Derry City's Academy has become club's factory of hope - says Paddy McCourt
PADDY McCOURT believes the recent influx of young players breaking into Derry City’s first team is the true barometer of success by which the club’s Academy must be judged.
The Candy Stripes have long been League of Ireland standard bearers for producing top class talent who have carved out successful professional careers at home or abroad and McCourt is confident the club can continue to churn out prospects.
However, as City chairman Mr Philip O’Doherty continues to heavily invest in the youth structures with the promise of a new Centre of Excellence, McCourt expects to see even more youngsters completing the pathway to the first team.
The emergence of Ronan Boyce and Evan McLaughlin as regulars in Ruaidhri Higgins’ first team squad has given the rest of the Academy players the belief they can follow a similar development course, according to the ex-Celtic star who oversees their progress in his role as Technical Director.
Since the Shantallow man’s appointment in his previous role as Head of Academy in 2018, Jack Malone became the first youngster to graduate to the first team and maintain his place but the conveyor belt wasn’t so well-oiled as in previous years.
McCourt has been delighted to witness a significant increase in first team graduates over recent months with the likes of Brendan Barr, Orrin McLaughlin, Caoimhin Porter, Caolan McLaughlin, Michael Harris and Patrick Ferry all afforded game-time or matchday involvement this season. City boss Higgins has shown he’s prepared to put his trust in young talent if deemed good enough and McCourt reckons a coaching philosophy centred around homegrown talent will give the club’s underage players added motivation to succeed.
“It gives great hope to the rest of the Academy players,” insisted McCourt. “Since I’ve come into my role as Academy Director and then Technical Director, it’s been great for me that I’ve had managers like Declan Devine and Kevin Deery who were really keen to give young players a chance and since Ruaidhri has come in, he’s carried that on.
“It’s not to be understated how important that is. The players who have come through to the first team from the academy give so much hope to the rest of the players who can say, ‘If I get to that level this manager will play me’.
"Ruaidhri has already shown that age doesn’t matter to him. If you’re good enough he’s going to play you. He’s told that to Academy coaches and told that to the young players. For academy players to not only hear that, but also see it, that’s absolutely key.
“It gives great hope to the Academy players when they see the likes of Evan McLaughlin playing regularly in the first team. You have Ronan Boyce as well. Jack Malone was probably the first one to come through. You have Caolan McLaughlin, Brendan Barr, Caoimhin Porter, all players who are coming through the Academy and trying to make a way in the first team,” he added.
“Once you start playing well and getting a bit of a name locally, then the international managers start taking a bit of notice,” he continued. “I know the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are sending scouts to most of our games now so if the players are performing then they will get international recognition.”
Boyce, who was elevated into Jim Crawford’s Ireland U21 squad for the Euros qualifiers double-header this week is evidence of that while highly rated youngsters Trent Kone Doherty and goalkeeper Fintan Doherty were included in the Ireland U17s friendlies against Mexico at the weekend.
A development pathway is more important than results at underage level according to McCourt and while glory in the National League and cup competitions would be welcomed, it’s not the be all and end all for the club.
McCourt and the Academy coaches obviously want their teams to be as successful as possible and with all FOUR qualifying for the elite sections in their respective leagues at the midway point of the season for the first time, it promises to be a memorable campaign. However, it’s that exposure to first team experience which McCourt believes is the true measure of success.
“For all the four teams to qualify for the league second phase is brilliant but, again, I go back to what I see as a true barometer of success which is having that pathway to the first team.
The likes of Jack Malone, he probably doesn’t realise how important he’s been to the Academy over the last couple of years. When Jack broke through, he gave so much hope to the other players who looked at him and asked, ‘Why can’t that be me?’”
McCourt believes the League of Ireland’s recent ‘youth resurgence’ as more clubs look to homegrown talent is largely down to the younger managers in the league being ‘brave’ and trusting in their young players.
“The league is getting younger. Even looking at the age of the managers. You have Ruaidhri, Tim Clancy, Stevie O’Donnell - all in their 30s. These managers are brave and want to give young players an opportunity, they trust the young players.
“To have an Academy at a football club and try to be successful, for me the barometer for success is how many players you get through to your first team. It’s fantastic if you win a trophy along the way or have a player who gets international recognition but the real barometer is how successful you are at getting players from your U13s or 14s right through to the first team.
“Again, that’s only my opinion, others might differ and might want to win the U15 Cup or U15 League but to reap the rewards of a successful Academy you have to be getting players through that pathway and into the first team.
“Over the last couple of years we’ve seen we have a pathway there. Players are starting to look at other players and see that it can happen and hopefully work that bit harder to get there.”
The 18 capped Northern Ireland playmaker has witnessed the best of the youth academies in England and Scotland so how does Derry City’s vision compare?
“We’re trying to get there but our academy players are still part-time. They train in the evenings whereas if you look at academy players at teams like Brighton from 16 to 18, they’re all full-time. They train in the mornings and have their gym sessions in the afternoon every day. And the facilities are obviously a lot better than ours. We try to do the best with what we have. The coaches work as hard as anyone and what we’re trying to do is do it as professionally as we can with the facilities we have available.”
So what’s changed in recent times that’s brought about an increase in players making the grade?
“I don’t want to say what’s better or what’s different from the past,” he explained. “I can only say what we’re seeing at the minute. Derry has always produced top quality players but when I came in a few years ago Conor McDermott was probably the last one who came through from the Academy and it seemed that it wasn’t exactly happening as much as we would’ve liked at that time.
“Fortunately for us, we’ve seen an improvement in terms of the numbers getting through from the Academy to the first team. The coaches we have at the Academy are first class. They treat the academy teams like it’s the first team in terms of how they train and travel; how they put match analysis into other teams, getting videos and other stuff. All that is vitally important for me because it does make that transition from academy player to a first team player a lot easier.
“It’s then not alien to you as you’ve been doing it since you were young. I think that has helped the likes of Ronan Boyce and Evan McLaughlin.”
The potential to have an all purpose facility to house both the first team and academy teams would, McCourt believes, take Derry onto the next level and he’s excited about the prospect.
“Listen, if someday we can have our own academy base or training base for the first team and academy then obviously it makes life a lot easier. You don’t have to hire facilities. That’s something Philip said he would like to do during his time as chairman here. If he was able to do that then the club would be in an amazing place to move forward and continue to produce players that not only play in our first team but again, go and try and be international players. That will go a long way to helping that.”
McCourt’s experienced and eclectic group of academy coaches are clearly instilling confidence in their young charges if the fearless nature of Boyce, Evan McLaughlin and Orrin McLaughlin are anything to judge by. It’s an attribute which the ‘Derry Pele’ himself had in bucket loads as a young player and he points to the performance of both McLaughlins during the FAI Cup victory over Drogheda United where 19 year-old Evan converted the winning penalty in the shoot-out to see Derry advance.
“We got to the last minute of injury time and Orrin McLaughlin who has just turned 18, grabs the ball, hits the free-kick and it hits the post. Then we’re looking around when Ruaidhri is picking his penalty takers and Evan and Orrin are telling him they will take one no problem. Evan steps up and fires the winner into the corner and just jogs back. So the confidence is there. These lads come from Shantallow, Galliagh, they’re Derry supporters who come to the Brandywell and it’s absolutely brilliant to sit back and watch them,” he beamed.