The 2023 season was yet again a very fruitful one for the coaches and young players of the Shamrock Rovers FC Academy. Success is not measured by silverware alone; the bigger picture is the overall development of the players who are on the books of the club. With a very exciting climax to the DDSL season during the early summer that included our Under 13s winning the SFAI Cup – and retaining the honour for the club in the process – the current crop of younger players who are making their way up the ranks is indeed satisfactory.
In this article, we will take a look at how the various teams got on this year in the League of Ireland underage leagues.
The year began with players back in training in the gym before moving out to the pitches. The traditional photo shoot for profile photos was completed in mid-February. That’s always an occasion in itself. For each player it represents another moment captured as they are a year older and in the vast majority of cases, have made the move up to a higher age group.
While not all clubs in the League of Ireland have teams at each age level, Shamrock Rovers have always been amongst the leading clubs in fielding a team in each of the underage leagues. This year, as has been the case under the present structure, the club fielded teams in the following leagues:
- Under 14 Boys
- Under 15 Boys
- Under 17 Men
- Under 19 Men
- Under 17 Women
- Under 19 Women
Our 2010 group won the SFAI Under 13 Cup this year when they beat Limerick side Pike Rovers in the final, staged in Cahir. This very promising group of boys are currently in temporary limbo in a playing sense as they have to wait until next March before they can play a competitive game when they enter the LOI Under 14 League. They will not have played a competitive game since mid-May last.
Although there is a league for the LOI U14 Academy, it is not a competitive one. In other words, results are not officially recorded for the benefit of placings in a league table. There is a cup competition though. Not surprisingly, our 2009 group, who participated in the league this year, proved to be one of the strongest teams. They were probably too strong for many of the teams they came up against in the first phase earlier in the year, but the second half of the season presented them with tougher challenges and that is exactly what they needed. They went through the entire league programme unbeaten, just as they did last year.
They also went all the way to the final of the Eddie Wallace Cup but lost 2-1 to St. Patrick’s Athletic on the day. Quite a few of the players from our 2009 group were called up by Ireland for international assessments. Danny Burke, Alan Sattell, Tadhg Prizeman, Richard Ferizaj, Desmond Armstrong and Victor Ozhianvuna were all called up by Ireland for an Under 15 tournament in Serbia involving the host nation and also Greece and Venezuela.
Aaron Greene and Stephen McPhail took charge of this group which will move up to Under 15 level in 2024.
Our present Under 15 squad, the 2008 Group, managed by Graham Gartland and Pat Flynn, did have a competitive league to play in this year. They rarely dropped points in their quest for the league title, but two defeats to St. Pat’s – their nearest challengers – proved costly in the long run. As they went into their final game, away to Treaty United, they needed to win – which they did – but it fell just short as the Saints managed a draw in their final game and won the title on goal difference.
These two sides stood out this year and it was no surprise the Under 15 Michael Hayes Cup Final featured both. That game was played in Athlone and although it was a very tight affair it was the Hoops that emerged victorious on the day. They featured a much smaller squad than last year in terms of numbers, but they did have the option of calling upon other players from within the Academy when needed to stand in. It’s worth mentioning here that Tadhg Prizeman, who played at the back with the Under 14s, featured in several games towards the end of the season and showed some great promise as he slotted in seamlessly to the older age group. Showing some great form this season, Tadhg’s ability didn’t go unnoticed at the Under 14 final and he was presented with the Man of the Match Award for that game.
Players from our Under 15s have provided a strong presence amongst the ranks of the national team throughout the year at this age group. Those who were selected on a regular basis during the year were Alex Noonan, Mohammad Oladiti, Ade Solanke, Oisin McDonagh, Max Kovalevskis, Brody Lee, Goodness Ogbonna and Charles Akinrintoyo. Brody, Oisin, Mohammed, Max, Goodness, Charles and Alex also featured with the Ireland Under 16s. Players from this group were instrumental in assisting the Republic of Ireland to retain the Victory Shield this year. Ade Solanke played for the Under 17s against Spain during the UEFA Under 17 Championship Finals played in Hungary.
Our men’s Under 17s didn’t reach their full potential in the league campaign this year. They began well and maintained a strong position right up to the cut-off point midway through the summer. They recorded mixed results in the Elite Phase of the competition but their form in the cup was very different. They qualified for the final of the Mark Farren Cup, and, by way of coincidence, they got to play in Tallaght Stadium in the decider against Shelbourne. The Reds were slight favourites to win the final, especially as they had gotten the better of the Hoops in the two league games between the teams this year. Shelbourne also had a slight advantage in terms of age as many of the players in their squad had also played at Under 17 level last year.
The Rovers’ squad was quite a young one but while some will remain at this age group next year, others will take the step up to Under 19s. They gave their best performance of the year when they beat Shelbourne 2-1 in the cup final. Playing at Tallaght Stadium meant a lot to this group and to do so in front of an attendance in excess of 1,000 was further satisfaction for them.
Several players from this group, whose Head Coach is Jason Shields, also saw international action this year. Midfielder Sean Moore was capped twice, centre back James Roche, who was very impressive throughout the year, made five international appearances. Ike Orazi played in nine games at Under 17 level for the Republic of Ireland before he departed for Stade de Reims during the Summer.
What can we say about our Men’s Under 19 squad this year? They pushed hard throughout the year, and they got their just rewards when, in the space of seven days, they beat Galway United in Galway to capture the Under 19 Enda McGuill Cup and followed this success up with the winning of the league in Inchicore amid a sensational end to the game.
Tony Cousins and Chris McDonnell have been the driving force behind the squad. The players showed in several games where they went behind that they had, not only the ability, but also the desire to come back and get a favourable result.
The Under 19s were boosted this year by the presence of Naj Razi. Naj is not only a very intelligent player, but he is a versatile squad member. At just 16 years old, he made the jump to Under 19 level with considerable ease. Naj also made his debut for the first team in the Europa League tie away to Hungarian side Ferencváros in late July – a truly wonderful achievement at just 16 years of age.
Cian Curtis, who has been with Shamrock Rovers since Under 11s, capped off a wonderful season as not only top goalscorer with the Hoops but also as the EA Sports MU19 LOI Academy Player of the Year for 2023. Carl Lennox, who also joined the club at Under 11s, and who made his first team debut last year, continued to be involved with the first team by being on the substitutes bench several times. Conan Noonan and Kieran Cruise, although first team squad members, were involved with the Under 19s and it is worth noting that both of these players, as with Cian Curtis and Carl Lennox, came up through the ranks of the Academy. Yet another of the Under 19s who has played for the first team is Gideon Tetteh and he too has come up the ranks through the Academy.
Freddie Turley, Cory O’Sullivan and Naj Razi all featured with the Republic of Ireland at the UEFA Under 17 Championship Finals this year. Justin Ferizaj, now with Frosinone Calcio in Italy, also represented Ireland three times this year at Under 18 level while still on the books of Shamrock Rovers. Freddie Turley, Cory O’Sullivan and Naj Razi also lined out with the Ireland Under 18s. Justin, Freddie, Naj and Cory have all featured with Ireland this year at Under 19 level so it can be seen that the progression these players are making at Shamrock Rovers is also being reflected on the international front.
While winning the Enda McGuill Cup, also won by Rovers in 2019, was a super achievement, the winning of the league title in dramatic fashion has to be the standout moment for this team. They played St. Pat’s in the final game of the season at Richmond Park. The Saints were two points ahead of Rovers. A draw would have done St. Pat’s; the Hoops had to win. With the game at 1-1 and time almost on the blow, Carl Lennox’s header in the 94th minute stunned the home side and sparked off amazing scenes as the final whistle was blown shortly after. Adding the league to the cup was notable also in that it was the first time in the history of the Under 19 league that any side had managed to do the double. Certainly, the year 2023 is one that management and players alike will never forget.
Our Women’s teams were not without success either. The Under 17 team saw big changes in personnel this year as the bulk of last season’s team moved up to Under 19s. As a result of this, the influx of new players brought the age profile of the Under 17s down significantly. So, it is fair to say this year represented a learning curve for them. They also underwent a change in management midway through the year. This team participated in the Super Cup NI in July when they beat Rangers (Scotland) in the Vase Final. The few days they spent together at this excellent tournament was certainly well spent and served as a wonderful team bonding experience. While they were not in the running for honours otherwise, the management of the Women’s side of the Academy won’t have been too disappointed as some very good results were recorded along the way and the team collectively will have gained much experience in their first year together.
The Women’s Under 19 team made some history this year when they became the first side to win the league title going all the way without defeat.
It was a particularly good year for top goalscorer Shannon Coady whose form saw her feature with the Women’s first team as the season drew to a close. From last year’s Under 19s Maria Reynolds (who made her return later on in the season following a year-long-lay-off due to injury), Orlaith O’Mahony, Abby Tuthill, Alannah Prizeman, Jaime Thompson and Jayne Merren all feature with the first team in addition to Shannon Coady. Katie O’Reilly from the Under 17 team was also involved with the senior team during the year. Given the profile of the players that were signed up for the first team, that certainly was an impressive achievement for the girls who have been with the Academy since the Under 19 team was launched in 2020. It should be noted that although they had been promoted to the first team, the girls continued to assist the Under 19s also.
On the International front, the Academy had a very good representation throughout the year. Abby Tuthill, Orlaith O’Mahony, Jaime Thompson, Jayne Merren and Alannah Prizeman all represented Ireland at Under 19 level this year.
Ruby Gallagher, Aoife Kelly, Aoibhe Fleming, Clodagh Daly, Amy Tierney, Lauryn McCabe, Katie O’Reilly and Sorcha Melia were all involved with Ireland at Under 17 level during the year. In addition, Clodagh Daly, Lauryn McCabe, Amy Tierney, Kayla Maguire, Robyn Gleeson, Laura Fanning, Kaitlyn Delahunty and Keelin Comiskey were all capped at Under 16 level.
That is some impressive list indeed. Many of these were involved in the UEFA Tournament held in April which was won by Ireland.
The Academy continues to grow in strength in the boys, men’s and women’s sections and 2024 promises to be another very interesting year throughout the club.
2023 Roll of Honour
Men’s Under 15s: Michael Hayes National Cup winners. League runners-up.
Men’s Under 17s: Mark Farren National Cup winners.
Men’s Under 19s: League winners. Enda McGuill National Cup winners.
Women’s Under 19s: League winners.