Football | 1 week ago
"When I went to Charlton, there were five Irish boys. Four of them aren't playing football anymore..."
The harsh truths of 16-year-olds moving to England for football

"All the English fellas are back with their families and you're just sitting there in your room by yourself..."

Mikhail Kennedy is just one of thousands to know what it feels like.

Too many Irish lads make the trip across the water, their heads filled with dreams and promises when the reality is that there's a massive chance they're not going to make it. There's a bigger chance too that they're going to really, really struggle with the adaption.

To say Kennedy's world was turned on its head four years ago is an understatement in the grandest form. The 20-year-old hails from a modest background in a council estate in Derry and suddenly, at 16, he was thrown into life in London on his own and sent to live and train like a professional footballer.

He's rated highly at Charlton, he's scored goals for fun in their underage ranks, he's captained the under-23 side but, at 20, he knows now that he needs to get a move on. He needs to play senior football - make another transition. So he's come to Derry for five months to get games and experience.

He's gone through far too much in pursuit of his development as a footballer and he's hungry to make it somewhere. He's seen too many give in along the way. He's seen too many buckle, not under the pressure of making it on the pitch, but with the reality of coping with life off it.

"The first two years of the scholarship, it's the hardest two years of your life. I remember Paul Scholes coming out and saying that," Kennedy spoke with SportsJOE about what it's really like being dropped into one of the most grand and vibrant cities in the world.

"It's tough but it's more mentally tough and that's what they're really testing.

"The tough thing for an Irish boy is not the football on the pitch, that's the easy part. The hard part is when you're sitting in your room on a Tuesday night at 8 o'clock by yourself. With no-one.

"All the English fellas are back with their families and you're just sitting there yourself. That's the hard part. That's where footballers are made, in my opinion."

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Back in the local paper in Derry, you'd be all over these sort of stories. Such and such is moving to Tottenham or Watford have signed that 16-year-old or he's gone to Scotland and he's gone there.

It was hard not to get excited. Some of the biggest clubs on the planet had not only spotted talent in our little city, but they put their faith in the 16-year-old version of those kids. What you don't realise is that they're casting those nets far and wide and they're happy if even a handful of them actually break through. It means very little to these clubs what players do when they've found no more use for them.

The stories we never covered then were 18 months later when the majority of them had returned to Derry, some not even wanting to look at a football again.

For Kennedy, he's come from a strong Catholic family with an unshakable faith. He's adamant that's what has helped him through when he was plucked from the streets of Derry and planted in the middle of London and the frightening immensity of English football.

He needed something to help him hold on because his brother Calvin joined him two years later but he soon moved back home - like the vast majority of them do.

"He went over there and it's not about him being homesick, he just realised, 'this isn't for me. I don't want to do this'," Mikhail said.

"When I went to Charlton, there were five Irish boys altogether. I'm the only one left. Four of them aren't playing football anymore.

"I was lucky when I was there, there were four other Irish lads. We were all in the same digs which was good but now I'm the only one there.

"It can be tough and, of course, you have your bad days and if you have a bad day in the office, it can be a tough night. You have to find a way to switch off - it's so important to switch off - because you'd send yourself insane."

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One of the Irish players that Kennedy joined in the Charlton system was Kevin Feely. He's not playing anymore but he is playing midfield for Kildare seniors.

His time living and training like a professional no doubt helped him because Kennedy is adamant that the difference in what Irish teenagers are doing compared to the English is frightening.

"When I was in Derry at Foyle Harps, I trained an hour a week on a Wednesday night. At 16 years of age in England, you train four nights a week," he explained.

"When I went over there, they said it takes 18 months just to get up to the speed of it. I remember for the first few months, I was just physically drained - I couldn't do it, I had to have a couple of days off. I think that's why a lot of Irish boys come back, because they struggle so much physically that it affects them mentally.

"That's just to do with the lack of funding and the lack of coaching in Ireland. I'd say I'm definitely better off for it. I'm used to full time football now and I can adapt to it. I even need it now. When I went to Germany [about a potential move to FC Carl Zeiss Jena], I didn't think they trained at a high enough tempo so I didn't think it would benefit me.

"It's not the be all and end all if you don't go to England when you're 16. Look at the many boys who have gone over coming up through Ireland. Look at Derry - they're full time now. Derry play more games than Charlton.

"But I think I'm much better off for it."

Only because he got through the real tough part though. Only because he got through the off-the-field battle. The stuff they don't tell you about before you go.

The stuff that forces most boys to come back and some of them to quit football altogether.

As Congress prepares to vote against the wishes of the playing population and introduce the 'Super Eight' quarter-finals, Wooly chats to CPA treasurer Anthony Moyles, Liam Kearns, Lee Keegan and Steven McDonnell. Listen below or subscribe on iTunes.

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Derry City, Charlton Athletic, Mikhail Kennedy