With all the talk of the on-going Jack Grealish saga, it is worth noting that similar scenarios aren’t unheard of in Ireland’s underage system.
Connor Ronan was one of the stand-out players for the U17s at this month’s Uefa European Championships in Bulgaria, where Ireland performed admirably against heavyweights the Netherlands, Italy and England but only came away from the tournament with a single point.
The Rochdale-born attacking midfielder, on the books at Wolverhampton Wanderers, played in all three games and impressed most ahead of Liverpool defender Conor Masterson and goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher — currently of Ringhmahon Rangers but on his way to join Masterson on Merseyside this summer.
Before linking up with Ireland, Ronan lined out twice for England back in February. Since then, however, he has a blossomed in green jersey and had the unusual experience of playing against a number of former international team-mates in the final group match last week.
According to his manager, the 17-year-old took it all in his stride.
“Connor has an amazing temperament for the game,” Mohan told The42 this week. “Nothing fazes him and once he goes out on the pitch all he wants to do is play football. It doesn’t matter if it’s his brother he is playing against!
“He is a really good find for us and we’re thrilled to get a player of that type of quality. He has brought a lot to our group since he came in.”
Former Finn Harps midfielder Mohan, who has been in the job since 2012, is under no illusions that Ireland must avail Fifa’s eligibility rules and track players born outside the country in order to be competitive.
We’re a small nation so you want to make the pool of players as wide as you can,” he said. “From that, you select what I feel are the best players to bring the squad on.
“We’ve got a strong group of scouts over in the UK constantly identifying players and going to watch matches of our own home-grown players who go over. We’re a small nation so we have to use any advantage that we can.”
Whatever the reason for uncertainty, be it national identity or otherwise, Mohan stresses that the young men deciding where his international career lies needs to be given adequate time and space to make the right choice.
If the player is committed, he will be welcomed with open arms by the other squad members.
“One of the most important things is that players must want to play for you,” Mohan adds. “They must want to play for Ireland and any of the ones we have brought in have given real passion and commitment. They give everything for the jersey and that has been brilliant.
They have mixed in well with the group and that is testament to our home-based players and our staff for creating a good atmosphere and making the players that come in feel as Irish as the ones who are born here.”
On paper, it would appear that Ireland’s U17s were well-deserving of their early exit from the competition last week but that doesn’t tell the true story. They held their own for large spells of all three games and played a refreshing brand of football, which saw the defenders comfortable in possession while beginning patient build-ups from the back.
Mohan couldn’t fault their effort and is keen to praise the group as opposed to any individual player for the skill and character they all showed.
“I was definitely pleased with the performances,” he said. “At the end of the day, we weren’t overawed by any of the opponents and a lot of our players put in really good performances. We went toe-to-toe with some of the bigger nations in Europe and we gave as good as we got when it came to possession and stringing passages of play together.
“The players proved that we are equal to a lot of the top nations but unfortunately we just weren’t clinical with your chances and when we made mistakes we were punished. They are the lessons we can take from that level of football.
“There is a good group there and my only concern going into the tournament was that some players might get caught up in the occasion. It’s hyped-up and that can get to some players but the mentality was brilliant and they never let it faze them.
“But they proved they have good technical ability and also strong mentality and character. No one went hiding at any stage of any game and every one of them stood up to be counted whether on top of games or under pressure. That’s a massive trait to have.”
After their 0-0 draw with the Dutch, Ireland suffered defeats to Italy (2-0) and England (1-0) and Mohan’s biggest disappointment is that they were unable to turn their opportunities into goals.
That’s the one thing that really does stick with me, that we didn’t take our chances. But it’s not as if we didn’t create any as we got into good areas throughout the three games.
“That’s a learning curve because when you go up against the higher nations you will come up against better defenders and goalkeepers. You have to do things quicker but unfortunately we didn’t take those chances.”
Steven Kinsella, Ireland’s “most prolific attacking young player” was a notable absentee due to injury and the Everton midfielder was missed, Mohan explains.
“If anyone has seen Steven play, he is a real talent and one for the future. He has had a nightmare season with injury and it has been one after another. That has been very disappointing for him.
“I brought him in last year and he starred even at a year younger. He tore teams apart with his natural ability in one-v-one situations. This would have been a great stage for him to shine on and he would have been an extra spark in attack.”
With the introduction of the U17 National League, kicking off in August for a short season before beginning its first full campaign in April, the FAI are starting to put plans into place to improve how we develop players and Mohan sees it as a move in the right direction.
“National league and the League of Ireland clubs are putting a greater emphasis on youth and developing their young players. There are an awful lot of hard working people out there who put their heart and soul into developing players. I’m in a fortunate position where a lot of work has been done before they come into me. You can see that especially with this group of players.
Some players go over to the English clubs at a young age while others just aren’t ready to go at that age. A lot of these boys at home are in good training programmes, maybe the families want to keep them at home to finish their education.
“It’s not a case that if you don’t go at 16 or 17 then they are not going to go. The door is always open. If you look at the likes of Seamus Coleman and Shane Long who went over late and still went on to play senior international football and carve out good careers in the game.
“The U17 National League is going to be a massive advantage with players playing in it every week. I think that is a major step from the FAI.”
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