Schoolboy football is big business in Ireland as many talented players stand out every year. John Fallon, who has been covering the rise of young Irish players for longer than he cares to remember, profiles five who were quite special.
By John Fallon
Casting oneself as a fortune-teller is the preserve of a scout, so the pressure is off journalists when scanning the talent before their eyes on the underage football circuit.
Similar to scouts, journalists very often fall foul of such grandiose forecasts for reasons completely out of theirs and the players’ hands. Many of the standout players at the age of 13 or 14 fade from the elite scene by the time they enter adulthood.
Attempting to pin down a common cause for this trend is foolhardy, for the reasons range across the spectrum from injury, personal family tragedy or, commonly, the neglect of their trade in favour of the trappings that professional footballers attract.
Some, however, gleam so much gold from an early age that their suitors move mountains to barricade them from the inevitable pitfalls accompanying their rapid accent. Players, after all, are investments so, in crude commercial parlance, garnering a return on potential is no certainty.
Below are a few examples of those gems that looked a little bit special from their days operating on Ireland’s local authority pitches. Some names may be familiar.
Played for a record-breaking Cherry Orchard team that were recruited, in suspicious circumstances it must be said, by the emerging force on the opposite side of Dublin, Shelbourne.
The mop-headed Stokes was the lynchpin of a Shels side with Simon Madden in defence, Robert Bayly at the fulcrum and Eoin Doyle assisting the main kid up top.
Bigger, stronger and, most notably, technically superior to his peers, Stokes led the line for club, county and country. Dublin GAA were on his case but the real game won out hands down.
A routine Under 17 friendly in January 2007 stepped up a notch when a first-team player barely 16 rocked up in Dublin for his international debut.
McCarthy had stopped off at Liverpool on the way over, striking a 30-yarded into the top corner during a trial game featuring most of the Reds’ first-team.
During a week of first, the Glaswegian became the only Irish player to be interviewed on international duty in the presence of his agent, who freely informed reporters of his disgust at his native country ignoring the next ‘Kenny Dalglish’.
Ironically enough, for all the hype surrounding McCarthy, he was outshone on his debut by fellow midfielder Conor McCormack as Ireland beat Italy 1-0.
From his time in the small-sided leagues playing for St Kevin’s Boys, Brady had something different about him. His growing status was confirmed at U14 level when, during the Kennedy Cup in Limerick, flocks of football folk converged to gaze in awe of the winger’s talents.
Shortly afterwards, he was playing for both the U15 and U16 Irish teams within the same season. A real class act and it was hardly surprising when Manchester United snapped him up.
Two young Brummies, Grealish and fellow Aston Villa cadet Jordan Graham, flourished on their Irish debuts by running Northern Ireland ragged at Kilternan in June 2010.
While Graham got cold feet and remained with England, Grealish stuck to his guns and has represented Ireland up to U21 level since that day in Wayside Celtic when he won his first cap as a 14-year-old.
Still a relative rookie at Manchester City, Lawlor is Ireland’s best goalkeeping prospect since Shane Supple joined Ipswich Town and looked destined to become a long-term successor to Shay Given.
Lawlor may have climbed to third in the pecking order at the world’s richest club, but he was made to be patient at international level, playing second fiddle to Manchester United youngster Joe Coll until U18 level.
His stunning save against the Czech Republic during the Monaghan-hosted U16 friendly in November 2009 illustrated the raw material possessed by the budding stopper.
*Image courtesy of Sportsfile