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02nd Apr 2016

How St Kevin’s Boys Club became the breeding ground for Ireland’s most technical footballers

Dion Fanning

When St Kevin’s Boys Club from Dublin beat FC Barcelona Under-13s last weekend, the coaches of the Catalan club reflected on the loss.

They may have been representing Barcelona, but that didn’t mean they believed they could never lose. What had surprised them was the way they had been beaten.

Barcelona had certain expectations when they faced an Irish club, and it was probably fair to say that St Kevin’s hadn’t met them. The U-13s from the Dublin schoolboy club had worked hard, but their technical expertise had taken Barcelona by surprise.

By Monday morning, the Dublin club had become a worldwide story. The club’s football director Ken Donohoe was contacted from old players and clubs around the world. A coach in New Zealand wanted his side to take part in next summer’s tournament, but there’s a lot of demand for that.

Last week, a Manchester City Academy coach was passing through Dublin Airport when he saw kids wearing Deportivo La Coruna and Barcelona tracksuits. He wondered where they were going. The St Kevin’s club liaison who was waiting at the airport told him about the club and the tournament. “We’d like to be there next year,” he said.

Barcelona might be back next year to defend the title they won by beating St Kevin’s on penalties in the final the following day. Bayern Munich have been invited and the way the tournament is going, they’ll take the invitation seriously.

The success of the tournament, which was started to mark the club’s fiftieth anniversary in 2009, is a reflection of the role St Kevin’s has played in developing Irish footballers.

At the European Championships in June, two St Kevin’s graduates – Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick – are likely to be among the starters for Ireland. In the coming years, another, Jack Byrne, will more than likely be capped. Last week another St Kevin’s old boy Liam Brady wondered about youth development in Ireland and compared it with the progress in England, where their young side with Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Ross Barkley and John Stones are exciting the country.

Brady said it was twenty years since Ireland last produced a good collection of young players. Keane and Duff – another St Kevin’s old boy – were “as good technically as any player you’ll find in one of today’s academies. But where are their successors now? That’s what worries me. And what are the FAI doing about it. It’s no good looking at the best players when they’re already 13 or 14. We’ve got to develop a system that identifies them when they’re eight or nine.”


When it comes to developing technical footballers, St Kevin’s have never lost their vision. “You’ll rarely see a goalkeeper at one of our teams kick the ball long,” Donohoe says as he outlines the way they develop players from a young age. “Every one of our teams plays the same way. I would argue that the Kevin’s players are technically better.”

These days, he says, the time a young player spends playing football at a club might be the only part of the week he spends playing football. The days of the street footballer have gone. Players and their parents have changed, and there’s no point in being overcome with nostalgia. St Kevin’s have attempted to adapt. They try and replicate what kids would have done on the street but nothing can match the hours of constant practice. You could ask if Ireland are in danger of being left behind, except that happened a long time ago.

Jeff Hendrick (third from the left) and Robbie Brady (second from right) are ST Kevin's graduates
Jeff Hendrick (third from the left) and Robbie Brady (second from right) are St Kevin’s graduates.

St Kevin’s are a progressive club, a club who it would seem should be central to any future plan, but Irish football developed in complicated ways.

The FAI have come up with their own ideas too, and they have angered clubs like St Kevin’s. The FAI want what their Technical Director Ruud Dokter calls a “pathway”,  for young players which can take them all the way from their early development to senior football. St Kevin’s and other schoolboy clubs applied to join the new U-17 League but were turned down.

SSE Airtricity National U17 League Launch, FAI Headquarters, Abbotstown, Dublin 27/7/2015 FAI High Performance Director Ruud Dokter Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Donall Farmer

“Those are difficult decisions but you have to do what’s best for the player,” Dokter (above) said in an interview with the Irish Independent in February. “What’s the best pathway? And how, as a nation, can we work together and collaborate and we thought that was the best. We want to create a pathway to the first team. But we encourage the schoolboy clubs to get in partnerships, make these connections with the League of Ireland.”

St Kevin’s have explored those options but right now, they aren’t part of the pathway which means a club with their track record in developing young players could be marginalised.

“It has developed into them and us, and it shouldn’t have got to that stage,” Donohoe says. “There should be a pathway but the pathway should be with the people who have experience of developing kids. The League of Ireland have no experience of developing kids or if they have they haven’t got the experience of dealing with the best kids.”

Some think it’s all about money with schoolboy clubs chasing the lucrative fees available if they develop a player who goes to England.

Clubs like St Kevin’s won’t turn away the funds they get in compensation from English clubs, but Donohoe says it is a fraction of their income. “They aren’t the magic numbers that everyone talks about.” He says most of their income comes from membership fees.

There are some windfalls. When Duff joined Chelsea from Blackburn Rovers for £17 million, St Kevin’s add on from the fee paid for a new roof on the clubhouse. But most of the players who go away to England never get as far as a second contract, the time when a club might earn some money in the added clauses which are more lucrative.

KUALA LUMPAR, MALAYSIA - JULY 24: Damien Duff of Chelsea signs autographs during the Chelsea training session at the Maybank Sports Complex on July 24, 2003 Kuala Lumpar, Malaysia. (Photo by Ben Radford/Getty Images)

The club gets on average about €10,000 when a player goes to England. When Manchester United signed Robbie Brady, they gave St Kevin’s all the money upfront, but that was the only time that happened.

Brady is one of their success stories, but St Kevin’s aim to improve all the players who come to them. Brady and Hendrick are different players but they are both technically accomplished, as is Jack Byrne, who could earn St Kevin’s a lot of money if he plays for Manchester City and Ireland. “

But all people see is the money. Some parents believe their kid is going to be a multi-millionaire the moment they sign for a club. “They think they’ve got it made. They don’t realise he’s just left what he had made and that he’s going to start all over again,” Donohoe says.

The tournament last weekend lost money but it undoubtedly paid its way in advertising. Beating Barcelona, even at U-13 level, can do that.

That Barcelona were there at all was an example of how St Kevin’s are in constant pursuit of the best.

Donohoe had contacted Barcelona, initially about appearing in 2015, but he explored other avenues too. An Espanyol fan at the Spanish embassy had come out to watch his club play in the tournament a few years ago. Donohoe kept in touch and recently the Espanyol fan mentioned that the new ambassador was a Barcelona fan and had a contact at the club.

“Give us his name,” Ken said and he got in touch. The ambassador rang Ken Donohoe back and asked him to forward on the letter he had sent initially to the club. Two weeks later, Barcelona confirmed they’d be there for 2016.


They might be back again. “They were the easiest people to deal with,” Donohoe says and tells a story about a visit St Kevin’s paid to Barcelona when the club allowed them full access to La Masia, their famed academy. “It was absolutely fantastic.”

Barcelona enjoyed their trip to Dublin, and the Spanish ambassador spent all three days at the tournament over the Easter weekend.

On Saturday, St Kevin’s took them on and it became a sensation when they beat them.

team 1

“The chances that Kevin’s missed were unreal” Donohoe says, reflecting on a game where his club could have won by more than one. “It was great for the kids, it was great for the coaches, and the other thing was they were not fazed by playing Barcelona.”

Barcelona spoke admiringly afterwards. “They were surprised that an Irish team could play so much football against them. St Kevin’s worked hard but it wasn’t like an Irish team working hard to give the ball away again. When Kevin’s got the ball, they played with. They were surprised by that and they were relieved to win the competition in the end.”


St Kevin’s went on to beat a Deportivo team in the semi-final which was regarded as one of the best Deportivo underage side in many years.

Donohoe says the best thing for the tournament was for Barcelona to win it. “I’ll be shot for saying this. It would have been great for the club to win the tournament, but it would have been bad for the tournament. To get Bayern Munich here, it’s better to say that Barcelona won it.”

Barcelona may have been gracious afterwards, but during the first game, he could see the Barcelona coaches getting agitated during the game. “These clubs don’t come here to lose. They don’t want to go home and say they were beaten by a team of amateurs.”

St Kevin’s might be amateurs, but nobody is doing a better job of developing the next generation of Irish footballers.

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