Paul Doolin announced his U19 Republic of Ireland squad this week, which brought up the question of how is the next generation of future Irish stars are faring as they rise through the ranks?
Republic of Ireland U19 squad
Ian Lawlor – Manchester City, Danny Rogers – Aberdeen, Brian Lenihan – Cork City, Thomas Hoban – Watford (C), Pierce Sweeney – Reading, Ryan O’Reilly – Stoke City, Shane Griffin – Reading, Bradley Garmston – West Bromwich Albion, Ryan Coombes – St Patrick’s Athletic, Luke Gallagher – Burnley, Kenneth McEvoy – Tottenham Hotspur, Kieran Sadlier – West Ham Utd, Michael Drennan – Aston Villa, Conor Wilkinson – Millwall, Jack Grealish – Aston Villa, Noe Baba – Castlebar Celtic, Conor Pepper – Inverness CT, Sam Byrne – Manchester Utd
There is good reason to be optimistic with several youngsters already established with some of the bigger clubs in the Premier League. One such player is Dublin born goalkeeper Ian Lawlor, 17, who plays for premiership champions Manchester City. The Republic U19 first choice keeper impressed last season with the reserves, and despite being a tender age for a goalkeeper he appears to be on the cusp of a call up to the senior side. Although Lawlor may not be threatening Joe Hart just yet but he is very highly rated by the club and flew out with the club on their pre season tour.
Brian Lenihan has taken a different route and recently signed a contract extension with Cork City that will see him stay at the club until 2014. Only 18 years old, Lenihan has already made a handful of senior competitive appearances and made his debut for the Republic of Ireland U19’s in September’s friendly draw against Latvia in Riga. He can play in defence or midfield and will look to build on his promising start at Cork City and become a regular starter.
Noe Baba arrived in Ireland at the age of ten, with no English he was forced to stand in goal during lunchtime kick abouts. Over the last five years, Baba has grown into one of the hottest properties in Irish football with the likes of Manchester United keeping a keen eye on the young centre back and former captain of the U16 Republic of Ireland side. Still only 16 years old, Baba has been the subject of interest from clubs that read like an introduction to Match of the Day. Manchester United, Arsenal, Manchester City, Everton, West Ham, Birmingham, Newcastle, Blackburn and Fulham have all had a close look. So too have Glasgow Celtic although Manchester United remain favourites for his signature.
Reading FC have continued their close association with Irish youngster by signing highly rated 17 year old Pierce Sweeney from Bray Wanderers. Sweeney made 12 appearances for Bray last season and follows fellow Irishmen Kevin Doyle and Shane Long in moving from Ireland to the Premier League leaving Cork City and St Patrick’s respectively.
Speaking about Sweeney’s move to Reading, Director of Football Nicky Hammond said, “At the age of 17, Pierce is a young player with great potential and one that we’ve identified and watched over a long period of time. He is entering an excellent environment, and I know he will work extremely hard to try and realise his ambitions. The recruitment of young talent is massively important for us going forward, and after doing well in men’s football in the League of Ireland he will now come into our development group.”
Another of the current crop of midfielders is Conor Pepper, the 18 year old Dubliner who moved to Inverness CT last summer on trial and was recently awarded a permanent contract after impressing manager Terry Butcher. Pepper plays in central midfield and has previously played for Queens Park Rangers before moving back to Dublin to play for St Patrick’s.
Another highly rated Irish youngster making his way in the premiership is Michael Drennan, the Aston Villa forward. Aston Villa are blooding a number of youngsters these days as they weed out some of their more expensive acquisitions over the years. Drennan could be among the next in line for a starting spot at Villa Park after impressing at youth level. He starred for Villa during the Next Gen series last season and is a prolific forward who could take some of the goalscoring pressure off Darren Bent and Christian Benteke.
Alongside Drennan, winning headlines and scoring for West Ham U18’s is Kieran Saddler. There are few better footballing educations than the one on offer at West Ham’s ‘Academy of Football’ and his current form would suggest that it is paying off. His goalscoring form in the U18 team could see him breakthrough into the reserve squad with the obvious goal of a first team slot in sight in the next two or three years.