffrey doesn’t believe in the idea that the score of games between children shouldn’t be kept and that is important to preserve the naturally competitive spirit of children.

“The best players will always want to win – they have the winning mentality at all levels, they all want to win. Even in training, scores will always be kept. In street football you’re always keeping scores. It’s the first thing you say after the game.”

The club also feel it is their responsibility to remind the young players at the club the importance of obtaining a good education and that if they don’t make it as a professional, that there is life outside out of football.

Located on the Shanowen Road, the club is only a short distance from the campus of Dublin City University and there have been discussions between to the two parties to work together and develop a scholarship scheme, but to no avail so far.

“If we had players from St Aidan’s [the local school] getting a good education and then going on to DCU to do a scholarship that would be ideal, but they have strong GAA connections there.

“The dream of becoming a footballer will only happen to a select few. Only a small percentage make the breakthrough. Education is very important and something to work on.”

The board of the club have to take the credit for helping the club cultivate an environment in which young players can reach their potential, he continues.

“The board of the club are always thinking of the future and putting plans in place. They are not easy to find, you would have more in GAA clubs and rugby clubs. We have good facilities, that is very important.”

One former player, David McKay, took up a scholarship in America and is now a sports scientist with MLS side Orlando City while the game at home is littered with former players with Dundalk’s Ronan Finn one of the League of Ireland’s standout performers.

Jack Byrne is still a regular visitor to the club and is arguably the most exciting Irish prospect in recent years. From a young age, Caffrey knew Byrne was a special talent.

Byrne Jack Byrne will be hoping to impress new Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola after his loan spell with Cambuur in Holland/

“From an early age he stood out, he was never shy. He always had an opinion on the game. He was a manager and a coach on the pitch — all the top players are.

No matter how talented you are though, it still comes down to work rate and he worked hard. He has good people around him, his family and agents will look after him.

Caffrey is optimistic that St Kevin’s will continue to produce players that will become stars for Ireland, with particular high hopes for 18-year-old West Brom defender Robbie McCourt, who has featured regularly for their U21 side and Daniel Mandroiu of Brighton another possible future Ireland international.

Despite the challenges ahead, St Kevin’s remain confident they will continue to produce international quality players — with or without the help of the FAI.

With special thanks to Neil Fox who assisted with this article.

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